OBERLIN — Students in Oberlin College’s Black Student Union have issued an extensive list of demands to the college administration — seeking policy changes to address what it says are underlying racial tensions on campus that have black students fearing for their safety.
The document was reportedly hand-delivered to the offices of President Marvin Krislov and Eric Estes, vice president and dean of students. It was also addressed to the college’s board of trustees.
It was signed by more than 700 people, including hundreds of students, alumni and supporters, said Jasmine Adams, a senior sociology major.
Adams said she is one of eight co-authors and a member of the Black Student Union, which goes by ABUSUA on campus.
College spokesman Scott Wargo confirmed the document was officially presented to the administration Wednesday afternoon. College administrators were unavailable Wednesday, he said.
Wargo said the college will need time to evaluate the document.
In regards to questions about diversity and inclusion on campus, Wargo said the college is 18 months into a strategic planning process.
“And it has been clear from the start that inclusion and diversity will be a primary focus. However, it won’t be complete until March,” he said in an email.
The missive did not include a timeline for which it sought college action. But it did not mince words in explaining the student group’s perception of the college or how the organizations thinks Oberlin treats its black students and what changes those students are demanding should take place.
It starts by calling Oberlin College and Conservatory an “unethical institution” and ends with a warning.
“These are demands and not suggestions,” reads the last line. “If these demands are not taken seriously, immediate action from the Africana community will follow.”
Contained between those two sentences are more than 50 demands that, while extensive, speak to what life is like on campus for black students, said Adams, 21.
“We are no longer asking politely,” Adams said. “We are demanding change because no student, regardless of color, should be afraid to walk on campus in the early afternoon like is the case right now at Oberlin College.”
Other college conflicts
The list comes as black college students across the country are demanding to be heard and vocalizing their strife in very public ways, like members of the University of Missouri’s football team threatening to strike and join protests over the administration’s handling of racial tensions on campus. The move led to the resignation of the university’s president and another top official.
Adams said Oberlin students are not ready to say what actions will follow if their demands are not met, but they do not want to be pacified with forums and rallies that do not address real issues. They are willing to negotiate for meaningful change, she said.
Demands also have been made by students at least 50 colleges and university across the country including Cornell University, Yale University, Emory University and Duke University, all calling for better representation on campus for black students and students of color.
According to Fivethirtyeight.com, a New York-based news blog that looked for patterns in the published demands, the most common demand was for increased diversity among college professors.
Oberlin students want the same, calling on a number of faculty members listed by name to receive guaranteed tenure or to immediately get on the tenure track.
“We demand the allocation of resources geared toward shifting the institutional climate so that black faculty, administration and staff can thrive and not have to engage in the invisible labor that we know is an important part of their work,” the document said, listed under the heading Admission, Recruitment and Retention. “We will gauge the success of this demand through a semesterly survey sent to Black faculty, administrators and staff deeming the success of this initiative.”
Students want to see more black faculty members in politics, philosophy, economics, theater, dance, sociology, neuroscience, the entire Conservatory and chemistry and biochemistry, to name a few. However, those positions should not be filled with professors from the Africana Studies Department in joint appointment positions, according to the list of demands.
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, professors who identified as black including full, associate and assistant made up only 5 percent of the faculty in the nation’s postsecondary institutions in 2013. There were nearly 800,000 such positions noted.
Oberlin College reports having a student-to-faculty ratio of 11-to-1 in the College of Arts and Sciences and 6-to-1 in the Conservatory. A demographic breakdown was not available.
Students also want classes from the Africana Studies Department to be included in the standard graduation requirements.
“We do not think blackness on our campus should be a supplemental class to take like any other elective, especially when the majority of our world is made up of people of color and the college is one that pushes diversity,” Adams said. “It is the very hard to be the only black student in a classroom. When the conversation turns to slavery, everyone turns to us when we were never enslaved or held in bondage. We shouldn’t have to educate the entire community on the plight of black America.”
Conversations about race seem to be ongoing at Oberlin.
According to an article posted by Oberlin OnCampus from the college’s Office of Communication, just last month faculty members of color held a teach-in to discuss the state of black life on college campuses sparked by recent events.
The article linked to an open letter written by faculty members. It touched on racial issues at Oberlin and elsewhere.
In part, it said, “For many of us, supporting, advocating for, and counseling students struggling to find their place in what can be a wearisome racial environment has been a continuous theme in our employment here. We care deeply about your education and success, yet recognize that the culture of elite colleges like Oberlin can demand much more of you than it does on itself to be truly diverse and inclusive. … We celebrate your activism as a continuation of longtime struggles.”
These most recent demands by Oberlin students are reminiscent of what went down at the college more than two years ago after a student reported seeing a person dressed in the white hood and robes of a Ku Klux Klan member near the college’s Afrikan Heritage House.
On March 4, 2013, Oberlin College shut down for a “Day of Solidarity” when students demanded the college cancel classes for the day so rallies and teach-ins, centering on acceptance, could be held. It was needed because prior to the sighting, students said there was a series of racist, homophobic and anti-religious posters and fliers, including a large Nazi banner, hung up at various locations around campus.
Adams said the time lingers in the memories of many of the upperclassmen at the school.
“March 4, 2013, was an extremely stressful time on campus,” she said. “Black students were being chased by nonblack students and nonblack community members and here we are dealing with the same things, which let us know our list of demands were ignored and pushed aside.”
Adams said this year someone gained access to the Afrikan Heritage House, uttered a racial epithet and threatened violence to the black students inside.
“He said he was going to kill all of the (n-word) in the dorm,” Adams said. “This is a dorm mainly of freshmen and sophomore students, and for many of them it was frightening because they have never experienced this kind of racism up close. This is why we need a safe space for black students. The Afrikan Heritage House has become overflow housing for students who have not been able to find housing when it was the black students that fought for the creation of the house decades ago because black students felt they needed a safe home.”
A call to Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey for comment was not returned.
As for the 2013 incident, two students were removed from the campus after admitting to circulating the posters as “a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with other racial postings that have been posted on campus.” Also, police never were able to find evidence that a person clad in KKK garb was wandering around campus. Instead, officers concluded that it was probably a person who was walking across campus wrapped in a blanket.
Nonetheless, Adams said perceptions on campus have changed. Third- and fourth-year black students are partnering with freshmen and sophomore black students in hopes they will feel safe and are ready to tackle the dynamics of race on campus.
“We have been tasked with basically supporting our own community,” she said.
Heritage and history
The demands of students stand in stark contrast to the college known worldwide as being the first college in America to adopt a policy to admit black students, which happened in 1835, and the first to grant bachelor’s degrees to women in a co-educational program, which took place six years later in 1841.
The alumni from Lorain County’s only private liberal arts college boast such notable persons as Vernon Johns, a preacher widely hailed as the father of the civil rights movement, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, former Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty, and actress, writer and director Lena Dunham.
According to a fact sheet found on the college’s website, Oberlin has a total enrollment of 2,900 students and counts 20 percent as students of color. The website also touches on how the college approaches diversity and social justice.
“The decision to admit students without regard to race or gender took place in 1835. If the early leaders recognized that a liberal arts educational community needed to be diverse, what about now?” the college writes on its website. “Today, Oberlin’s faculty, staff, and student body reflect the college’s early dedication to diversity and social justice. Though not perfect, they actively contribute to it through a variety of academic programs, resources and support systems, as well as co-curricular activities.”
International student Sophie Umazi Mvurya, 21, of Kenya, said Oberlin is great at marketing its institution to students across the globe and promises a college experience built around inclusion and support. However, once on campus, the reality is different, she said. International students are forbidden from staying on campus during breaks when the college shuts down and Mvurya said it is financially burdensome to pay for hotels.
“It’s unfortunate, but at Oberlin you are on your own unless you have some kind of connection outside of campus,” she said. “To others, this demand may seem outrageous, but to me, especially when you are talking about housing, this is about survival. To me, it’s amazing that anyone would see something that basic as asking for too much.”
Mvurya, a senior, majors in politics with a concentration in international studies and law and society and minors in Africana Studies. Oberlin College was her first U.S. experience. She struggled to answer the question of if she regretted the decision to attend. She also was accepted to universities in the United Kingdom as well as Cornell in New York.
“The professors are great and everyone is knowledgeable, but outside of the academics I don’t feel like I am as supported as I should be,” she said. “Oberlin College was founded as an institution that fights in times of social injustice and we are only calling on the school to further the legacy they have set.”