Oberlin College's next president, Marvin Krislov, has plenty of experience tackling controversy. As general counsel at the University of Michigan, he played a key role in the university's successful defense before the U.S. Supreme Court of the right to use affirmative action in admissions. He is moving to Oberlin to succeed Nancy Dye, president since 1994. Dye has faced faculty criticism in recent years as Oberlin struggled with tight budgets and she announced her plans to retire as president last year following complaints from faculty leaders about whether the board was adequately reviewing her performance. Krislov responded to questions via e-mail about his interest in moving to Oberlin.
Q: Your education and your academic career to date have been at research universities. What is the attraction for you to a liberal arts college/conservatory?
A: Oberlin is one of our nation's greatest institutions of higher education, and I deeply admire its historic and ongoing commitment to inclusion and excellence. A liberal arts education is especially pertinent in challenging times that demand flexible, broad thinking. My family and I also are committed to the performing arts and I look forward to supporting the Oberlin Conservatory and enjoying the many arts-related activities on campus.Many of the facilities are comparable to those at a graduate school -- the supercomputer; four libraries housing 2.3 million items; a world-class museum and conservatory of music; more than 400 concerts and recitals as well as 40 theater and dance productions and two
operas each year; and so on.
On the other hand, a small, residential liberal arts college embodies an intense sense of community and an engagement in ongoing campus conversations that are more difficult at a large university. Furthermore, the faculty emphasis on teaching over research, and the ability to interact with students on a consistent basis, distinguishes Oberlin from a larger research university.
Q: The economics of liberal arts colleges are increasingly challenging -- at Oberlin and elsewhere -- leading institutions to consider changes in enrollment policy, aid policy, mission, etc. What are your thoughts on how liberal arts colleges can best succeed these days financially?
A: Liberal arts colleges and other higher education institutions have enormous cost pressures that are likely to increase in the coming years. Private support is extremely important so that liberal arts colleges can continue to provide high quality education to diverse students. There will inevitably be important discussions about priorities. But I think it critical to keep in mind the mission and the core values at an institution like Oberlin, even in the face of budgetary pressure.
Q: Oberlin is a college where professors and students take shared governance (and critiquing the president) very seriously. What's your approach to leading in an environment where the relatively small size can lead to extra scrutiny, and where there have been tensions about decision-making?
A: It speaks highly of the dedication to Oberlin that faculty, staff and students feel the stake in its governance and its future. I applaud that sentiment and support the values of shared governance. I plan to learn as much as I possibly can about the various views on campus and to lead discussions that are productive, open and honest. While there may be times where people have differences of opinion, I would hope that this approach would promote mutual respect and understanding. During the presidential search process, but even more so at the open forums during my visit to campus last week, it was clear that Oberlin students, especially, are very confident in expressing their opinions. I think that's a healthy situation.
Q: How will your background as a lawyer and as a lawyer for a university affect your perspective as president?
A: My background as a lawyer can help me understand and analyze various perspectives on issues, and may allow me to think about the processes for making decisions. As someone who has worked inside many institutions, I hope that I have learned how to listen to people with different views and to try to mediate those perspectives. I have been privileged to teach courses both in the undergraduate political science department and in the law school at the University of Michigan and I would draw upon those experiences as a teacher and mentor as well.
Q: At Michigan, one of your top issues was affirmative action, which voters there have now rejected in a referendum. If other states follow, do you think private colleges like Oberlin will play more of a role than perhaps public universities in educating diverse student bodies?
A: Oberlin is very proud of its history in this regard -- do you see Oberlin positioned to do new things in diversifying the student body? Oberlin has an historic commitment to diversity. Besides the obvious milestones -- it was the first institution of higher education in America to adopt a policy to admit students of color (1835) and the first college to award bachelor's degrees to women (1841) in a coeducational program -- the college has found ways under many historical and economic circumstances to reaffirm its commitment to these fundamental values. Oberlin continues to support these values today. In association with the college's 2005 strategic plan, the trustees adopted a resolution to "significantly improve our admissions yield and retention of African American and other students of color, as well as first-generation and low income students." I have been honored to support the University of Michigan's strong commitment to diversity and inclusion. Oberlin's historic commitment to these values inspires me as well. I am confident that Oberlin will continue to lead in educating diverse populations and to making higher education affordable and accessible.