One-on-One with Dean Harry Hirsch

Harry Hirsch,
Dean of Arts and Sciences
Photo by John Seyfried

It’s been a year since political scientist Harry Hirsch traded the classrooms of Macalaster College for a position as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin:

Is Oberlin living up to your expectations?
Yes. In many ways surpassing them. I think the faculty accomplishes an amazing amount.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Getting to know the institution. Provost Al MacKay told me that when he became dean in 1984, it took him three years to feel like he really knew what was going on, even though he had been a faculty member here for many years, chaired committees, and done a great deal of administrative work.

What surprises you most about Oberlin?
Honestly, how self-referential we are. The phrase I hear most often is “the Oberlin way.” There are certainly many wonderful things about being distinctive, but there are ways in which we would benefit from paying closer attention to what our peer institutions are doing.

Is Oberlin as unique as we think it is?
Yes and no. We have a unique and proud history, of which we should always remain aware. And we have a student culture that is unusually focused on the life of the mind, and that’s wonderful and rare. At the same time, we are competing in a tough marketplace, and other institutions are catching up to us, challenging us, and becoming more like us. We need to tell the world who we are and what we do.

What has been your proudest accomplishment at Oberlin?
Surviving the transition from faculty member to administrator. The roles are completely different; the skills needed are different. Even the way you speak is different. I’m also proud of having put in place procedures for making the necessary FTE reductions. It’s never easy to cut, but I think we’re going about it in as rational of a manner as possible.

What are biggest challenges facing our professors, and how are you helping to solve them?
When the course load, class size, number of independent projects, faculty research expectations, service expectations, and sabbatical policies are all added up, the picture is of a faculty that does an enormous amount of work. I’d like to make the system more flexible, so that every faculty member can devote more time to what he/she does best.

What are you looking forward to the most this year?
Not being so new. Not having to pause every moment and ask, “OK, how does Oberlin do this?”

What do you hope to accomplish this year? Any areas of major change we might look forward to?
I’m hopeful that we can next tackle the question of faculty workload in a meaningful way.

Interviewed by Yvonne Gay Fowler

First-Year Students Join Tradition of Fighting for Change

Despite the plethora of political and cultural student organizations at Oberlin, a few first-year students noticed a glaring absence among the causes: a Sudan advocacy group.

Sudan’s history of civil unrest has received widespread media coverage, particularly of its systematic extermination of ethnically black civilians in the Darfur region. First-year students Matt Rumizen, Kehan DeSousa, Sara Skvirsky, and Joel Solow recognized the importance of raising awareness and rose to the challenge in early September by founding Students Advocating for Peace in Sudan (SAPs) in affiliation with the Students Take Action Now: Darfur (STAND) coalition, a network of more than 160 organizations.

“People feel like there’s nothing they can do—but there’s so much we can do,” says SAPs Co-chair Penina Eilberg-Schwartz ’08, who spent the fall semester volunteering at the Stanford STAND chapter. There, she fine-tuned her advocacy and organizational skills, which she now employs to help the Oberlin group remain integrated in the nationwide movement.

Soon after forming, SAPs members hit the ground running, holding events aimed at raising awareness, engaging in political advocacy, and fundraising—all of which met with positive responses from students. An outdoor screening of The Lost Boys of Sudan, a documentary about the assimilation into American culture of a small group of refugees, attracted more than 80 students.

In April, SAPs members seized the opportunity to invite Sudan advocate Samantha Power to a discussion session with international studies students. Power was on campus at the time as a College Convocation Series speaker.

Weeks later, SAPs held a benefit for the Sudan chapter of Doctors Without Borders. About 400 people attended the wildly successful Jam for Sudan, which featured on-campus bands and raised $1,123.85. On April 30, members joined other interested students at the Save Darfur rally in Washington, DC.

Raising awareness among high schoolers is a key part of next year’s campaign, as is an outreach to local church groups.

“We have to find a way to dedicate resources toward stopping the atrocities,” says member Becky Bob-Waksberg ’09. “The first step is to start paying attention. We hope that lessons learned in this project can be applied elsewhere.”


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