Graduates of Oberlin College -- a cradle of social justice movements like abolitionism -- have never had to look very far for activist opportunities. Indeed, the college's commencement ceremonies actually seem tailored toward students who want to make a political stand. The processional has traditionally run beneath Oberlin's Memorial Arch, a controversial structure that either symbolizes the sacrifice of missionaries killed in China or the repression wrought by American imperialism, depending on one's point of view. For those who take the latter position, bypassing the arch -- and breaking with the established processional route -- has become something of a tradition.
It appears, however, that Oberlin officials are ready to literally sidestep the controversy that the arch provokes on graduation day. Administrators recently decided to change the commencement processional route, bypassing the arch altogether, The Oberlin Review  first reported.
The Memorial Arch was erected in 1903 to recognize Oberlin graduates who were killed during the Boxer Rebellion while serving as missionaries in China. Critics have long charged that the arch honors questionable acts of American imperialism, while at the same time doing little to recognize the deaths of Chinese people killed in the uprising. Students who hold that view have made their disdain clear on graduation day, walking around the monument or -- in one case -- climbing over it with the aid of a rope.
While Oberlin officials say the decision to change the processional route was made in concert with an overall review of commencement ceremonies, they acknowledge that the controversy over the arch was a factor.
“When it became clear there were going to be some changes, it also seemed an opportunity to address some other issues and questions about commencement, and the arch has been one that’s been discussed many times over the years,” said Sean Decatur, dean of college of arts and sciences. “It certainly seemed appropriate to address the issue at this time.”
Terry Hsieh, a spokesman for Oberlin’s Chinese Student Association, said he’s never been particularly offended by the arch. That said, he applauded administrators for responding to students’ concerns.
“I think it’s admirable that the administration is willing to change their opinion,” he said. “It’s particularly indicative of our president’s progressive and incorporative attitude.”
Marvin Krislov, the university’s president, told The Oberlin Review that officials decided to change the route in part because of continuing concerns, but also for logistical reasons like avoiding sun glare.
The controversy surrounding the arch, which really took root during the Vietnam War era, has often engulfed the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association, a nonprofit group housed on the campus since 1908. The group initially served as the fund raising arm of a school in the Chinese province of Shansi, which was founded by a Chinese Oberlin graduate turned missionary. The association no longer raises money for the Chinese school, because it changed ownership in 1951, but Shansi Memorial remains a target for critics who see it as a product of an imperialistic missionary movement.
Carl Jacobson, executive director of Shansi, said he thinks changing the processional route will prevent a cycle of controversy that has heretofore surfaced “again, and again and again after every commencement.”
“It’s been kind of frustrating for me because I came of age during the Vietnam period, and I was a protester,” he said. “... [But] here I was finding myself lumped in with the missionaries on the Oberlin campus and not being able to defend myself.”
Arch Provides Teachable Moments
For all the controversy the arch engenders, it’s fair to say that Oberlin has something of an affection for the monument -- precisely because it’s such a lightning rod for debate. Indeed, an Oberlin professor has even formed a class that examines the history of the arch and the controversy it has inspired.
“In some ways the faculty and the college as a whole are still engaged with trying to use the arch to raise some interesting questions on campus,” Decatur said.
At times, those questions have been uncomfortable. Jacobson, who has been at Oberlin since 1976, recalls an incident in 1993 when the arch was defaced with graffiti promoting death to "chinks."
“It was pretty disgusting, and the campus went berserk,” he said. “Everyone was saying there is institutional racism at Oberlin.”
As it turns out, the graffiti was the work of an Asian American student who was trying to express what the arch symbolized to her personally, Jacobson said. Shortly after the incident, a plaque was placed on the monument to recognize the deaths of Chinese in the Boxer Rebellion. That alteration, however, hasn’t ended the debate.
“It’s like trying to footnote a monument,” Jacobson said. “It’s hard to do, so it didn’t really satisfy anyone.”
Given the arch’s history, students often spend their years at Oberlin debating just what route they’ll take on graduation day. Emelio DiSabato, who is graduating in May, said he’s in some ways disappointed he won’t have the chance to make a final decision about bypassing the arch or walking beneath it.
“I had been thinking about this for three and a half years, and at this time [of year] I was considering it a lot more,” he said. “But there’s not that opportunity anymore.”