Nancy Dye's Presidency, Page 4

The Student Connection

Outside the Cox Administration Building doorway stands a kiosk on which Dye tacks written responses to student queries. Recent posts have asked about the College’s food supplier and contract negotiations with unionized service workers. Dye answers email, often has students to dinner at her home, and boasts of her open-door policy. “She does have her critics, but the pervasive sense among students is that Nancy is part of ‘them,’” says Ireta Kraal, a senior visual arts major. “Among the administrators, she is among the most open and respectful of our opinions. She really listens—that’s her strong suit.”

Dye’s remarks to a gathering of Oberlin parents in 1998 inspired a father to repeat them in his regular television commentary on ABC’s “World News Now”: “At Oberlin College in Ohio over the weekend, I heard the College President, Nancy Dye, say one lesson that college students needed to learn was how to disagree without demonizing those who differ. ‘That’s a lesson sometimes unlearned at Oberlin,’ she said. ‘Students need to learn how to deal with disagreement.’”

Student relations were given a boost last year with Dye’s creation of an ombudsperson position and campus dialogue center. Both are designed to foster communication, resolve conflicts, and promote change through mediation and community building. “It was Nancy’s vision to offer a place where people are empowered to resolve their own disputes,” says Ombudsperson Yeworkwha Belachew. “She believes that people do better when they own the outcomes of their problems.”

Another priority has been the recruitment of first-rate faculty members to fill the void left by large numbers of retiring professors. With the blessing of the trustees, Dye has been able to create 10 new faculty positions which will help reach the desired 12:1 student-faculty ratio and enable all first-year students to enroll in small freshman seminars.

She also remains tremendously committed to attracting and retaining a culturally diverse staff and student body. “Diversity is enormously important to me,” says Dye, remembering that the number of black graduates crossing the stage in 1995—her first Oberlin commencement ceremony—was far fewer than she had expected. A few months later she commissioned a study on black student retention that revealed the importance of community service, multicultural activities, and student government. Even with new programs in place and Oberlin’s growing reputation as a “best college” for African Americans, Dye admits that there is still considerable room for improvement.

“We have to think about how to build upon our strong reputation as a college truly committed to diversity,” she says. “We’re thinking a lot about making ourselves into a more international institution.” Curriculum expansions in Central Asian, Korean, and African studies have already occurred, and recent winter term projects have taken students and faculty to China, India, and Indonesia. Dye is working with the Shansi program to establish an Oberlin center in Asia, a prospect that has piqued the attention of several major foundations. She herself spent the fall 2000 semester traveling in Asia—strengthening relationships that Oberlin already has in Japan, Indonesia, and China, and looking to create new ones in Central Asia.

Town-Gown Relations

Almost any conversation with Dye these days touches on the College’s renewed relationship with the city of Oberlin, a partnership, she says, that is vital to the future well-being of both. The seed was planted shortly after her arrival in 1994, when the College received an anonymous $500,000 gift that laid the groundwork for a formalized avenue of student volunteer opportunities in Lorain County—“a wonderful head start,” Dye said then, “for our ambition to revitalize Oberlin’s historic commitment to community service.” The resulting Center for Service and Learning, a clearinghouse through which community agencies, schools, and organizations could tap the services of students, inspired a $3.5 million gift just two years later to endow its operation. Donors Jane and Eric Nord said they made their gift to “sustain Nancy Dye’s vision of the importance of community service to Oberlin College and Lorain County.”

Next, Dye set out to help mend the problems in her own backyard. A year-long dialogue between College and town leaders concluded that the Oberlin community, although surrounded by a robust national economy, was threatened by troubles: a 26 percent poverty rate, scarce affordable housing, a dearth of youth recreational programs, declining sales among downtown merchants, and dismal K-12 student performances on state academic proficiency tests. With the trustees pledging more than a quarter million dollars, the Oberlin Partnership was launched in an effort to link the College’s resources with community improvement goals.

“The College has always done financial things for the city, but up until Nancy’s tenure there has never been a will in the administration to go into active partnership with the schools and town to improve the entire community,’’ says Dennison Smith, professor of neuroscience and a member of the Oberlin City School Board. “She does want to strengthen things at this institution that are good.”

In just 18 months, the nascent community partnership has paid off. The College rescued the city’s floundering local hospital by purchasing the land and leasing it back to the Oberlin Medical Center for $1 per year. Trustees committed $500,000 to the Lorain County Metroparks toward the construction of a $4.5 million aquatic center scheduled to open this summer in Oberlin. Graduates of Oberlin High School who are admitted to the College can now attend tuition-free; four are among the class of 2005.

“I don’t know why we never thought to do this before,” Dye wonders aloud. But she cautions that it will take a significant and long-term commitment by the College to improve all of the schools—from grades kindergarten through 12—for such a benefit to pay large and meaningful dividends in helping the community and in creating new educational sympathy.

Go to page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 of Nancy Dye's Presidency

back to top