Pomp and circumstances: Nancy Dye's first four years

by Sara Foss and Hanna Miller

According to Chair of the Board of Trustees William Perlik, College President Nancy Schrom Dye stands among Oberlin's greatest presidents. Or perhaps she sits. President Nancy Dye

In 1995, Dye inherited a fractured campus and an unpopular strategic planning process known as SISC. In a desperate attempt to salvage the process initiated by former President S. Frederick Starr, Dye met with students, faculty and staff.

Noah Bopp, OC '96, was one of the students invited to share concerns about SISC with Dye. He and other members of the Concerned Oberlin Student Task Force (COST) sat around the table, waiting for Dye to take her seat at the head. She never did.

"She sat on the side," Bopp said. "Fred Starr would have sat at the head of the table; Nancy comes in and sits at the middle. That's a good indication of Nancy Dye."

Dye has been sitting and listening for four years. Unlike her predecessor, noted for his autocratic and hierarchical style, Dye has established an administration marked by accessibility and openness.

According to K. Scott Alberts, OC '95, Dye's first student assistant, Dye tried to make herself accessible from day one.

"We worked on all kind of things to get her out," Alberts said. "Her first day, she set up open office hours."

And Dye didn't wait for students to come to her. She was spotted cheering at football games, sporting a tux at Drag Ball and partying with OSCA.

"She was everywhere her first year. Her second day on campus she came to a party at Bliss House," Joel Whitaker, OC '97 and former student assistant to Dye, said. "That's the reason why she's always had this reservoir of good will. She built it up by being more accessible."

Being accessible has its disadvantages. Listening takes time. Dye spends countless hours in meetings, soothing tempers and touting Oberlin's values. Almost without exception, administrators and faculty marvel at her stamina. Dye is passionately committed to creating a community, and wary of offending people.

Senior Melissa Praeger said, "I think the famous quote of Nancy Dye is 'Everything is going to be okay.' Nancy Dye has a tendency not to follow through with her promises."

Associate Dean of Students Ken Holmes said sometimes the administration sends mixed messages by canceling Dye's meetings with students when she gets busy. "Students are quick to say she doesn't care. That bothers me. She does care," Holmes said. "If she says she's going to support you she does."

Holmes remembered when Dye promised junior Theo Jennnings she'd attend his book reading at Afrikan Heritage House. Holmes warned Jennings that Dye would be busy with the Board of Trustees meeting. "I told him, 'I know she wants to come but she gets busy,'" Holmes said.

Jennings' reading began without Dye. And then, there was a loud knock at the door. Holmes said, "He looked at me and smiled to say, 'I told you she was coming.'"

Although Dye's accessibility has earned her rave reviews from students, alumni, faculty and staff, a small contingent of faculty members worry she has neglected a commitment to academic excellence and sought to circumvent the faculty governance system.

Associate Professor of History Carol Lasser maintains academic excellence was never a hallmark of Oberlin College. She believes Dye is a fine guardian of Oberlin's values.

"She wants to see Oberlin values carried forward in the most progressive ways," Lasser said, voice pitched with enthusiasm. "She embraces the heritage of this institution."

As a supporter of community service and progressivism, Dye is closer to Oberlin's first president, Charles Finney, than Starr. In some ways, she's a throwback to the last century. She sometimes exhibits a moral sense that Finney would have understood.

Professor of History Steve Volk said, "When Starr talked about Finney, he tended to present him as something of an oddball. I think he was almost embarrassed of him. He talked about him as a rabble-rouser, a pulpit shaker. In Nancy's inaugural address, she also talked about Finney. She put him in a very different light. She talked about social activism, which she tied into Finney."

President Nancy S. Dye (file photo)


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Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 23, May 1, 1998

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