Thomas Riis ’73

THOMAS RIIS was born in Concord, NH, and grew up in suburban upstate NY before attending Oberlin. After graduation (with a B.A. in music & a semester abroad in Denmark), he served on the admissions staff of the Interlochen (MI) Arts Academy, then took up graduate studies in musicology at the University of Michigan (MA 1976, PhD 1981). His dissertation, Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890-1915, was published as a book Just Before Jazz (1989).

Riis taught at the University of Georgia from 1981 to 1992, directed the Early Music Ensembles and developed the university's first ethnomusicology courses. In Athens he helped to rebuild and restore the historic black Morton Theater, as a functioning community center. He also joined a small group of concerned citizens to found an early HIV-AIDS support and education organization, AIDS Athens. In 1992 he moved to the University of Colorado-Boulder to become director of its American Music Research Center (AMRC), edit its journal, teach, write and publish.

Riis continues to perform on the viol and cello, sing, conduct choirs, and lecture across the country. In 2002, he was voted (by his colleagues) one of the first endowed chairs in the College of Music and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in Germany (2005-06). Besides music, his hobbies include reading biographies and crime novels, hiking, bicycling, and old films.


What strengths would you bring to the Oberlin College Board of Trustees?
I bring to the board over 30 years of experience in higher education, as a teacher having worked among diverse groups in many settings, and as the coordinator of activities and fundraising in the AMRC. I have planned and funded seven international conferences, hosted dozens of scholars and programs, edited 20 volumes of an annual journal, and pursued collaborative projects (ranging from Medieval musicales to seminars on brain chemistry and musical expression), consulted with NPR broadcaster Terry Gross and with Martin Scorsese's music team for the film Gangs of New York (2002).  As President of the Society for American Music (2009-2011), I helped launch its first endowment campaign (for $1 million), have served the American Musicological Society, Southern Poverty Law Center, Community Foundation of Boulder, and many local arts, political and charitable organizations, logging well over 1500 volunteer hours in 20+ years, working on two dozen campus, community, and church-related committees for GLBT affairs, AIDS awareness, antiracism, world hunger and illiteracy.

The focus throughout my career has been on both people—the individual aspirations and specific accomplishments of students and colleagues—and institutions that foster development of musical talent and artistic growth, and engage communities in the arts and human rights activism.  As a trustee, I would happily bring (back) to Oberlin my experience in fundraising and group leadership, because Oberlin from the start has inspired and shaped my ideals.

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

Short answer: "Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing—right now?" I believe that there is a deep-seated human need to find one's own path while pursuing specific goals—be they material, intellectual, or spiritual—by which we engage with the world around us. Humans are by nature social beings, and most of us are raised within an ethical framework that affects our most important life choices as well as a variety of everyday decisions. How we relate to others in community, how we find our place in the world, and how we help others to find their place of creativity and "abundant life" are of constant interest to me. To balance out my dutiful and somewhat compulsive behavior, I assert, with Carl Jung, that "hurry is the Devil."  If possible I shun multitasking, viewing it as a euphemism for doing many things poorly faster. To put it another way, I see the need to focus on one thing at a time as key to truly helping others and myself to a more fulfilled existence. I value quiet, calm and meditative environments for work and play. But of course there are many urgent problems needing our attention. See my answers below for further details. 

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

I am a middle-class gay white male, of conservative tastes, liberal politics, and moderate habits, a college professor, lover of classical music, and writer-historian, who values kindness in everyday relations and—at the risk of uttering a common cliché—hopes to leave the world a better place for having passed through it. From an early age, I was tagged by friends and family as a musician and teacher. I have grown into those roles and feel comfortable in them. As a consequence of social and parental influences during my youth (in the '60s) my perspectives are informed by an awareness of male white-skin privilege, historical racism and sexism, the urgent need for sustainable measures for planetary preservation—amidst 7.2 billion people and counting (!)—and the odd complexities of human behavior among all clans, countries and cultures. I have attempted to live my life since graduation faithful to what I understand to be positive Oberlin values, applying what intelligence and passion I have to exploring both the problems and the beauties I am privileged to be a part of. I am enthusiastic about the arts, religion, history and literature. I think I am perceived to be gregarious, funny, loyal to friends, hard-working, and inclined to avoid confrontation in social and personal relations (though very interested in working on issues that require standing up to negative forces). 

What attracted you to Oberlin?

I was attracted by Oberlin's musical environment, its openness to creative ideas, energy and enthusiasm for the arts, consciousness of its own history, high ideals for social justice and working on behalf of the historically disadvantaged. Having read about some of the college's history and with one friend already there, I visited Oberlin for the first time in my junior year of high school and immediately felt psychically at home.  I loved discovering such a dynamic place in an apparently placid Midwestern town that was situated just far enough away from my parents' house in upstate New York (13 hours by bus), so that I could spread my wings safely but also return to the parental nest from time to time. 

What about Oberlin resonates with you today?

After many visits back to Ohio since 1973, and having spent many years as an Alumni Admissions Representative and Class Agent, I have been repeatedly impressed with how students who choose to attend Oberlin at any given time are unfailingly curious, engaged, talented, friendly, and verbally adept, socially and environmentally aware, issues-oriented, and—very importantly—lots of fun to be with. Oberlinians are always passionate about doing good and making connections in order to improve the local, national and international environment.  Despite having lived in Oberlin for only four years decades ago, I still feel it is the single institution in my experience that most closely reflects the diversity of my interests, concerns, and values. It is a place that I am meant to be in and will continue to cherish. Oberlin is my tribal home and it will always remain so. 

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

Short answer: "Environmental degradation, pervasive absence in our politics of  sustained civil discourse, lack of faith in fellow humans' ability to tackle the Big Problems related to population growth, income inequality, and fear about the future." 

Ignorance in action driven by fear and insecurity is rampant in the world. I see Oberlin as both a haven from global insanity and a laboratory for plans to improve on this state of affairs. As David Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics, has recently and eloquently explained, so much of our current environment disorder is reflected in educational disorder. But if we can improve the educational system, correct at least some of the "disorder," then perhaps the leaders of the future who come out of this new educational setting can help to avert the worst case scenarios for the earth that we are now being made aware of.

I am optimistic that Oberlin can be, as it has been in the past, a site of change and consciousness-raising on a whole host of challenges so long as it continues to appeal to bright, committed young people who can afford to attend and attracts top faculty. Income disparities in America, however, make such inclusiveness an ever-present concern. Widespread hostility to immigration, distrust of various "others" foreign and domestic, and high level of government dysfunction, while obviously present as national problems, will also be reflected at the local level over the next five to ten years.

By 2023, the United States as a whole will be a majority minority nation, but private four-year liberal arts colleges will likely remain majority white enclaves. I deeply hope that Oberlin will avoid becoming just another intellectual ivory tower dominated by privileged young suburbanites (as some of our peer colleges are), and live up to its ideals of inclusiveness, by taking positive calculated action in several directions. Oberlin College is already an exemplary place—for musical excellence, environmental awareness, scientific achievement, and intellectual distinction. It has the capacity to be greater still as it confronts the huge challenges facing our planet. OC students of all ages and attitudes can develop or enhance existing methods of inter-group dialogue, make fruitful conversations to accelerate positive change in order to disentangle complex, long-term problems. Oberlin can function as a social laboratory, a place to defend the values of the humanities in a technologically booming world, a site to train problem solvers of the future while also expanding opportunities to foster creativity for all who enter its classrooms and collaborate with its graduates.

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

Topping my list here would be (1) adequate (i.e., competitive) need-based scholarships for first-generation college students; (2) improving faculty compensation such that the most stimulating teachers and accomplished scholars are enticed to spend a large part of the their working life at Oberlin; the high intellectual standards that the College claims to represent should not be compromised, because it is the faculty's constant interaction with students that shapes and sustains the College over the longest time period; (3) strengthening links between the city of Oberlin and the college through concrete efforts to enhance the local economy and infrastructure; (4) supporting outreach and recruitment on an international basis so as to guarantee that future applications to Oberlin College are generated from among the most diverse pool possible. Strength comes not just from numbers but from the greatest diversity of experience and perspective among those numbers.

What is your vision for Oberlin College?

My vision for Oberlin is that it maintain its historical role as a generator of courageous actors who "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," brilliant artists and musicians who inspire us all to pursue great dreams and high spiritual paths, serious but joyful intellectual leaders who help us to reorder and reassemble our damaged world, and dynamic political servants who work from informed and comprehensive perspectives for the betterment of human kind. 

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

I would bring to the board more than 30 years of experience in higher education, as a teacher having worked among diverse groups in many settings (Germany and England as well as the United States institutions large and small). I have also served as coordinator of activities and fundraising in the center that I have directed at the University of Colorado, the American Music Research Center, since 1992. I have planned and funded seven international and two local conferences, hosted dozens of scholars and programs, edited 20 volumes of an annual peer-reviewed journal, written comprehensive evaluations for more than two dozen colleagues coming up through the academic ranks, and pursued collaborative projects (ranging from Medieval musicales to seminars on brain chemistry and musical expression, from curating an art exhibit on the life of French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to celebrating the 100th birthday of Big Band leader Glenn Miller with a Japanese all-girl high school band in Colorado). I have consulted for NPR broadcaster Terry Gross for her program on the roots of American popular music and with Martin Scorsese's music team for the film Gangs of New York (2002). 

As President of the Society for American Music (2009-2011), I helped launch its first endowment campaign (for $1 million), have served the American Musicological Society as national program chair (2007), and on the board of the Open Door Fund [for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender initiatives] of the Community Foundation of Boulder County, and many local arts, political, charitable and religious organizations, logging well over 1500 volunteer hours in 20+ years. I am especially committed to addressing and acting upon AIDS/HIV awareness, LGBT affairs, antiracism, world hunger, and illiteracy. I was a co-founder and early co-chair of AIDS Athens [Georgia], a support and education organization, in the late 1980s.

The focus throughout my career has been on both people—the individual aspirations and specific accomplishments of students and colleagues—and institutions that foster development of musical talent and artistic growth, and engage communities in the arts and human rights activism. As a trustee, I would happily bring (back) to Oberlin my experience in fundraising and group leadership, because Oberlin from the start has inspired and shaped my ideals.