The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary May 5, 2007

The Right Stuff: Students and the Presidential Search

Students like to whine about things. Obies, in particular, have a knack for complaining. Indeed, I have heard Oberlin students gripe about the dining halls, the residence halls, course schedules, professors, fire alarms, smoking rules and so on. The barrage of protests can seem endless at times, and listening to them all is overwhelming.

Some of these complaints, to be sure, are well-founded. But many are not. Too often students air grievances that are either childish or misplaced — or both. The current search for Oberlin’s next president is a case in point.

Complaints about the search process can be heard all over campus these days. They have choked recent issues of this newspaper. In one opinion piece (“The Search for College Honesty,” April 27, 2007), the editors decried a “cycle of lies, mistrust and secrecy” and called the decision to bring only one finalist to campus “misguided.” Another article (“Student Senators Worry About Presidential Search,” April 20, 2007) reported the misgivings of student senator David Casserly, who asserted that placing a single student member on the Presidential Search Committee was “not enough.” In the same article, another student protested that the PSC is “not really being that open to students.”

Yes, Obies are upset about this. As far as I can tell, most students agree on two things: that we have not adequately been included in the search process and that more student involvement could only be a good thing.

The idea that students should be involved in the search process just as other stakeholders are involved comes, I suspect, from a sort of non-hierarchical view of the world. That is, the plaintiffs here want to regard everyone — trustees, administrators, faculty members and students — as equal in all respects. But there is a problem: we are not equal on some registers, and there is a certain hierarchy without which Oberlin could not function.

The trustees, for example, have a greater stake in the College and its welfare than does the typical student, who spends only four years here. Similarly, the faculty and administrators, by virtue of their experience, generally have a better sense of what makes a good president than does the typical student. Why then, should we expect these constituencies to be represented equally in the search process? Why should we expect students to have any influence whatsoever?

The crucial fact that my classmates overlook is this: Oberlin College is run by a Board of Trustees and a small army of administrators. It is not run by students — and with good reason. We are preoccupied with our studies, and we have neither the time nor the expertise to oversee the workings of the College. Managers? No, we are more like&hellip;gulp&hellip;customers: we consume the educational product offered by the College. And so we flatter ourselves when we claim entitlements to consultation with regard to College management decisions, or to veto power over the choice of Oberlin’s next president, as a handful of students would like. Mere students are entitled to no such benefits, and the trustees would have been in the right had they chosen to exclude students like you and me from the PSC altogether.

In fact, the PSC has been more than generous. One student serves as a regular voting member of that committee, and the entire student body will have a chance to meet the PSC’s designated finalist before that person takes office.

When Review writers recently asked the Secretary of the College, Bob Haslun, what assurances students can have that they will exercise any greater influence than this (“Secrecy Surrounds Presidential Search,” April 27, 2007), he rightly responded, “None.” Mr. Haslun deserves credit for telling it like it is. Few of his colleagues have the good sense to be blunt with this sanctimonious student body. And almost none will assert what is patently obvious: we students don’t run the show — and that’s exactly how it ought to be.


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