News and Media
President Marvin Krislov Leads by Example in the Classroom
Oct. 09, 2012
When incoming freshmen were invited to select courses for their first semester at Oberlin earlier this year, the 16 seats for one class, The 2012 Campaign and Election, filled up faster than any first-year seminar in memory.
Perhaps it was the promise of a classroom simmering with real-time tension surrounding a tightly contested race for the presidency. But more likely it was the name of the instructor entered below the course description: M. Krislov.
That’s Marvin Krislov, the president of Oberlin College. Now in his sixth year on campus, he has taught a class every semester except his first, showing a commitment to academic leadership that makes him a rarity among college presidents nationwide.
“I would have taught my first semester too,” Krislov says matter-of-factly, “but people told me it was too crazy.”
Nowadays, crazy at Oberlin is any notion of a president who is not so fully engaged with his students as Krislov has been from the start. Every Monday and Wednesday morning, he teaches his campaign class. Once a month, he hosts “Koffee With Krislov,” a late-night klatch in the main library intended to encourage freewheeling conversations between students and their president. Every week, he authors a column for Oberlin’s international newsletter and website, often tailoring them to the needs and interests of students. And just about every day, he can be seen bicycling to his office, working out at the fitness center, or attending various events around campus, intent on being part of the action.
“It’s a challenge, but I do make students a priority in my schedule,” he says. And Krislov’s priorities don’t go unnoticed.
“It’s amazing that right off the bat, one of the few teachers here who knows my name is the president,” says Maya Wergeles of Los Angeles, a first-year student in Krislov’s campaign class. “As the president, he could get away with doing very little with students, but he doesn’t. This is very important to him.”
Krislov himself knows the feeling.
“When I was in school, if the university president had even said hello to me, I would have been pretty intimidated and surprised,” he says. “I like to think my approach makes students feel more comfortable in the classroom.”
Krislov’s course objectives for the fall semester are twofold: Students are immersed in discourse on the issues surrounding campaigns and elections. But they also get their first taste of life on an academically rigorous liberal arts campus, and they’re challenged to spark their curiosity and analytical skills through regular discussion and multiple writing assignments. And all of it happens with a finger on the pulse of the latest developments from the campaign trail.
“You’d have to live under a log to think this isn’t the most exciting course in the world,” Krislov says, a wide smile spreading across his face. “But I’m biased.”
AN INTRO TO FIRST-YEARS
On a recent Monday morning, two days prior to the first presidential debate, 16 sleepy-eyed Obies lumber into a second-floor classroom in the King Building and seat themselves at tables arranged in a square, fumbling for notebooks and taking labored pulls from the coffee cups tethered to their hands.
As the clock ticks toward 9 a.m., an ebullient Krislov emerges, clad in a pressed blue shirt and khakis, and sporting dark shoes made for logging miles on campus.
“We are so ready to rumble today!” he says excitedly, inviting the group to commence its conversation about the topics of the day: voter turnout and the factors that affect their decisions at the polls.
In an impassioned, almost playful voice, Krislov serves up open-ended questions for each student to volley back. And before 30 minutes have passed, everybody in the room has offered a perspective to the mix, the exchange of insights evaporating the dewy haze that had permeated the air at the top of the hour.
“I don’t like that sort of lethargic feeling in the classroom,” Krislov says later. “So I try to wake people up. One way to do that is to call on them to answer.” And most of the time, they’re up to the challenge.
In many ways, Krislov’s students are a cross section of the Oberlin student body itself: engaged and engaging, a blend of cultures and races, and they hail from all corners of the country, from Florida to Alaska and from Southern California to New England.
And though most are not yet even old enough to have participated in their first general election, they speak with the fervor of seasoned campaign managers—about their class as well as their instructor.
“It’s amazing,” says Mimi Stern, an economics major from central Florida who’s an eager participant in Krislov’s classroom. “He really embodies the spirit of this school, and he cares about every student here. For the kids who have him in class, this is a bridge that others don’t get to have.”
And it’s a bridge no Oberlin freshman has ever had before. In Krislov’s five years of teaching, The 2012 Campaign and Election is the first of his classes offered to first-year students—an opportunity that arose when a professor took a sabbatical for fall semester.
“I like the freshness of first-year students, and the fact that they may be a little more willing to take risks,” says Krislov. Though much of the coursework revolves around time-honored theory, he revels in the differences between his experience and those of his students—most notably, the ways in which social media has changed the art of following politics.
“The students help me view their interests through a new window,” says Krislov, an early riser who rarely finds himself up late enough to catch The Daily Show, a favorite among his students. “There are some generational things that I can learn from students’ interests, or where they get their news and what issues affect them.
“When an 18-year-old can make me think in new ways and seek better answers,” he says, “that is a very good thing.”
REVERSING A NATIONAL TREND
The urge to teach sprouted during Krislov’s early years as an administrator at the University of Michigan, where he served from 1998 till 2007. He was invited to take on one undergraduate class, then another; before long, he was teaching three classes a year and an additional one during the summer—all while serving as Michigan’s vice president and general counsel.
“I got to know the students, and I found that very rewarding,” says Krislov, a graduate of Yale and a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. “I found it made me a better professional and a better leader on campus.
“When I came to Oberlin, I decided it was really important to continue teaching. It’s a nice change of pace for me because it’s a different kind of work, and it really helps me stay in touch with the heartbeat of the campus.”
But on campuses nationwide, few presidents are following Krislov’s lead.
While college leaders historically arrive at their positions via an academic path, modern expectations of presidents’ top priorities are eroding that pattern. According to a 2012 study by the Council of Independent Colleges, fewer than three out of 10 presidents surveyed actually teach.
“[Teaching] gives me the ability to understand our students and some of what they’re going through, and it helps me to understand what the faculty is going through too,” says Krislov.
“Teaching can be very humbling, and that is never a bad thing. If you’re the president of a college or university, it’s important to be reminded that ultimately you are serving these young people, and that they are bright and insightful too.”