Oberlin’s Presidential Past

Oberlin College Presidents | 1835 - Present

Asa Mahan

Tenure: 1835-50

Mahan’s dedication to social reform led him to become the first president of Oberlin, a college known for its early experiments in coeducation and integration. Sometimes called harsh and uncompromising by his critics, Mahan defended his principles fiercely, demanding equal diplomas for male and female students and arguing on behalf of William Lloyd Garrison when Oberlin’s faculty failed to take his stance on abolition seriously.

Charles Grandison Finney

Tenure: 1851-66

As an important figure in the history of American religion, Finney is known for his role in the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that motivated a new wave of social reform. These Christians directed their efforts towards temperance, abolition, and women’s rights — the same values that played a critical role in Oberlin’s identity at its founding. Finney also was the minister of the First Church of Oberlin from 1837 to 1872, serving as a spiritual and intellectual guide for both town and college through the Civil War.

James Harris Fairchild

Tenure: 1866-89

Under Fairchild’s leadership, Oberlin saw its student body double, its endowment triple, and its faculty increase by 50 percent. Largely due to his talent for fundraising, six new buildings were erected in the course of his tenure, transforming the appearance of the campus.

William Gay Ballantine

Tenure: 1891-96

In response to the sweeping changes that took place during Fairchild’s presidency, Ballantine gave a speech observing that Oberlin had entered a new era. He remarked on the importance of carrying on the values that the College had defended in times past: namely religious and social concerns, as well as racial and income diversity.

John Henry Barrows

Tenure: 1899-02

The first of two Oberlin presidents to die while in office, Barrows had a brief yet productive term. Under his leadership, Oberlin’s endowment grew by $600,000, and both Warner Gymnasium and Severance Chemical Laboratory were added to the campus.

Henry Churchill King

Tenure: 1902-27

One of Oberlin’s most accomplished presidents, King was the author of 19 books and held honorary doctorates from nine universities, including Yale, the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Columbia. While at Oberlin, he commissioned prominent architect Cass Gilbert to build Finney Chapel and the Allen Memorial Art Museum.

Ernest Hatch Wilkins

Tenure: 1927-46

Wilkins’ long presidency was a time of controversy at Oberlin, as World War II brought an upwelling of political debate to the College. A liberal pacifist, Wilkins was deeply involved in activism on campus, creating the Oberlin Peace Society and leading rallies, though he changed his position on the war once the men of the College began to serve in the armed forces.

William Edwards Stevenson

Tenure: 1946-60

In his years as president, Stevenson worked to renovate campus facilities and modernize the academic atmosphere of the College. Though many of his initiatives, including a proposal for a campus ROTC unit, were unsuccessful, Stevenson and his wife took steps toward integrating the trustees and faculty, as well as counteracting local problems with segregation and discrimination.

Robert Kenneth Carr

Tenure: 1960-69

Carr’s presidency coincided with an upheaval at educational institutions across the country. In the face of the student body’s demand for direct action against the Vietnam War, Carr argued that the College ought not take an institutional stand, citing the importance of official neutrality in facilitating rational dialogue.

Robert Works Fuller

Tenure: 1970-74

One of the youngest college presidents in U.S. history, Fuller’s main achievements were tripling the enrollment of students of color and eliminating distribution requirements in response to the demands of the student body.

Emil Charles Danenberg

Tenure: 1975-82

After spending 30 years on Oberlin Conservatory’s piano faculty as a pianoforte instructor, Danenberg became president in 1975. His leadership helped to smooth over tensions with the faculty. Danenberg died in 1982 of liver cancer, the second of two presidents to die while in office.

Stephen Frederick Starr

Tenure: 1983-94

Starr’s decade as president was marked by several achievements, as he improved the endowment by $155 million and more than doubled the financial aid budget. Under his leadership, the Conservatory enjoyed an expanded library and new merit-based scholarships, as well as a redoubling of recruitment efforts. He was also responsible for renovating and building many campus facilities, including the restoration of Finney Chapel and Wilder Hall, and the construction of the Roger Sperry Neuroscience Building and Stevenson Dining Hall.

Nancy Schrom Dye

Tenure: 1994-07

Nancy Schrom Dye, Oberlin's first female president, led an ambitious and successful plan to improve the College's facilities, including a $65 million Science Center, construction of the Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Studies Center, and restoration of the Cass Gilbert building that houses the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Dye led a capital campaign that raised $175 million. She also initiated a strategic planning process to ensure Oberlin's academic, artistic, and musical excellence. In 2004, she became the first American college or university president in more than 25 years to visit Iran to help reestablish education exchanges between the two countries.

Marvin Krislov

Tenure: 2007-Present

Marvin Krislov became the 14th President of Oberlin College in the summer of 2007. He came to Oberlin from the University of Michigan, where he had been vice president and general counsel since 1998. Mr. Krislov led the University of Michigan's legal defense of its admission policies, resulting in the 2003 Supreme Court decision recognizing the importance of student body diversity. A Rhodes Scholar, he earned a doctor of laws degree from Yale Law School, a master's degree in modern history from Oxford University's Magdalen College, and a bachelor's degree from Yale University.

Acting Presidents

  • Henry Brown (1834)
  • John Keep (1832–35)
  • Charles Grandison Finney (1849)
  • John Morgan (1859)
  • Frances Drake Parish (1871)
  • John Millott Ellis (1871)
  • Henry Martyn Tenney (1889–91)
  • James Harris Fairchild (1896–8)
  • John Guiteau Welch Cowles (1902)
  • Henry Martyn Tenney (1909–10)
  • Edward Increase Bosworth (1918–19)
  • William Blair Stewart (1952–53)
  • Donald Melbourne Love (1959)
  • Ellsworth Clayton Carlson (1969–70)
  • James Lawrence Powell (1981–83)
  • Alfred F. MacKay (1991–92)
  • Clayton R. Koppes (2000)