Strengthening Oberlin’s Future: A Conversation with Robert Lemle

Business executive, community leader, and philanthropist Robert S. Lemle ’75 was named chair of Oberlin’s Board of Trustees in 2005. He talked with OAM about the College’s new Strategic Plan and his own vision for Oberlin.

You’ve served on the Board for nine years. What do you see as the main accomplishments of the trustees and administration during that time?
Oberlin has made real progress in the last 10 years under Nancy Dye’s leadership, by any measure. We’re now much more selective. We’re admitting about 35 percent of the students who apply to the College, a dramatic improvement from a decade ago. The Conservatory’s admit rate this year was 26 percent, the most selective ever. During the last 10 years, we significantly increased both financial aid for students and faculty salaries as our endowment has grown. Last year, we completed a $175 million capital campaign. These accomplishments put us in an excellent place to plan for the future.

Looking ahead, what do you see as the short- and long-term goals of the Board of Trustees?
We engaged in strategic and financial planning in order to define our goals as a Board of Trustees and as a college community. These goals are easy to state, but hard to accomplish: to enhance the value and perceived value of an Oberlin education and to attain financial sustainability. To achieve these goals, we’ve defined specific strategies. For example, the Board of Trustees is working with President Dye and her staff to develop a comprehensive marketing and communications plan. We need to do a better job telling our story. The success of the Strategic Plan is dependent on continuing to work together as a College community to strengthen Oberlin’s future.

As co-chair of the Strategic Planning Task Force, you’ve spent the past two years in part assessing the College’s strengths and weaknesses. Of these, which are the most significant?
What I love about Oberlin is the unique combination of strengths: intellectual curiosity and independence; exceptional music; inspired art; social consciousness; a fearless spirit; and a rich history. It’s why I enjoy coming back here so often. We also face some real challenges. We have a much larger percentage of our students on financial aid than most of the schools we compete with, but our endowment per student is smaller. This is not sustainable over the long term unless we continue to build our annual fund and endowment.

You have been active in the governance of several nonprofit organizations. Are there principles that guide your work as an Oberlin trustee?
Absolutely. I strongly believe that the purpose of nonprofit governance is to accomplish the goals of the institution. Our first step was to define our mission and goals as a Board of Trustees and as a campus community—where we would like Oberlin to be in the next five to ten years. Now, with approval of the Strategic Plan and Financial Plan, we are focusing our efforts on achieving these goals.

Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about your own Oberlin experience. What memories make you smile when you think about your college days?
I met my girlfriend, Roni Kohen ’76, who has been my wife for 29 years now, at Oberlin. She was the lead singer of a college rock band called Buffalo Chips. I smile when I think of certain professors that I had, including Ron Kahn, who is still teaching in Oberlin’s politics department; my first winter term in Washington working for Senator Walter Mondale; taking bowling for credit; and doing my radio show on WOBC.

What was the format?
Rock and roll. It was an “FM radio” show called Café Manhattan. I still remember the name. We played Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, people like that. I was program director of WOBC my senior year.

Where did you live as a student?
I lived in Barrows, Burton, and then off campus. We had our own episode of Friends during my senior year—Roni and I and two other couples shared a house that belonged to a sociology professor who was on sabbatical. The house came with a dog, a border collie named Moo-Moo.

Is Oberlin the same school that you attended in the 1970s?
That’s a hard question to answer. In many respects, it is the same. Oberlin attracts the same kinds of students today as it did then. The College has a strong culture that attracts independent thinkers and artists and extraordinary musicians. One of the things I like about the campus is that in many respects, it still looks like it did when I was a student. Obviously, there have been changes: a new science building and an environmental studies center; new majors, such as jazz and environmental studies; a much larger curriculum; and a more diverse student body as our country has become more diverse.

Finally, what inspired you to become reinvolved with the College?
Oberlin played an enormous role in my becoming the person I am today, in terms of my values and in the way I approach problems. I think that most people who go to Oberlin feel passionately about it. It has been gratifying for me to have the opportunity to make a difference in the life of the College that has meant so much to me. As a trustee, I’ve come to appreciate how important it is for me and for all our alumni to support Oberlin, in whatever way we can, to make sure that students today and in the future can benefit from an Oberlin education, just as we did.

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