Georgia Yuan '75
- Over 20 years in higher education administration as general counsel to Smith College and the University of Idaho.
- Deputy general counsel and deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education in the Obama administration.
- Certified leadership coach and executive search consultant to colleges seeking presidents and senior administrators.
What elements of your personal and professional life would be helpful to you in your service as a trustee?
During my years at Oberlin I rushed from science labs to practicing in the Conservatory to meetings with the Asian American Alliance. After earning my masters degree from Stanford University, I worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council during the early years of the environmental movement. Ten years later, I went to law school and eventually became general counsel to a large public university and then a private liberal arts college. In over 20 years, I advised institutions on a wide range of activities including building projects, endowment investing, student alcohol use policies, and gender identity and athletics eligibility. In 2010, I became a political appointee in the U.S. Department of Education where I oversaw higher education policy and regulation. I bring to service as a trustee, my professional background in higher education and a unique perspective on the larger trends in education gained from working in the Obama Administration.
What do you spend your time working on and thinking about?
Higher education, as a sector, is in a period of disruption. While more people want an education, some are questioning the ‘return on investment’ of attending college. I have reflected on liberal arts colleges and research universities as an administrator working to make them function well and from the perspective of federal policies that drive the availability of student financial aid. I think about rising student debt as well as policy issues related to keeping college affordable. While there are notable examples of successful entrepreneurs who do not have a college degree, I believe in the power of a liberal arts education to transform lives and prepare graduates for meaningful lives in a changing world.
What else do you want your fellow alumni to know about you as they consider how they will vote?
I am grateful to Oberlin for my education and the growth potential it afforded me. The trustees are fiduciaries for the College and reflect its values. When I was at Oberlin, the Asian American community was one-tenth the size it is today. Asian American studies, as a discipline, was nascent. When I graduated, we were a relatively small and misunderstood group that walked around Memorial Arch at commencement. Today, the College is in a very different conversation about many things including race, free speech, and gender identity. I have seen these changes in my own work and at Oberlin, through the experiences of my daughter Kimberley, class of 2007. It would be a significant personal honor to support the enduring legacy of Oberlin educating engaged citizens who participate in creating a better world.
What attracted you to Oberlin?
I was a serious musician when I graduated from high school, and my parents encouraged me to find a place where I could continue to pursue music while also pursing an interest in science. I knew that Oberlin was the first college to admit women for the bachelor’s degree, and that really spoke to me. I didn’t know it then, but I was an activist in the making, and Oberlin was the perfect place for me to find out what that really meant. Being away from the distractions of New York City and falling into a community of learners was a huge gift for me.
What about Oberlin resonates with you today?
In many ways, what attracted me to Oberlin as a student still resonates with me today. We continue to be a place where ideas matter, and we fiercely and openly struggle to understand each other in our differences and commonalities. I think the rural, residential setting offers opportunities that we may miss in our 24-7 world. Encouraging shared experience, restoring souls through music, theatre, dance, and art, and offering high quality educational experiences are things I value about Oberlin. Where else can you lie on the floor and feel an organ being tuned in a space designed by Cass Gilbert and donated in memory of Charles Finney, a 19th century evangelist?
Tell us of one specific instance in which you wished to understand someone with different values from yours. What happened?
In the 1970s I interviewed with an oil company hiring geology graduate students for fieldwork. The representative asked me what I would do if the wife of a geologist did not want me in the field with her husband? I was shocked and indignant—what would he do as it seemed this was the company’s problem. I did not get the job. Two decades later, I worked with a man who would not travel with a subordinate woman colleague because he was married and it might create the appearance of impropriety. I was done being shocked and indignant and I helped my colleague find a way to hold his values while also advancing the woman he worked with. These are instances of a worldview that persists. Differences can create limitations when there is no one willing or able to navigate those differences. As a child of immigrants, I learned to see the world through the lens of parents who often felt their values were different from others. As a female scientist, lawyer, and administrator I have tried to create better workplaces and better institutions by navigating differences in values, sometimes confronting them fiercely, sometimes working with nuance.
Service on the Oberlin College Board of Trustees represents a significant commitment of time and effort. What draws you to this service?
I have spent my career in higher education administration and policy development. I have significant experience understanding the challenges facing colleges today and the thinking behind policy initiatives that will shape the availability of loans and grants to students. Oberlin has a unique and proud history of offering education to those whom other institutions did not welcome. The unique strengths of the Conservatory change the fundamental mix of students and the quality of the performing arts on campus. I want to contribute my time, energy, and experience to helping Oberlin be sustainable and prepare students for rich lives. For me, it is almost a calling after dedicating my professional life to higher education and understanding its value in our society.
Share an Oberlin experience that shaped who you are today.
Though I was a College student, I studied piano in the Conservatory with Professor Beryl Ladd. One week she asked me to practice only the opening theme of a piece I had worked on in high school. At the time, my young self was astonished and prepared to question the wisdom of such a simple and repetitive assignment. Initially it bored me, then I played with it, adding dramatic tones, and by the end of the week I had developed a real dexterity, joy, and insight into the piece. Professor Ladd had succeeded in teaching me how to concentrate, to learn through discipline, and to try a new approach to something I had practiced for months. I had never been forced to consider how to learn and this experience gave me the foundation to persevere through later graduate work in geology and law. Oberlin taught me to find joy and excitement in my work and to live a successful life.