Oberlin’s Board Seeks to Limit Faculty Power

Professors say the changes violate a foundational college rule and stand to change Oberlin forever—not for the better.

October 7, 2022
A bird's-eye view of Oberlin College's campus.
Oberlin College’s board will vote today on proposed bylaw changes about faculty governance.
(Oberlin College)

Much about Oberlin College is unique, including long-standing policies guaranteeing the faculty a say in matters that extend well beyond academics. Many faculty members say it’s this level of input that keeps them at Oberlin. Most importantly, they say, it’s a big part of what keeps Oberlin … Oberlin. So these faculty members are perplexed—and angry—that the college is trying to change its bylaws to restrict faculty control to academics only.

“We just found out that the bylaws were going to be changed two weeks ago, and why we’re so upset is that faculty governance—which Oberlin College has really prided itself on, and contributes in such important ways to the success of the college—is being seriously eroded,” said Christina Neilson, associate professor of Renaissance and Baroque art history. “The limitations that we’re going to have on us as faculty to make important decisions, and to really shape the institution as it develops into the future, will profoundly influence the student experience.”

Faculty members, Neilson continued, “are on the ground. We are working closely with students, we support our students and we are the ones who are able to help the administration understand the needs of our students—and that those needs go beyond just strict academics.”

Professors held a teach-in on campus about the proposed changes Thursday afternoon, ahead of a planned vote on the bylaws today by the college’s Board of Trustees.

Jeff Witmer, professor of math, said that what the board appears to want “will change the ethos of Oberlin—a place where historically the faculty have made progressive decisions and where the dean has been viewed as first among equals. We as faculty will no longer feel that we are vital partners working with the administration and the board.”

Delegating Authority and Reducing ‘Risk’

In internal and public communications, Oberlin has argued that the changes are necessary to streamline operations in an increasingly complicated legal and administrative environment, and to align with accreditation expectations about delegation of authority and reduce “operational risk.”

Updating the bylaws will affirm the board’s authority and establish a foundation for the delegation of authority, the college says. It will further clarify both the role of the president in running the college and the faculty’s role in academic affairs. 

A related proposal would make it so that the president appoints new deans with faculty advice, as opposed to clear "concurrence" from a committee that includes elected faculty members (as is currently the case). A separate proposal provides flexibility on establishing a provost’s position (Oberlin doesn’t currently have a provost).

Lillie Edwards, board vice chair and an Oberlin alumna, wrote in an op-ed in the college’s student newspaper, The Oberlin Review, that “We face economic, administrative, regulatory, statutory, and even political constraints that were unfamiliar decades ago. In recent years, a lack of clarity in our bylaws regarding institutional governance and the delegation of authority has hampered our ability to respond nimbly to extraordinary challenges (like a pandemic) and plan responsibly for the future.”

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Such changes, Edwards said, “confirm the board’s delegation of authority to the faculty and its representative bodies over such important areas as the curriculum; educational policy; quality and method of instruction; degree requirements and educational standards; faculty status, including the evaluation of the faculty for appointment; tenure; and promotion, research, and those aspects of student life that relate to students’ academic experience. The bylaws remain replete with the term ‘shared governance’ and related references.”

The pandemic certainly stressed shared governance on many campuses. It’s less clear what Oberlin's multiple references to “risk” mean. But it’s impossible to say “risk” and “Oberlin” in the same sentence right now without thinking of the college’s recent $36 million–plus payout to a local bakery that accused it in court of wrongly siding with students who accused the shop of racial profiling. The college’s former dean was implicated in that case, per her presence at a protest, and risk assessment was a part of how Oberlin navigated the lawsuit. Yet the faculty didn’t lead Oberlin’s response to the incident. (Oberlin has maintained that the former dean was required to be at the protest and did not endorse an informational pamphlet she received from a student.)

In response to various questions about the bylaw changes, Josh Jensen, college spokesperson, said via email that the changes “simply clarify ambiguity in the bylaws to bring them into line with Oberlin’s long-standing practices. There won’t be any changes to our faculty governance structure as a result of the bylaws changes. Oberlin is in a strong financial position, and both this year and last has achieved record enrollments.”

Whitmer said that while the college argues little will change in the way of faculty governance, “there’s a difference between consultation and actually being able to have the power to vote on something. They see it as no big deal because, ‘We’ll still talk to you, we’ll still consult with you,’ and we think it’s a big deal to only have a consultative voice and not actual power.”

Asked for specific examples of conversations they stand to be shut out of, faculty members in interviews cited those pertaining to student mental health policies and budget crises, among others. Starting in 2018, for instance, several faculty members said, the faculty helped the college avoid budget-related program cuts via an academic and administrative program review. This work led to the publication of a long-term planning document called One Oberlin, which the general faculty and the board voted to approve in 2019.

Breaking the Finney Compact

Oberlin’s unusually strong overall tradition of faculty governance traces back to a long-standing college rule called the Finney Compact. This compact was named after 19th-century evangelist Charles Finney, who agreed to teach at Oberlin only if the faculty had internal control, including the power to admit students regardless of race. So professors argue that the board’s vote effectively violates this promise.

Today, the Finney Compact is codified in the bylaws as follows: "The general faculty is entrusted with the management of the internal affairs of the college, but must obtain the concurrence of the trustees in order to introduce any important change affecting the established methods or principles of administration." The board wants to eliminate that policy and replace it with the following: "The divisional faculty bodies, subject to the guidance and approval of the Board of Trustees and consistent with the bylaws, are responsible for the internal affairs of the college in matters pertaining to educational policy, curriculum, methods of instruction, degree requirements, those aspects of student life that relate to students’ academic experience, and the evaluation of the faculty for appointment, tenure and promotion."

Kirk Ormand, Nathan A. Greenberg Professor of Classics and president of Oberlin’s advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said that on the surface, the board's vote may not seem “all that important, but it is a radical limiting of the authority of the faculty, an authority that has been one of our guiding principles for 187 years.”

It’s because of the Finney Compact, and student involvement, that Oberlin was one of the first U.S. colleges to have a nondiscrimination clause on the basis of sexual orientation, Ormand said, adding that the faculty was behind the later expansion of that clause to include gender identity.

“It’s been faculty driving our progressive tradition … and the Finney Compact is in some ways integral to the nature of Oberlin. How it will change when the faculty are told to stay in our lane and, you know, just worry about things that are directly related to the curriculum? It’s hard to say, but I’m sure it will change over time, and it will change the nature of the institution.”

The proposed changes are the latest in a series of administrative disappointments, from the perspective of some faculty members. Oberlin said in 2013 that it planned to raise median faculty pay to that of peer institutions, but as of 2021 faculty pay at Oberlin ranked 15th among a group of 16 other peer institutions, according to a faculty analysis. Nonunionized employees also now have a mandatory high-deductible consumer-driven health plan instead of a preferred provider organization plan option. More than 100 unionized cafeteria and custodial staff members were outsourced in 2020. And many professors, students and alumni objected over the summer to Oberlin’s decision to partner with a Roman Catholic health-care system that said it wouldn’t provide students with birth control for contraception. (Amid criticism, the college announced that it was establishing a partnership with a community provider for reproductive health-care services, but the primary partner, Bon Secours Mercy Health, remains problematic to some critics. Oberlin, meanwhile, has said that its establishment of a secondary partnership for reproductive health-care services had nothing to do with the backlash.)

A small committee of faculty members was privy to the proposed changes months ago but urged the board to delay a vote initially set for June until this week. In the interim, faculty members say, that committee was banned from talking about the plan with the general faculty.

Neilson said her hope for the teach-in, held on the steps of Wilder Hall, the student union building, is that “students understand the proposed changes to the bylaws—that although they are about faculty governance, we feel they are going to profoundly affect students. And we want to communicate to students all the ways that we feel that this is going to negatively affect us now and in the future.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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