Commencement

President Marvin Krislov's 2009 State-of-the-College Address

Thank you, Bill, for the kind introduction and your service to Oberlin.

And congratulations and thanks to Joseph Ripka for that magnificent performance.

Good Morning!

Thank you all for being here.

In studying Oberlin history, one of the most trenchant observers I have found is Robert Maynard Hutchins. He was the son of William Hutchins, a beloved Oberlin professor of religion. Known here on campus as “Billy Hutch,” William later became president of Berea College, which has strong Oberlin ties to this day.

Robert Hutchins grew up here, studied at the College for two years, then left to serve in World War I. After receiving his degree from Yale University, he became one of America’s leading educational philosophers. Hutchins was known for advocating intense study of Great Books, meaning timeless works that retain contemporary relevance, and use of the Socratic method, as the best way of teaching students to be critical thinkers and responsible citizens. Elements of that approach are still used here and at schools across the country.

Throughout his life, Robert Hutchins spoke affectionately of Oberlin as a positive influence on his thought and work. In 1934, while serving as president of the University of Chicago, he returned to give our Commencement speech. In those remarks, Hutchins said the tone of Oberlin College was set by those to whom education meant opportunity rather than ritual.

Hutchins made that observation when the world was in the throes of the Great Depression. Nearly 22 percent of the American labor force was unemployed. Opportunities of any kind were scarce. Yet Hutchins’ statement underscores the inherent optimism that has been at the core of Oberlin’s ethos since 1833. During the troubled economic times we are currently experiencing, it is important to remember that opportunity still sets the tone in education at Oberlin.

With no disrespect to the late, great Robert Hutchins, Oberlin has, however, developed a few rituals over the years. In his time, for instance, seniors were required every Wednesday to wear caps and gowns all day. If you ask our seniors, you will find that is no longer the case. A more current example is the opening of the President’s annual state-of-the-college speech. So, in keeping with tradition, would Robert Lemle, the chairman of the Oberlin College Board of Trustees, and any trustees and honorary trustees who are here today, please rise? And would the members of Oberlin’s Senior Staff also please rise as I call your name? David Stull, dean of the Conservatory of Music. Sean Decatur, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Kathryn Stuart, dean of studies. Debra Chermonte, dean of admissions. Linda Gates, dean of students. Sandhya Subramanian, general counsel and secretary. Ronald Watts, vice-president of finance. Ben Jones, vice-president of commumications. Bill Barlow, vice-president of alumni affairs and development. Sandra Hodge, special assistant to the president for community and government relations. Jane Mathison, assistant to the president.

I ask all of you to now join me in thanking our trustees and our senior staff for the great service and support they provide Oberlin. I feel very fortunate to work with such a great team.

Thank you.

As most of you know, Oberlin has a rich history and many strengths. Over the past 176 years, the achievements of our faculty, students and graduates have altered the course of history. Like Hutchins, we cherish our distinctive and dynamic ethos, with its core values of access, inclusion, diversity, and the relentless pursuit of academic, artistic and musical excellence. No other liberal arts institution possesses Oberlin’s combination of a premier college of arts and sciences combined with a world-class Conservatory of Music, and an internationally renowned, teaching art museum.

Those are formidable assets. But we must not take them for granted. Our task is to make them even stronger, to build upon them to create an even more vibrant college that gives our students the opportunity and the wherewithal to shape a bright and sustainable future for all humankind.

Accomplishing that daunting task will require the commitment, ideas, energy and passion of Oberlin’s greatest strength: its people. This is one of the world’s finest liberal arts colleges because you make it so. Allow me to extend many, many thanks to our faculty, our students, their parents, and our alumni for everything you do for Oberlin.

My duty this morning is to inform you about the state of Oberlin College. I am happy to report that despite the economy’s woes, the College is strong, and growing stronger. We continue to meet the goals laid out in Oberlin’s Strategic Plan of raising Oberlin’s profile, increasing its rigor, and becoming more international.

While the College continues to flourish, much has changed since I stood here one year ago. Some of the changes resulted from careful planning, hard work and a bit of good fortune. I am thinking here of the many remarkable achievements of Oberlin’s students and faculty, our increased emphasis on academic rigor and scholarly achievement, and the exciting new facilities we are building.

Other changes, such as the global economic downturn, the stunning declines on the world’s financial markets and the steep drop in the value of our endowment, were harsh and unanticipated.

Like all institutions of higher education in these difficult times, we are grappling with those financial challenges. But, unlike many schools, Oberlin was in relatively good financial health when the recession hit. As some of you will recall, the College faced some financial issues over the past 15 years. That experience taught us a lot. Oberlin also went through an intensive strategic planning process in 2004-2005. In that process we learned that while no one can predict the future, we can build in financial flexibility to deal with uncertainty and risk. The controls and planning procedures established in the Strategic Plan have served us well, and have helped buffer us from the full effects of the current downturn. Many of our peer schools have instituted freezes on hiring, construction, and maintenance spending. We have not had to do such things.

That said, these are unquestionably the most challenging economic times in recent memory. No one can say for certain when economic growth will resume and the financial markets will recover. All of us are feeling the effects of this recession.

Allow me to briefly outline the financial and budgetary challenges Oberlin is confronting, and how we are addressing them. In June 2008, the value of our endowment was nearly 750 million dollars. We are projecting it to be well over 500 million dollars as of June 30th of this year. That sharp decline in has eroded the support our operating budget receives from the endowment. The economic slump has also reduced the total amount of philanthropic giving to Oberlin from our alumni, friends and institutions.

This means the College’s major sources of revenue—net student fees, endowment support, and annual giving—are likely to decline or grow much more slowly than we expected. To cite but one telling example, as of May 15th, giving to Oberlin’s annual fund was down 14 percent from the year-earlier period. But there is a silver lining. Our participation rate, meaning the actual number of donors, is running ahead of last year’s record pace. We are indeed well over 10,000 strong thanks to your support.

It is imperative that we position Oberlin’s assets to weather the economic crisis. We must also make the tough financial decisions necessary to ensure that Oberlin continues to flourish far into the future. Everything we are doing is intended to defend our top priorities of preserving Oberlin’s academic mission, and maintaining our commitments to excellence, access and diversity.

Providing the distinctive education and the generous financial aid that are Oberlin’s hallmarks is very expensive. Over 70 percent of our students receive some form of financial aid. That figure is far higher than at most of our peer schools. We are committed to maintaining access for students from every walk of life to Oberlin’s great wealth of educational opportunities.

In response to the economic slump, we are taking a number of steps to reduce the operating costs of the College. There will be no salary increases for Oberlin’s faculty or administrative and professional staff in the coming year. We are cutting costs in areas such as printing, publications, postage, professional fees, and travel. Further reductions are inevitable across the institution.

To make such reductions, we have begun a participatory process involving many groups in the Oberlin community. This is a time-consuming and emotional process. But it must be done. Any suggestions for reducing costs from the larger Oberlin community are welcome.

Unlike some of our peer institutions, we have been able, so far, to avoid instituting a hiring freeze or layoffs. Instead, we are delaying the replacement of employees who retire or resign. In such tough times, some positions are more vital than others in fulfilling our mission as a premier institution of higher education. Only positions deemed critical to the educational mission, required to fulfill contractual obligations, or that produce positive financial payback will be filled. Critical faculty tenure-track searches are continuing for the next academic year.

Many colleges and universities have announced plans to reduce or suspend large construction contracts. Oberlin has not. That is because we are in the fortunate position of having secured long-term bond funding at favorable interest rates and major donor support for our significant capital projects.

They include the Phyllis Litoff Building, the new home for our great jazz studies program that will open this December. We will also begin construction soon on a new first-year student residence hall on North Professor Street, and launch a complete renovation of the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s climate control systems and storage areas. In accordance with our Strategic Plan we will renovate several of our existing residence halls to provide our students with better on-campus housing. We will also continue to address deferred maintenance issues on some older buildings.

 

By taking these steps now, the College will emerge stronger from this downturn. Previous generations of Oberlinians overcame their challenges by defending the values on which Oberlin stands. So will we. Oberlin’s academic mission will always be our top priority. Like our predecessors, we are steadfast in our commitment to access, diversity and inclusion. We believe that education is about opportunity, not ritual. And we share their conviction that Oberlin is a special place.

So are we. This College that our forebears worked so hard to maintain and build, still prizes its rigorous, interdisciplinary nature. We still celebrate the life of the mind. Our souls and scholarly pursuits are still nourished by the creativity flowing from the great wellspring of our arts and music. Oberlin is still internationally minded, thanks to Oberlin Shansi, and to our emphasis on studying abroad, and to our efforts to attract students from around the globe.

Oberlin’s outstanding faculty still teaches young people how to develop their own ideas and how to turn those ideas into action. Our students still leave here with the analytical skills and nuanced, international perspective needed to succeed in any field they choose. Regardless of their chosen field, most Obies still go through life trying to change the world for the better.

I feel fortunate to be part of this community. Working every day with Oberlin’s faculty, students and alumni, I see the values we share transformed into meaningful actions that make the world a better place. Let me give you a few examples of Oberlin people and Oberlin ideas in action.

Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole came to Oberlin from Florida. She majored in anthropology, studying with Professors George Simpson and Milton Yinger. Johnnetta graduated in 1957. Since then, Dr. Cole has excelled as a teacher, a scholar, a college president, and a public intellectual. She is internationally known for her work on issues pertaining to justice, diversity, the health and safety of women and children, and under-served populations.

As part of Oberlin’s 175th anniversary celebration, Dr. Cole spoke about education to a special, college-community Convocation in First Church. Her address was delivered from the pulpit created for Charles Grandison Finney, the great evangelist and Oberlin president, for whom this chapel is named.

Like a true Obie, Dr. Cole always seeks new challenges. Earlier this year, at the age of 72, she was appointed director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Dr. Cole said the post combines her passion for African Art, her respect for an anthropological knowledge of the people and cultures of the African continent, and her involvement in the world of education. Ask Dr. Cole where her interests arose, and the answer is Oberlin. She is a life-long learner, embodying Oberlin’s values of hard work, internationalism, interdisciplinary study and love for the arts and culture. She is also determined to do good in the world.

Those values also drive our current students. Tomorrow in Tappan Square, an economics major named Lucas Brown will receive his diploma. Lucas is an extraordinary young man. He is headed off to study at Oxford University, as Oberlin’s first Rhodes Scholar from Oberlin since 1991. Lucas will be following in the footsteps of Richard Haass, tomorrow’s Commencement speaker, and a 1973 Oberlin graduate who studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

 

Here at Oberlin, Lucas worked with other students, faculty and staff members to create a sustainability-themed residence called the Student Experiment in Ecological Design. Known as SEED House, it was featured on the front page of the New York Times on Commencement Day 2008. The house alone would be quite a legacy. But Lucas, who hails from Leesburg, Virginia, also conducted research for Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, a 1992 Oberlin grad, on D.C.’s job training programs. He helped design a web site called ilovemountains.org. While excelling in his studies, he also found time to repair hurricane-damaged houses in Louisiana, and to lobby Congress for environmental protections. That is what I mean by our students putting their ideas into action. While I am singling out Lucas, he would be the first to tell you that many students were involved in these efforts. On a personal note, I can tell you that Lucas, like most of our students, is an intellectual risk-taker. In this, his final semester, he took the class I teach on education law and policy. Despite being unfamiliar with the subject when the class began he did well. I’m a tough grader. Lucas got an A-plus.

Joining Lucas in the square tomorrow will be a young woman named Sophia Yan. Sophia came to Oberlin from New York City to pursue a double-degree in piano performance and English. Those of you with ties to the Conservatory know how tough it is to earn two degrees simultaneously. Sophia embraced that challenge wholeheartedly, and flourished. She is graduating with honors in English and gave her senior recital a few weeks ago. In her final semester, a time when some students set up lighter schedules, Sophia’s intellectual curiosity prompted her to take our tough, introductory physics course.

That is only part of Sophia’s story. Early in her Oberlin career, she saw an ad in the Oberlin Review, our student newspaper, for journalists. Although she had almost no experience, she applied, was hired and has risen through the ranks. This year, Sophia served as co-editor of the paper. Over winter term, Sophia interned in Time magazine’s Washington bureau, working for bureau chief Michael Duffy, a 1980 grad, and former Review editor. This summer, Sophia is headed back to Washington to work at Time. She exemplifies what we are talking about when we say Oberlin students are interdisciplinary, highly motivated, and love to learn for learning’s sake.

Those attributes are also typical of our faculty. They are passionate teachers and dedicated scholars. Leonard V. Smith, came to Oberlin from Pennsylvania and graduated in 1980. He earned his Ph.D in history from Columbia University in 1990, and is now our Frederick B. Artz Professor of History.

This semester, Len and his colleague Annemarie Sammartino organized a fascinating conference called, “The Unfinished Business of War and Revolution: Europe, 1918-1919.” It featured the presentation of scholarly papers, a concert put on by the Conservatory, and an exhibition, “To Make Things Visible: Art in the Shadow of World War I,” which is still up at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. The conference was interdisciplinary Oberlin at its finest.

Len has held fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and been a visiting professor at the University of Paris and in Japan. He is highly respected by his students and his peers.


By any measure, Len has had an outstanding career. It began with a scholarship to Oberlin. He is living proof of the difference a scholarship can make in an individual’s life. And Len, in turn, has made a huge difference in the lives of his students. Many of them are also scholarship recipients.

Scholarships are more than just a financial arrangement or philanthropy. They are the essence of Oberlin’s culture of opportunity. Especially in tough times, when opportunities are scarce, scholarships are critically important in helping us fulfill Oberlin’s mission. Simply put, we need them now more than ever. Financial assets may fluctuate. The value of an Oberlin scholarship never declines. Giving a deserving student the opportunity to study here is the best investment anyone can make. That is why last year we created the Oberlin Access Initiative to help students from the most disadvantaged families. I thank those of you who have so generously provided support for the initiative.

Anyone seeking a broader example of our students’ commitment to Oberlin’s values, need only look at fall semester 2008. A tremendous number of students seized the opportunity to be part of the historic elections of 2008. Our students’ efforts wrote a compelling new chapter in Oberlin’s proud history of socio-political activism and engagement.

As Oberlin’s president, I would be remiss if I did not point out that by championing co-education, the education of African-Americans, and universal suffrage, Oberlin helped lay the historical groundwork for President Obama’s election. I must also point out that we have a healthy diversity of opinion here on campus. During the presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, gave a Convocation address in this very chapel. Libertarian candidate Bob Barr also visited campus. So did Adrian Fenty, who spoke here in Finney on Mr. Obama’s behalf.

If you will allow me one more point of socio-political pride, a growing number of Oberlin alumni have been appointed to senior posts in the Obama administration. On May 14th, for example, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, from our class of 1982, was named director of the Center for Disease Control. His appointment was covered by every major American newspaper, as well as most radio and television networks.

Those are just four of the thousands of examples I could give you of how Oberlin provides opportunities that change students’ lives. Through programs such as Creativity & Leadership: Entrepreneurship at Oberlin, and our Law Scholars and Business Scholars, we keep striving to expand those opportunities.

In my travels to meet alumni in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, I have encountered the same intellectual curiosity, passion and commitment to improving the world that drives our students. Oberlin’s ethos shapes people’s lives, whether they are teaching college chemistry or high school English, performing in the world’s great concert halls or leading a church choir, or running their own law firm or business.

While Oberlin’s students and alumni prosper in a vast range of endeavors, they also embody what President Obama said of America’s service men and women in his inaugural speech. The President said, and I quote, “We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service, a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.”

Many Oberlin graduates have served or are serving in our nation’s armed forces. Many more have found meaning and made a difference in the world by serving in non-profit organizations such as the Peace Corps or Teach for America. Every day in Oberlin, our students are giving back to society by teaching and tutoring in the local public schools through the auspices of our Bonner Center for Service and Learning. The College also supports this community’s public schools by offering all qualified, four-year graduates of Oberlin High School full-tuition scholarships to Oberlin.

I am confident that our incoming students will also embrace Oberlin’s values and seize the incredible opportunities that exist here. In admissions, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Conservatory of Music have had terrific years in terms of quality, quantity and diversity. For the 11th consecutive year, the College set a new record for total number of applicants. A record-high number of students also applied to the Conservatory of Music. The class that will enter the College in the fall is excellent. The Conservatory’s incoming class is one of the finest and most talented Oberlin has enrolled. Overall, some 21 percent of the Class of 2013 will be Americans of color. Once again, there will be a strong international contingent with students from 17 countries enrolling in the College, and from 14 countries, including 20 students from China, in the Conservatory. A total of 58 alumni children have enrolled—a significant increase from the previous two years.

They will join a community of young women and men who care deeply about the subjects they study. That passion produces great achievements. This year, our students earned many honors. Topping the list, Oberlin won a total of 14 Fulbright Fellowships. That figure includes two recent graduates who applied as at-large candidates, and is our highest total since 1958. In addition, Fulbrights were offered to two students who turned them down for other fellowships. We are immensely proud of these young people, and wish them all the best as they work and travel abroad.

As I mentioned, Lucas Brown was named a Rhodes Scholar. Helen Hare, also an economics major, was awarded a Harry S. Truman Scholarship. Due to our success in producing Truman Scholars, the College has been designated a Truman Foundation Honor Institution. Only a small number of colleges and universities have received this award. Oberlin is the first school in Ohio to receive it. Our students have also earned Goldwater, National Science Foundation and Compton Mentor Fellowships. For the first time that anyone here can recall, an Oberlin student, Jonathan Harmatz, won a prestigious Coro Fellowship for Public Service.

Naturally, Oberlin students also compete and excel in music. Joseph Ripka, whose organ playing began this program, won first prize at the prestigious Dublin International Organ Competition. Earlier this week, seventeen Oberlin students performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., as part of the centers Conservatory Project, which spotlights America’s best student musicians. In January, the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra gave an inspired concert at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Looking ahead, we are very excited about the opening of the Litoff Building in winter 2010. We will hold an official opening ceremony on the first weekend of May, 2010. Dean David Stull has informed me that Stevie Wonder will be part of that celebration, so mark your calendars.

Oberlin students are also competing and excelling in athletics. This spring, the women and men of Oberlin’s track and field teams produced the best season in Oberlin history. Our women’s tennis squad also had a very strong season. Our athletic programs and facilities have been improving in recent years thanks to the work of Joe Karlgaard, our athletics director, and his coaches and staff, and to the support from our trustees and the Heisman Club. The opening in April of the Williams Field House and the Robert Kahn Track and Fred Shults Field testify to the College’s commitment to upgrading our sports facilities.

We are also committed to keeping Oberlin one of “America’s Top 100 Places to Live,” as we were recently designated by the web site RelocateAmerica.com. That is one of the reasons why the College purchased the Apollo Theatre earlier this year. The purchase was unexpected but we felt it was important to preserve the Apollo because it adds so much to our quality of life. We were able to fund the purchase of the Apollo and its initial operating expenses entirely through generous private gifts. In another college-community initiative, we are reviving and Oberlin tradition by creating the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival under the direction of Paul Moser, associate professor of theater. The Festival will stage free, family-friendly performances this summer. Life in Oberlin will also be enhanced by the East College Street project, which is under construction. This green, mixed-use, and multi-income project is the work of three young, Oberlin environmental studies graduates, Ben Ezinga, Josh Rosen and Naomi Sabel. They chose to stay and make this community a better place for all of us.

Oberlin can seem timeless. But it is never static. One small but significant change is the new bench installed recently in the park commemorating Oberlin’s participation on the Underground Railroad. The bench, which is just north of the Allen Memorial Art Museum was installed as part of the Toni Morrison’s Society’s “A Bench by the Road Project.”

Dr. Morrison, the great writer and Nobel laureate, came to Oberlin in April to dedicate the bench and to give a Convocation address. Speaking of the significance of Oberlin as a site for the bench, Dr. Morrison said it honors not only the slave and escaped slave, but those who aided them. Here, she said, runaway slaves, quote—arrived at a place where there were white people outraged at slavery, who were there to offer them succor, to offer them hope, and to provide the escape.” Unquote.

Some of those outraged citizens were professors and students. Some were local citizens. But shared convictions stirred them to united action. To this day, the College and the City of Oberlin remain inextricably bound by shared history and shared values. To celebrate our joint 175th anniversary, the city and the College planted 175 trees all around Oberlin in 2008. One of them is an American elm hybrid now growing in Tappan Square about 100 yards north of where the Historic Elm stood.

Those trees symbolize our history, our vibrant contemporary life and our aspirations to create a dynamic, environmentally sustainable future for our college, our town, and our planet. For many of our students, faculty and fellow Oberlin citizens, environmentalism and combating climate change is the great calling of our age.

Oberlin is already answering that call, by being a leader in environmental studies and sustainable development. Our environmental studies faculty includes Professor David Orr, a global leader in the field. He and his students have received international recognition as pioneers of sustainability. In the years ahead, we hope to transform the block on the east side of Tappan Square into a College and community green arts district. While preserving our great historic structures such as the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Hall Auditorium and the Hall House, this project will revitalize our campus and our community.

That is a big undertaking intended to address a great and urgent challenge. But Oberlin has never been afraid to tackle great challenges. And Oberlin has changed the course of history. We can meet these challenges if all of us—faculty, students, parents, and alumni—work together. As the 21st century unfolds, we will continue to expand the boundaries of academic and artistic endeavor and achievement. We will keep blazing new trails in environmental studies, sustainable development and social action. Above all, we will educate flexible, internationally minded young leaders whose ideas make the world better.

That is what sets this College apart, and why it deserves all the support we can give. Speaking of the opportunity which sets the tone at Oberlin, the late Frederick B. Artz, one of our greatest history professors, once said, “I am deeply grateful to Oberlin. It gave me my chance in life. All-in-all, I think I owe more to Oberlin than Oberlin owes me.” As I talk with current students and alumni, I hear that sentiment expressed time and again.

In 1933, the year before Robert Hutchins spoke to Oberlin’s graduating class, his father was the Commencement speaker. Almost one-quarter of the American workforce was unemployed as William Hutchins strode to the lectern. Yet he, like his son, spoke not of tragedy, but of hope.

“Our young men and women will need better brains than ours, and brains far better trained. But the political revolution through which we are passing, the social and economic forces which are being put in motion, and the holy discontents of our time seem to indicate a door of opportunity such as our fathers did not know.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, working together, we shall keep that door open at Oberlin for generations to come.

Thank you.

Editor’s Note - Effective April 22, 2010: Since this article originally appeared, the Litoff Building has been renamed. Oberlin's new home for jazz studies, music history, and music theory is now the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building.


 
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