Terence Dougherty '91


Terence Dougherty '91

Terence Dougherty lives in New York City with his partner, Pierre, and serves as General Counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, the nation’s oldest defender of civil rights and civil liberties. Since 2005, he has served as a board member of the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company. In 2008, he was appointed commissioner of the Women’s Refugee Commission and has made field visits to Delhi, India, and Amman, Jordan, where he participated in interviews concerning reproductive health and domestic violence among the Iraqi refugee community in Jordan. He is a former board member of the Columbia Law School Alumni Association and the Ohio Public Interest Research Group.

Dougherty writes and lectures widely on issues such as organizational speech rights, and he wrote a series of studies published by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force on the economic detriment to same-sex couples who are unable to enter into legally recognized marriages. He also coedited Feminism Confronts Homo Economicus, a collection of essays published by Cornell Press.

At Oberlin, Dougherty majored in English and history and studied viola da gamba performance. After graduation, he worked as a writer’s assistant to feminist critic bell hooks and as a kindergarten teacher at a homeless shelter in the South Bronx.

He attended Columbia Law School, where he received a Human Rights Internship Fellowship, and during which he interned with Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York and Judge Cheryl Valandra of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Court.


Questions & Answers

What strengths would you bring to the Oberlin College Board of Trustees?

I believe I have a keen understanding of how organizations should operate so that they can do their best work and be most effective. Through my current job at the ACLU, my work as a volunteer for several nonprofit organizations, and my past experience as a teacher, I see the value of communities working through organizations. As an academic community, Oberlin is fascinatingly diverse and serves and requires input from many constituencies: primarily the students and professors, but also administrators, alumni, funders, and the local and global community in which Oberlin operates. And each of these constituencies incorporates its own constituencies: individuals with different racial, gender, sexual preference, class, and regional backgrounds, and different interests and experiences.

I strongly believe that unless transparent and consistently applied structures are in place at an organization, certain constituencies and individuals may be disempowered, and an organization will not be able to do its best work. I see Oberlin’s Board of Trustees as the group responsible for ensuring that these structures are in place and consistently applied at Oberlin so that all stakeholders have a real and meaningful opportunity to be heard. If there is a fair process for decision-making, including meaningful opportunities to be heard, hard decisions that have to be made will have integrity, and the many individuals and constituencies Oberlin serves will continue to see themselves as stakeholders in the institution. I would bring this perspective and experience to the Board of Trustees at Oberlin College.

What is your vision for Oberlin College?

Like many Oberlin graduates, I see Oberlin as nearly utopian. Oberlin’s core principles and storied history include: its historical commitment to educating students regardless of race and gender, its role in the anti-slavery movement, its commitment to educating students to participate in the world of arts and ideas, its commitment to diversity of identity and thought, combining a college and a world-class conservatory of music and giving its students a safe place to experiment with different personas and lifestyles, a safe place to figure out who they are.

While that seems utopian, Oberlin is not truly a utopia, because utopias generally do not change. I believe Oberlin has continued to excel because it has been willing to change in ways that remain consistent with its core principles and history. Although Oberlin had little interest in environmental sustainability when I was a student—I helped create its first campus-wide recycling program in the late 1980s—Oberlin is now a leader in the environmental sustainability movement.

While the United States has become increasingly economically stratified, leading many colleges to become singularly focused on post-graduation job placement in the for-profit sector, Oberlin not only has remained committed to educating future educators, but also has recognized the importance of post-Oberlin career support in a manner consistent with its core principles, such as by participating in the POSSE program. My vision is that Oberlin should continue to remain true to its core principals and history as it moves forward in the 21st Century.

What is important to you—what do you spend your time thinking about and/or working on?

I spend my time deeply aware of what supports the spirit and gives it the opportunity to flourish. What gives a teenage girl, subjected to a high school strip search because of a false rumor that she was carrying Tylenol, the courage to challenge that school all the way to the Supreme Court, playing out her personal and humiliating ordeal over and over in courts and the media? What gives two gay men the strength to successfully sue the state of Florida to adopt their foster children, young brothers whose life circumstances made them so reliant on one another that it would have been devastating to separate them? What is the basic support a child growing up in a refugee camp, where the average stay is 17 years, needs beyond clean food and water, in order to feel that she has some control over her life, some ability to make her own decisions. What gives a farm animal, which is being raised as food, the space to live its short life with integrity and calmness?

I spend a great deal of time thinking about the social institutions that support the spirit—the family relationships that center us; educational institutions that teach us to think critically; advocacy organizations that support human, environmental and animal rights; religious institutions that lift our sights; and alternative communities that sustain us—and I think about the different legal, political, and economic factors that both support and impede those social institutions in the US.

What do you most want alumni to know about you as they consider how they will vote?

Oberlin continues to play a major role in my life. Many of the people I met while I was a student remain some of my closest friends today. As an alumni representative to the Oberlin College Board, I will be keenly focused on those things that attracted us to the school and that continue to make us proud to be alumni. I’m also absolutely committed to engaging Oberlin alumni in order to encourage their involvement with their alma mater in two primary ways. First, I think that recent Oberlin graduates need to be supported as they begin their post-graduate careers. Particularly given the overall economy and the job prospects for liberal arts college graduates, I believe that recent graduates need to be given the means for tapping into our networks in order to open doors for them as they make their plans for their post-Oberlin lives.

Second, I think that the group of Oberlin alumni that remains committed to the institution—those who are involved with the institution through fundraising, through serving as mentors to graduates, and through volunteering—needs to expand. As a member of the Oberlin College Board, I would like to facilitate mechanisms that will result in more alumni being involved with Oberlin.

What attracted you to Oberlin?

Finding Oberlin was like a dream during which you wake up and find a new room in your house that you never knew existed, but that is an exciting new extension of your world.I grew up on the East Coast, a place that at its worst thinks of itself as the center of the world. How exciting it was to discover a different world center. The more I looked into Oberlin, the more I felt like I was turning over stones and finding jewels. Although not everything resonated perfectly with my needs, I admired the fact that the school gave so many different people the ability to find something that resonated with their own needs. For example, while I did not feel personally attracted to cooperative living, I loved that Oberlin fostered this form of living, and I greatly admired the students that came to Oberlin for this living environment. I did feel personally attracted to a school that encourages diversity of identity and thought and gives students a safe place to explore fundamental questions of identity. I did feel attracted to a school that encouraged my study of early music (and loaned to me a viola da gamba to practice on), and my desire to spend a winter term reading Roland Barthes in Eastern Europe. For me, Oberlin promised to give me the ability to think outside of my own self and my own family circumstances and strive for something new. It lived up to its promises.

What about Oberlin resonates with you today?

The main thing about Oberlin that resonates with me today is the thread that ties me to individuals who graduated long before I did, to my fellow graduates, and to recent graduates. At Oberlin events, such as the recent Oberlin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art opening, at dinner parties with my peers, and when I meet recent graduates who have come to work at the ACLU, I feel more of a connection with Oberlin alumni than I do with graduates of any other academic institution of which I have been a part. I think this is because Oberlin graduates have an awareness of having been part of an institution that is unique in the fabric of American society. Oberlin’s ability to continue to reinvent itself, while remaining true to its core principles, also resonates with me. I felt such pride learning about Oberlin’s development of a state-of-the-art neuroscience center several years after my graduation, about Oberlin’s LEED certified buildings several years later, and about Oberlin’s recently-opened jazz studies center. All of these developments resonate with me and are in my mind absolutely important if Oberlin is to remain a dynamic, innovative educational institution. But it is the connectedness among the students—the connectedness I have with students who graduated thirty years before me, with me, or last year—that resonates the most.

What do you believe will be the most important issues facing Oberlin in the next five years?

I think we live in a very difficult time in the United States. Our society has become increasingly economically stratified and does not sufficiently support arts, cultural, and educational institutions. Oberlin will continue to be faced with decisions about how to maintain its uniqueness and excellence in a world that measures success in financial terms. I in no way think Oberlin should measure its own success in these terms, but I also very much understand the need for Oberlin to be able to raise funds sufficient to attract dynamic and innovative scholars and musicians and to ensure that the school keeps its doors open to students regardless of their financial backgrounds. I also understand the need for Oberlin to support its graduates as they embark upon their post-Oberlin careers. Particularly if Oberlin wants to continue to be a school that reaps the benefits of opening its doors to students who do not come from privileged economic, professional, or academic backgrounds, it will need to consider ways to support a strong alumni network that both financially supports the school and creates networks for students as they embark upon a wide range of post-Oberlin careers.

With limited financial resources, what would be your top funding priorities at Oberlin?

My top funding priority for Oberlin is financial aid. Oberlin cannot remain the unique institution it is today if it doesn’t give students the opportunity to enroll regardless of the particular financial circumstances they find themselves in when they are 17 years old. I believe the most important and inspiring part of the American experiment is that it affords people the ability and courage to excel in areas other than the areas in which their parents and grandparents have excelled. But this is threatened by the increasing gap in the US between the rich and the poor. In order to ensure that Oberlin benefits from the best of the diversity of the United States, I believe that it is essential that prospective and current students’ financial circumstances do not hinder their ability to attend Oberlin and flourish. My second funding priority is academic excellence, which I believe is best fostered by attracting professors who are at the cutting edge in their fields of expertise and who will be supported in order to encourage them to build a long-term career at Oberlin. My third funding priority is encouraging and fostering programs that support Oberlin students, not only while they are enrolled, but once they have graduated. This includes forming strategic alliances with a wide range of institutions, including job mentoring programs, other academic, arts and music institutions, and with social advocacy groups.

What elements of your personal and/or professional life would be helpful in your service as an alumni trustee?

Thanks to my current job with the ACLU and my various volunteer activities, I am part of a wide network of individuals and organizations in the justice, law, education, and cultural/arts communities. It is not surprising that this network includes many Oberlin graduates. As an alumni trustee, I hope to use that network to encourage Oberlin alumni to remain connected to Oberlin through financially supporting the school in the manner they are best able to and to become part of networks of alumni that can be tapped into by graduates looking to develop their careers. I also hope to use that network to foster connections between Oberlin and other arts, educational, and justice organizations. Additionally, I have particular expertise in nonprofit organization law, management and governance, and I would hope to bring those skills to the service of the Oberlin College Board.