Student Senators Worry About Presidential Search
They slip in among postcards, letters and L.L. Bean catalogues. The presidential search updates are read, studied, made into origami and occasionally used as scratch paper. Some students describe them as a necessary source of news, while others toss them out unopened. Just how much do students have to say about who will be Oberlin’s next president?
The state of student involvement in the presidential selection process has been the topic of much debate recently. The difficulty lies in balancing presidential candidates’ need for privacy with the need for student involvement that is accessible and simple.
According to David Casserly, a student senator and College junior, “It would have been nice if there had been more flexibility with meeting with the student rep [Courtney Merrell, a double-degree sophomore].”
He also stated that one representative was not enough, emphasizing that these were his personal opinions and he was not authorized to speak for Senate as a whole.
Responding to questions in e-mail, Robert Lemle, chairman of the board of trustees and head of the presidential search committee, said he thought students had been significantly involved in the process.
“Students provided helpful and informative insights about the opportunities for Oberlin’s next president that the Search Committee used in establishing the presidential search profile… The student representative on the Presidential Search Committee, Courtney Merrell, has been a key member of our 11-person committee,” Lemle explained.
Student senators and others would still like to see more involvement, however.
“From what I’ve seen, student voices have been heard and incorporated throughout the search process,” said student senator and College junior Colin Koffel, in an e-mail to the Review. “Courtney Merrell has been a tremendous advocate for students and the school as a whole. Student Senate has talked often with the PSC and Robert Lemle to work on increasing student participation in the search,” Koffel said.
“We’ve been working with the committee on how to involve students as much as possible,” said Koffel. “The latest offer from the search committee is to let three more students participate on the search committee.”
Two of these students are student senators Koffel and College senior Louis Grube. The senate held interviews last week to select a third student advisor from the student body. Moni Gbadebo, a junior double-degree student, will fill this position.
According to Lemle, the search committee has also asked alumni trustee members from the Oberlin classes of 2004, 2005 and 2006 to participate. The additional students will be able to advise the committee, but will not be able to vote on the final candidate.
“These additional voices will help the Search Committee present each candidate with a better understanding of a broader range of Oberlin perspectives, while allowing us to learn more about the quality of their ‘fit’ with today’s Oberlin students,” said Lemle.
Koffel agreed, saying, “Our role is to interview these candidates, to provide information to the selection committee from our broad perspectives and to sell Oberlin to these candidates.” However, he and others have emphasized that there is still more to be done.
“It’s a great step forward, but at the same time we still need to be looking creatively at ways for students to participate,” Koffel said.
Much of the restriction of campus-wide participation in the selection is due to the necessary secrecy of the candidates’ identity.
Candidates “have their own lives” said Bob Haslun, secretary of the College, who has been involved in three Oberlin presidential searches. He explained that publicly considering a job at Oberlin might jeopardize applicants’ current positions.
“Of course the candidates need to maintain anonymity,” said Grube. “My sole recommendation — if I get only one — would be get [the candidates] on campus tomorrow.”
However, this presidential search is more secretive than the last one, in which the identity of the three finalists was revealed instead of just the one finalist, as will be the case this time around.
According to Haslun, one reason that the search committee decided not to bring three finalists to campus is that open interviews of candidates by students did not go well in the last selection process.
“Some of the questions were just awful, not because they shouldn’t have been asked but because candidates were unprepared [for the experience],” said Haslun, explaining that current College President Nancy Dye “pleaded with them not to put the next round of candidates in that position…last time when we ended the visit with an awful experience it was such a potential turnoff to the three candidates.”
However, Haslun emphasized that if students do not like the final candidate when he or she arrives on campus, the committee will listen.
“If there [is] a general anti-reaction, [committee members will] revisit the whole issue,” he said.
Oberlin Student Senate hosted one such forum on Monday evening at West Lecture Hall. Senators facilitated dialogue with the dozen students in attendance, bringing up issues such as funding for Spring Break trips and optimism for the increase in communication between the president and the student body.
Erik Inglis, an art history professor and member of the search committee, assured students at the forum that the committee was looking for a president who would reflect the concerns and identity of the student body.
“Oberlin needs someone who can articulate Oberlin’s mission…someone who can stand up and make the school feel really good about itself,” he said. “Someone who sees Oberlin students as an asset to the College.”
Some students have complained that the students are not being given enough information to take any action.
“They’re not really being that open to students…They’re spending a lot of time giving us lots of literature that doesn’t actually tell us anything at all,” said Collin Anderson, a College sophomore who attended the forum. “It’s disappointing to students who are actually interested in the process.”
Oberlin’s presidential search is progressing very similarly to those at other colleges, including Colorado College and Wellesley College: A Presidential Search Committee was formed, consisting of a faculty member, a student nominated by the Student Senate and members of the board of trustees.
Working with Tom Courtice of Academic Search, Inc., the committee used student input from forums to create a detailed description of the school and what it needs in a president. This committee then reviewed applications and has been narrowing down the field of candidates.
Beth Brooks, an administrator who served as an ex-officio member of the presidential search committee at Colorado College, said the committee at her school got a lot of input from open forums. The CC search committee was comprised of several trustees, members of the faculty and two students.
“We tried to call out opinions from everyone from students to faculty and staff…those who did take advantage of the opportunity to be involved were very excited about it,” said Brooks.
Right now, the focus is selling candidates to Oberlin and Oberlin to candidates, and to do that, “we want to soak up your minds,” Koffel told students. “We really want to get the best picture we can for the candidates.”