Nancy Dye's Presidency
by Mike McIntyre

Oberlin’s 13th president didn’t ride into town wearing a white hat, although one does get that impression. The College was floundering, say some Oberlin loyalists, when Nancy Schrom Dye was plucked in 1994 from Vassar to guide Oberlin back to its rightful place as a paragon of academics, arts, and social engagement. A college president wears many hats, which in Dye’s case includes those of historian, teacher, scholar, administrator, and—given that she is the College’s first woman president—pioneer. But it’s a hardhat that Dye deserves the most because she is, above all, a builder.

On average, college presidents serve an institution for seven years—consistent with the average tenure of Oberlin’s previous four leaders. Dye is midway through year eight (she was awarded a five-year contract extension in 1998) and in that time has worked to build consensus and confidence on campus while shoring up a sense of respect and reputation beyond Ohio, where the College is continually applauded for its emphasis on academic seriousness, social engagement, and artistic excellence. She’s presided over a construction boom on campus—Peters Hall and the Allen Memorial Art Museum have undergone a combined $8 million in renovations—and she has overseen two of the College’s most ambitious building projects to date—the nationally acclaimed Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies and a 200,000-square-foot addition/expansion of classrooms and labs for the sciences. Plans also call for additional Conservatory and studio art space, a new student black box theater, and renovations to residence halls. Dye herself was named one of “The Year’s Most Interesting People” by Cleveland Magazine and a “Woman of Achievement” by the YWCA of Greater Cleveland.

To build something, be it a cutting-edge laboratory or a revitalized faculty, is a work in progress. And if a new round of media accolades is any indicator, Oberlin’s foundation is sound. The New York Times last year labeled Oberlin a “thriving” elite liberal arts college. This year’s Kaplan/Newsweek college guide lists Oberlin as one of nine “hot” schools of 2002. Mother Jones places the College among its top 10 activist schools of 2001, and Wired magazine ranks Oberlin the fifth most-wired campus in the United States. The College is ranked in the top 25 best liberal arts colleges for Asian Americans by a Magazine and 11th among the best colleges and universities for African Americans by Black Enterprise magazine. The list goes on.

Hard numbers, however, tell the story best. More prospective students submitted applications in 2001 then ever before, allowing the College to be particularly selective in forming its freshman class. Just 39 percent of Arts and Sciences applicants were admitted last fall, compared to 72 percent prior to Dye’s arrival in 1994. The yield rate—admitted students who actually enroll for classes—was a healthy 35 percent, up 9 percent from 1994.

The Conservatory yields another success. A very selective 27 percent of nearly 1,000 applicants were admitted to the Class of 2005. Fifty percent of those students began classes last fall—a terrific yield—and a record 57 students matriculated in Oberlin’s double-degree program.

And fundraising—aided by a greater sense of alumni confidence—is robust. Two of the last three years saw the highest-ever levels of alumni giving, with pledges and gifts totaling more than $36 million in 1998-99 and again in 1999-00. Just halfway through its capital campaign, Oberlin has raised $119.2 million—almost three-fourths of its $165 million goal. The most ambitious in the institution’s history, the campaign will fund much of the new construction while also targeting scholarships, faculty salaries, and specific academic programs.

Recruitment and fundraising numbers are among the vital signs of any college’s health, rather like a constantly monitored cholesterol count. But there are other signs that Oberlin is thriving. There is a skip in the institution’s step, a rosy complexion even on the grayest Ohio days. In short, Oberlin is feeling like its old self again.

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