Jacob Gayle '79
Dr. Jacob Gayle began global citizenship in Buffalo, NY, but claims multiple points on themap as “home.” Gayle has traversed most of the planet over his lifetime, for the advancementof public health, human rights and social justice for all. A 1979 graduate of Oberlin Collegewith an AB degree in Psychobiology, he completed M.S., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in PreventiveMedicine, Community Health Education and International Health, respectively, at The OhioState University. His most-celebrated lifetime achievements are his 32-year marriage partnershipwith Joyce Lee ’80; his relationships with adult sons Britt and Calen, and Britt’s wife, Sylvia;and the impending grandchild who soon will also receive his love and attention.Since August 2011, Gayle served as vice president of community affairs at Medtronic Inc. inMinneapolis, Minnesota. He is also executive director of the Medtronic Foundation. Prior tothis, he was a deputy vice president and officer of the Ford Foundation, headquartered in NewYork where, from 2005-2010, he led its Global HIV Initiative. For more than 16 years (1989-2005), Gayle was employed by the US Centers for Disease Control. This included assignmentsto the Carter Center, US Agency for International Development, World Bank and the UnitedNations, and residential postings in South Africa, Barbados, and Switzerland. After two yearsof service on the Oberlin College Presidential Advisory Committee, Jacob began service as analumni-elected trustee to the Oberlin College board in 2011, to complete the term of the late Dr.Robert Frascino ’74.
Questions and Answers
What strengths would you bring to the Oberlin College Board of Trustees?
While the past year as alumni trustee, and the two years prior as a Presidential Advisory Committee member, has provided an “insider’s” view into the intricacies of Oberlin’s management and administration, the greatest strengths I bring to the board of trustees of the future extend well before and beyond these privileged opportunities for service. Beyond my own life experiences as student and parent of students, I have been a college administrator, university professor, and donor-funder. Seeing the academic world from all vantage points has provided me with a panoramic perspective that helps when considering complex issues from multi-stakeholder perspectives. Student, faculty or “town-gown” issues benefit from deliberators who understand them from multiple sides. I feel naturally qualified to do this. My passion is for the celebration of diversity, even while we find solidarity in our commonalities. Oberlin College has historically played a significant role in demonstrating that both aspirations can and must co-exist. I believe this must be kept in mind as a guiding value as we move forward in confronting today’s issues and preparing for tomorrow’s scenarios. Oberlin has a global purpose and I endeavor to represent and nurture it, both within the board and externally as I engage on its behalf.
What is important to you? What do you spend your time thinking about/working on?
Despite being an empty-nester, I find that my roles as husband and father continue to intensify, though in ways different than in earlier times. As my wife readjusts her life goals and day-to-day expectations in a new community following our recent relocation to Minnesota; as our elder son and his wife embark upon new medical careers and imminent parenthood; through the process of our younger son re-establishing his musical and other professional pursuits in France; I feel my life commitment to facilitating the growth, development and contributions of emerging leaders really aligns my personal and professional priorities almost seamlessly.
As I contemplate the approaching sunset of a tremendously-diverse and fulfilling professional career, I feel I have come back full circle to the priorities of my early years as a university professor: how can I utilize my passions, experiences and perspectives to help install the next generation of global leaders who will “carry the banner” much further than I or any of my contemporaries would have ever dreamt possible? The difference between where I began and where I am currently is about 30 years of practical, direct experience to go along with the theory I taught early in my academic career.
More and more, I believe there is global recognition of the centrality of “health” within the contexts of globalization, multinational diplomacy, human rights and social justice. The rallying cry of “Health For All by Year 2000,” the global mantra born from a World Health Organization social visionary (Halfdan Mahler) during my training and orientation to the profession, may have been off on its target date, but was fairly accurate in predicting the timeframe within which the world would begin to understand the significance of health to overall development, justice and security.
Success in yet reaching “Health for All” is less about medical/clinical knowledge and innovation and more about an appreciation of partnerships and alliances that celebrate and support diversity and inclusion within a human rights framework. As I recreate this global strategy and paradigm now within a context of health-centered philanthropy, or as I realign my familial roles to better enable the contributions of spouse and offspring, my thoughts and actions center around how I can best facilitate the passing of the social action “baton” to activate the contributions others now bring to the world to pick up where the contributions of my cohort will diminish.
What do you most want alumni to know about you as they consider how they will vote?
I am a dreamer. Never one to allow the walls of “the box” to confine my thoughts, I, nonetheless, test my dreams through sage consults with realism before putting them into action. Without considering the impossible and peering into the unknown, it is difficult to find innovation. This is one of the characteristics of public health that attracted, and has sustained, me.
One of the things I have enjoyed most about working in philanthropy these past eight years has been the ability to take calculated risks in innovation and, when necessary, being able to learn from “failures” as openly as from successes.
When trying to determine how best to serve populations, I have learned that it is best to ask them how they wish to be served. Perception is NOT truly always reality; however, it sure looks like it much of the time, and can help us reach reality in a way that respects us all.
Serving on the Oberlin College board of trustees since 2011, in fulfillment of the unfinished term of the late Dr. Robert Frascino, has been an awesome honor. I feel as if it has given me a great opportunity to preview the roles and responsibilities within this great trust, before potentially embarking upon my own elected term as officer. It will be an honor to continue to serve. Yet, in its own context, this interim service has already provided gratifying opportunities that, I trust, were enhanced by my contributions. I believe in Oberlin College and what it contributes to global progress. I am committed to support this in whatever capacities best enable me to so do.
What attracted you to Oberlin?
My siblings and I grew up being exposed to the multiplicity of cultures to be found between the US and Canada, and were told that we should not only feel comfortable within each and all but to embrace them all as our own. After all, there was but one Family of Man—and Woman—and we were a part of it all. We hosted international students studying in our communities; we learned Swahili, and even studied Yiddish from a book entitled, “Yiddish for Yankees.” That was over and above English, Spanish and French. We were exposed to the faiths of the world and entertained diplomats, refugees, academics and orphans; men of faith and women of the night. Like most of us who hailed from an African slavery heritage within the New World, we are the offspring of “East meets West;” “North meets “South.” We were taught to embrace it all because we were composed of it all. My social worker mother, social entrepreneur father and Foreign Service officer godmother bequeathed us all this global citizenship status. It is no wonder that I now call the Caribbean “home,” but am just as comfortable across Europe, Africa and, of course, the USA and Canada.
Growing up as a global-minded, multicultural and feminist male who saw liberal arts as the cornerstone of leadership development, I was most drawn to apply to Oberlin because it celebrated students who were “different.” Whether its history of being the first coed school, or as the first of its kind to admit students of African descent, I knew from its reputation that I would be comfortable and encouraged by an environment as this. As unique as my background may have been, I realized that, at Oberlin, I would be amongst many unique individuals.
What about Oberlin resonates with you today?
So, indeed, Oberlin College is unique. Most often, this is said because of its history: its pioneering actions of yesteryear; its legendary alumni. Yet, still today, Oberlin College is unique. The proof points are too numerous to itemize. The challenges it faces, however, in these days and times, are how to respond to the many demands upon students with Oberlin potential to pursue collegiate options that hold greater probabilities of opening doors to employment immediately after baccalaureate graduation. Even a direct link to quality graduate education might seem more assured through undergraduate options in university settings. Fewer potential students feel able to afford the high-cost “risk” of private, four-plus year, undergraduate-only liberal arts education.
Nevertheless, as one looks at the academic backgrounds of iconic leaders across disciplines and sectors, the liberal arts graduate still reigns relevant. The Oberlin name still remains a tremendous credential. The nature of our Oberlin identity, though, is not to brag about our pedigree or upbringing, but to simply change the world. Somehow, we need to find a happy medium: not to feed our own egos, but to make students aware of the kinds of contributions Oberlin leaders have and yet can make in the world today.
What do you believe will be the most important issues facing Oberlin in the next five years?
Cost-benefit: The Oberlin experience provides a platform for enlightened education and social action, whether one is a College or Conservatory student, behavioral or physical scientist, social conservative or liberal. How do we establish inroads into the core of Oberlin’s tradition that enables students to benefit, whether they come for a year as a visiting student from elsewhere, a transfer student or even a summer student? Can Oberlin develop an associate-degree liberal arts option that links to another junior college that is more job-related? Can one-year visiting student programs be developed with colleges that would actively wish their students to have the “Oberlin values” instilled in them before graduating from their academic homebases? Besides the “traditional” considerations for cost savings and cost-benefit, Oberlin should use its own creative thought processes to think of innovative alternatives.
Employment relevancy: As referenced above, I believe students today are challenged with the need for higher education to provide stronger probabilities as pathways to employment. Without becoming a “vocational training” school, Oberlin might wish to consider ways in which to maintain the cornerstone of liberal arts education while building stronger pathways to employment opportunities.
Adherence to reputation: I know that these are challenging times for Oberlin College. Our aspiration is not simply to be “one of those good liberal arts schools.” The value of the Oberlin experience is probably best understood years after it has been lived; only a few insightful students may understand at the traditional point of undergraduate enrollment. In light of this, the level of effort placed upon identifying, attracting and matriculating students must be augmented by the illumination of Oberlin alumni who exemplify the kinds of social achievements we wish to associate with Oberlin College. Mind you, that does not always mean it is presidents and moguls and powerbrokers: as the Dalai Lama says, “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”
With limited financial resources, what would be your top funding priorities at Oberlin?
My first funding priority would be to ensure that students who would benefit from an Oberlin experience, and who Oberlin feels would contribute to that Oberlin experience, would be able to do so regardless of individual/family capacity to fully-fund the experience (more financial assistance). In order to maintain the heterogeneous diversity of Oberlin’s student body, it will necessitate student financial aid. Otherwise, we will become a campus of “rainbow affluence”: though they may come in different “shapes, sizes and colors,” our students would be those who can afford the experience: that is multi-colored homogeneity.
Next would be to use resources necessary to ensure that the faculty—academic and non-academic—are of the caliber necessary for maximizing the potential and outcomes of the Oberlin experience for students. Mentors for social change are rarely in it for the money; however, they, too, are part of the unique diversity deserving of recognition, encouragement and investment.
The third priority would be to ensure that the Oberlin community (students, faculty) have resources for pursuing innovation beyond traditional academic instruction. This could take many forms: research, convenings, travels, etc. I believe we can extend the Oberlin experience beyond the geographic boundaries of Oberlin, Ohio. That is not meant to diminish the symbiotic importance of the history and identity of our host community. But both can yet travel together on this global journey in a manner that might be innovative, even for other academic institutions that have established campuses and presence off-site from their origins.
What is your vision for Oberlin College?
My vision for Oberlin College is that it will continue to be the tertiary educational institution most-often referenced by social change agents as their initial post-secondary training ground. I expect Oberlin will continue to take individuals who are on the path to leadership and instill within them the knowledge and exposures necessary for making unique and innovative strides in whatever fields they ultimately pursue. I believe the Oberlin College student and alumnus will be seasoned and savvy global citizens, whether through physical engagement around the world or through any other means of global engagement available. Whether through being an extraordinary partner, parent, peer or mentor; social, scientific, artistic, entrepreneurial or political visionary or luminary; I believe the Oberlin core values for equality and justice, insatiable inquisitiveness, constructive debate and confrontation should be considered institutional treasures that are protected and preserved, as well as adapted and updated, to ensure that they are resident within each Oberlin student, faculty and administrator; and even offered to our host city as qualities as equally a part of its own heritage and branding.
What elements of your personal and/or professional life would be helpful in your service as an alumni trustee?
Whether as an admissions director, academic advisor or professor, I always felt that the higher education experience must ensure that students are the center of its purpose. This is a statement I once thought was intuitive and yet, even on four-year, liberal arts campuses, students are taking backseats to research, service and other priorities. Though the alumni trustee is not required to represent an alumni “consensus” or input, it does help to remember that the alumni experience and perspective do bring an added dimension to the dialogue. While most trustees may be Oberlin grads, anyway, those directly selected as “alumni trustees” do share a sense of commitment and responsibility to two key constituents: alumni and current students. In light of this, I especially believe my commitment to student-centered education and educational systems will be helpful in the roles that are a part of being an Oberlin College alumni trustee.