Nancy Dye's Presidency, Page 2

Needed Motivation

From her airy, second-floor office overlooking Wilder Bowl, Dye speaks above the faint sounds of hammers and saws making their way through the science complex that is nearing completion. Faces of her family members—husband Griff, a clinical psychologist, and adult children Molly and Michael—smile through framed glass. An overstuffed dog bed lies in the corner: Farley, the Dyes’ golden lab, and basset hound Dexter are occasional visitors. With fall classes still a few weeks away, the campus is serene. Dye is the first to admit that it wasn’t her own grand plan that has brought Oberlin back to good health, but rather the advice of the people who know Oberlin best. Seeking input—then and now—from others who have a stake in the institution has gained her many supporters.

Oberlin Trustee Peter Kirsch ’79, former president of the Alumni Association, says Dye has proven time and again that it is the best interests of Oberlin, and not her own ego, that guide her leadership. “Nancy has talked the talk and walked the walk,” says Kirsch, a Denver attorney. “She has aggressively avoided imposing herself and her values and image on the institution. That comes from a deep respect for our tradition. She didn’t come in and announce: ‘I know your school and what’s good for it.’ Rather, she said, ‘Tell me about Oberlin. Help me, educate me. You are the keepers of the flame. My job is to lead—not to decide what kind of institution this should be.’”

She realized, says Kirsch, that Oberlin will never be the Harvard of Ohio, nor does it want to be. “With Nancy, it was a love-fest from the get go. That she has maintained her popularity for eight years is unusual, if not extraordinary.”

Dye says that seeking input, genuinely and openly, was the only way to approach Oberlin’s presidency because Oberlin is a democratically governed institution with many shareholders and because she came here without a template. “As soon as I arrived on campus during the presidential search, people asked me about my vision for Oberlin and how I would solve its problems. Well, I didn’t have the foggiest idea,” she laughs. “I had only set foot on campus that morning.”

“Nancy came on as president at a very difficult time for the College,” notes Kirsch. “Her predecessor, Fred Starr, was very much the kind of president Oberlin needed at one time, but by the end of his term, he wasn’t providing the right kind of leadership. The College was uncertain about its direction and needed a president to bring together the very disparate interests in the College community.’’

Dye agrees that heads were hanging when she arrived. “Colleges have very, very distinct cultures and personalities. Oberlin has one of the strongest. It has a powerful sense of itself, its mission, its values. It has a strong connection to its history. And to be Oberlin’s president, one has to respect the institution and have a genuine sympathy for it.

“When I arrived here, the College appeared demoralized, with little confidence in its mission and future. In other words: ‘We used to be a fine place, and now we’re nobody.’”

Immediately, she set out to restore that pride, assembling alumni, students, faculty, and administrators—167 in all—in work groups to define Oberlin, reinforce its ideals, and imagine its future. In focus groups and town meetings, Oberlin’s core goals were articulated: to offer a world-class interdisciplinary education taught by an excellent and diverse faculty; a commitment to the arts and to broad-based science literacy for all students; a true commitment to inclusion and a richly diverse residential campus community; and a genuinely international curriculum.

Those values—self-evident to many Oberlinians—were spelled out in a document called Broad Directions for Oberlin’s Future. The final product assembled in print what many already knew, yet the process—the holistic approach used to arrive at the plan—was incredibly important in righting Oberlin’s course, says Dye.

“This was about the community coming together in new ways to talk about what made the College special and what it needed to do to move those values and programs into the future,” she says.

It worked.

“Her leadership infused spirit into the place,” says former Alumni Council President Diane Kenty ’77, who likes the way Dye “stands up and takes all comers” in an annual Q&A session with alumni each fall. “Oberlin was in a big hole. There was very little listening going on and a lot of negativity. Nancy just brought in a completely different approach to problem solving—a genuine concern for students as people and a very high standard for scholarship and academic excellence.’’

Dye’s mission paid off financially, too. In accepting a $150,000 Presidential Leadership Grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Dye was recognized for her “inspired leadership in helping the College develop a new strategic framework for planning and decision making” to ensure a confident future for Oberlin.

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