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.

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 Prager 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.

"She wants to see Oberlin values carried forward in the most progressive ways," Associate Professor of History Carol 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 second 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."

S. Fred Starr

In 1983 Starr, also a clarinetist, arrived at Oberlin accompanied by the sounds of his Dixie Land Preservation Jazz Band, which played at his inauguration while students danced joyously through Tappan Square. An internationally renowned scholar noted by those who met him for a stunning intellect, Starr's primary emphasis as president was academic excellence. He was not interested in portraying Oberlin as a socially progressive institution, and embarked on a doomed mission to transform Oberlin into a prestigious eastern university. Students gradually became disenchanted with Starr's maneuvers and frequently protested them.

Danforth Professor of History Geoffrey Blodgett said he remembers the first time anti-Starr graffitti appeared on the walls of A-Level. Blodgett swiped the sheets and stored them in his personal archives.

Bonner Scholars Program Director Mark Blackman, OC'89, recalled the uproar that resulted when the Co-op Bookstore began selling t-shirts which proudly proclaimed: "Harvard: the Oberlin of the East." Blackman said nobody knew if Starr was directly responsible for the shirts, but at that point was so unpopular, students blamed him.

"Fred made some really weird comments," Chris Baymiller, assistant director of the Student Union, said. "There was no question he was trying to redesign Oberlin. He didn't want the college photographer to take any pictures of people playing banjos or wearing bib overalls."

Former Class Trustee Gail Drakes OC '94 said, "Students were personally offended with the idea that what they were about wasn't respected."

Africana Community Coordinator Carmen Mitchell, OC '95, recalled the efforts she and other low-income students made to schedule a meeting with Starr to discuss financial aid concerns. Though his secretary said Starr was unavailable, the students saw his door open as they were leaving. "Dye's very student oriented," Mitchell said. "That's not to say she's perfect. Unfortunately Oberlin is a business and it has to be run like a business. Things the College has to do may not agree with everyone on campus."

As for Starr, Mitchell said, "Personally, I was terrified of Fred Starr."

Whitaker said, "My theory is that Fred really wants to be president of Princeton or Yale. Since he didn't get that, he tried his damndest to turn Oberlin into Princeton or Yale."

If Starr was trying to sell Oberlin as a substitute for Princeton, nobody was buying. The 1987 yearbook printed an oversized picture of Starr accompanied by the caption, "Would you buy a college education from this man?"

Senior Chapin Benninghoff, who began his Oberlin career in 1992, said "He talked like a used-car salesman. There was a perma-grin on his face."

Though hostility toward Starr accumulated during his years at Oberlin, the turning point for his administration was April 13, 1990, when a protest on his lawn resulted in six student arrests. Though Starr maintained that the decision to arrest the students was made by the Oberlin Police, others, including Police Chief Robert Jones, say Starr ordered Campus Security to call the police. The incident caused so much concern the General Faculty created a committee to investigate the protest that resulted in violence.

Professor of English Robert Longsworth said, "Once people become suspicious of their leader then it's very difficult to dispel that sense and, again, what is referred to as an instinctively autocratic government and hierarchical decision making management tended to reinforce that suspicion."

Starr called it quits in 1993, never able to recover from the ill-fated protest on his lawn. He raked in a $500,000 settlement package, which outraged students and faculty.

Associate Professor of Psychology Sam Carrier, who served as provost under Starr, described Starr as "quite clear on the goals and directives he gave me. It was quite clear to me what he was trying to do."

Carrier added, "I worked with him very well. I enjoyed working with him."

Others describe Starr as difficult to work for, a micro-manager. "Orders were sort of barked down from on high," said Peter Nicholson, OC'91, acting director of public relations at the Conservatory.

According to Secretary of the College Bob Haslun, Oberlin has unwittingly erected a monument to Starr. It stands outside Wilder, successfully masquerading as a tribute to John Frederick Oberlin. "It's really a tribute to Starr," Haslun said. "He always wanted to get people to see things from another side." The monument was Starr's final contribution to Oberlin.

Hail to the Chief: Dye arrives

After the Starr regime, the Oberlin community was looking for someone different.

"Dye's virtues are in some sense a response to Starr's flaws," said Blodgett, explaining that presidents are always selected for their ability to compensate for their predecessor's inadequacies. And in 1994, Oberlin wasn't interested in hiring an autocratic leader. It also wasn't interested in hiring Dye.

Dye was one of three finalists for the presidency and the only candidate not endorsed by Student Senate. She was poorly received by attendees at a campus forum. After the forum, Dye officially withdrew her name from consideration. Several members of the Presidential Search Committee begged Dye to reconsider. She accepted the presidency, saying she hoped Oberlin could build a better relationship with the community.

Dye has not deviated from her initial message. Faculty, staff and alumni who witnessed the transition from Starr to Dye say the College is feeling much better about itself than it was five years ago. They say that this change was immediate.

"There was definitely a new atmosphere," Carmen Mitchell, said. "It was the first time in a long time students felt Oberlin might be able to live up to its progressive name."

Bopp agreed. "I think the main problem with Oberlin during Starr's years is that people felt shitty," he said.

Class Trustee Hannah Richman, OC'95, said, "I sensed a kind of renewed trust in the administration, a renewed enthusiasm, a renewed energy, at least the potential for trust. At the beginning, there was a sense that we're all in this together."

Dye devoted herself to helping the College heal after years of division. Unlike Starr, Dye was the sort of person who would sit with students for tea to talk rather than have them arrested. Like her signature dresses, Dye was a comfortable fit.

Blackman, active in campus politics, had never encountered Starr directly. "I never met him. He didn't have dinners at his house like Nancy."

"I used to dread graduation," Volk said. "But Dye's first year, there were rocks painted with the words 'We love you President Dye.' She was a success."

Dye's success didn't come easy. Keeping a friendly demeanor took its toll.

"She was almost too accessible," Alberts said. "It really ran her ragged. She was tired."

Dye's toughest battle her first year concerned labor relations. Service workers were toiling under a contract the College had imposed in 1993. Starr instituted an unpopular system known as performance management, which required service staff to produce an enormous amount of paperwork and was widely viewed as an insult to workers' competence. Dye, a labor historian, was greeted by a union on the verge of strike.

The end of performance management

Eugene Zsigray was a custodian through the Starr years. Zsigray, a member of the UAW, was vocal in his contempt of performance management. Until Dye arrived, he found nobody willing to listen.

"I remember Fred Starr would say, 'I'll meet you in three months,' and he'd meet you in three years. Fred Starr, he didn't give a hoot. He only cared about money."

"Nancy Dye's been good by us," said Chuck Springer, another UAW member picking lilacs with Zsigray.

Zsigray said, "You walk down the sidewalk, and she'll say hello and call you by name."

"We do wear name tags," Springer added.

Dye eliminated performance management in 1995. Shortly after, a strike date was announced and a settlement reached.

"She had a really tense labor management relations problem," Perlik said. "She showed great leadership and understanding. That was a very good accomplishment in her first year."

Director of Human Resources Ruth Spencer said, "Labor issues are now good, but it's something you have to work on everyday."

Dye addresses structural deficit

The next major hurdle of Dye's presidency was the structural deficit. In her second year she was responsible for trimming $3.2 million from the operating budget. To do this, Dye cut 40 positions and laid off 20 employees.

At the end of the packed General Faculty meeting where Dye and new Vice President for Finance Andy Evans announced the plan for eliminating the structural deficit, the faculty responded with a standing ovation.

Professor of History Marcia Colish said, "For the first time in 11 years we felt as if someone was telling us the truth."

"Dye's very good at firing people without being hostile," Colish said, adding that the result of this process was a "leaner and meaner and better" College staff.

Evans said, "We really didn't have a decent budget process before Dye."

Perlik said, "Dye approached the structural deficit in a very nonconfrontational and understanding way and I think the leadership she showed in bringing that about was just startling."

Senior staff

Turnover is the inevitable result when a new leader assumes the helm. Since Dye arrived, there have been structuring changes concerning upper level administrators. Of the current senior staff, only vice president for communications Al Moran and dean of the Conservatory Karen Wolff pre-date Dye. Vice President of Operations Donna Raynsford, who has been at Oberlin since 1988, will retire this spring.

The past four years have also seen the appointment of Associate Deans of Student Life Bill Stackman and Ken Holmes, Security Director Keith James, and Director of Human Resources Ruth Spencer, among others.

Though many of these new faces have settled into their jobs, two of Dye's early appointments did not work out. Mary Ella Feinleib was forced to leave Oberlin after a semester as its dean of the college, and former dean of student life and services Charlene Cole-Newkirk was fired in October, after just over two years on the job. A search for a new dean of students will not be conducted until September at the earliest.

The top trio of Dye, Cole-Newkirk and Feinleib generated excitement at Oberlin. Starr's administration had been perceived by many as a bastion of old white men. By 1995, the matriarchy seemed to be in place. Dean of the College search committee liaison Emily Vasily, OC'97, then a sophomore, said, "It excites me to have a female dean of the College, female dean of Student Life and President. It will be interesting to see what decisions the administration will be making."

Neither dean proved workable. Although Feinleib's brief tenure is rarely discussed, Cole-Newkirk remains a controversial figure. Dye was roundly criticized for Cole-Newkirk's resignation both by students who supported Cole-Newkirk and by staff members who felt she had waited too long. Others felt Dye gave Cole-Newkirk a fair chance and acted only when it became clear things were not going to work.

"Cole was going downhill for a long time," Professor of Politics Ben Schiff said. "I can see why Dye would want to hang on for awhile."

Dye has weathered the storm remarkably well. Many attribute the problems with the new deans to bad luck.

"I'm not surprised by that," Director of Safety and Security Keith James said. "I don't know if anybody knows if Nancy dismissed Charlene or Charlene made the decision to leave. But I think for now we are up and running and doing things. I don't know if students realize we're running without a dean."

Mitchell said she believes Cole-Newkirk and the circumstances surrounding her departure have not faded from memory but remained on people's minds.

Bopp said it was tough to characterize Dye's administration. "I'm not sure she has her administration fully in place. She's had major growing pains with Feinleib and Cole. It's a significant thing she's had to overcome."

The process of Dye's finding her own senior staff is crucial to the development of her presidency. Whitaker said Starr tended to hire weak cronies, leaving no question as to who was in power. Unlike Dye, Starr did not fill his cabinet with academics.

Greg Munno, OC'95 and former Review editor, said, "People in important positions were extremely smart, but they were not necessarily college people."

Colish said, "Dye's not afraid to hire competent people. Mr. Starr liked to surround himself with semi-competents he kept terrorized."

Although the deans's resignations have prolonged the transition to a new administration, Vice-President of Finance Andy Evans thinks the current senior staff is already a team.

Evans said, "I think we've got a team characterized by goodwill and fun-loving spirit and dedicated to education. We've got our eyes on the prize."

Dye's leadership

Dye initiated the long range planning process in 1996 in order to identify Oberlin's core values. The Broad Directions document produced outlined a vision for Oberlin which many said was the result of the year long collaborative process which involved meetings and discussion amongst alumni, students, faculty and trustees.

The process offered the Oberlin community an opportunity to participate in what has quickly become Dye's unique style of leadership. Rather than stating her personal values and priorities, Dye encouraged campus groups to reach consensus. At the end of the process, Dye said the goals coincided with her own vision.

"I think I'm probably more cooperative and collaborative than many college presidents," Dye said. "It's my own style, but it's a style that's essential at this kind of institution, since it doesn't respond well to directives."

"Starr thought the best ideas came out of conflict," Lasser said.

"The process brought a lot of people together who are not normally together on standing committees of the faculty," said Professor of Organ David Boe, chair of the General Faculty Planning Committee.

Though many felt the process was successful, it also had its critics.

ĘBenninghoff dismissed the Broad Directions document as a 'collection of truisms.'

The document was presented to the General Faculty last May. Some faculty members complained they were neither allowed to question nor amend the document. Dye was accused of circumventing process and ignoring the traditionally prominent role of the faculty. Others said that many of these criticisms came from people who had not engaged themselves in the long range planning process and felt left out.

Faculty governance has arisen as an issue this semester. Questions regarding process and structure resurfaced at last week's General Faculty meeting during a discussion of faculty governance. Dye's penchant for listening has won her some enemies among those who are proponents of strong leadership.

Blodgett said though he's found agendas of General Faculty meetings to be somewhat meager since Dye's arrival, he also feels encouraged by Dye's indication that she'll bring more substantive issues to the floor for debate.

Professor of English Robert Longsworth said he does not think the discussion about governance should be viewed as a 'faculty versus the administration' issue. "I think it's an issue we as members of the faculty have perhaps grown a little lethargic in our responsibility of."

"We've let a little fat creep into our system. It would be good to get rid of that," Longsworth said.

"I don't think we're as progressive as we proclaim ourselves to be," Associate Professor of Politics Paul Dawson said. Dawson said Dye utilizes a feminine theory of leadership.

Most members of the senior staff don't think it matters Dye is Oberlin's first female president. Dye agreed. "It's a source of great personal satisfaction, since Oberlin invented co-education. I might say I'm not the kind of feminist who puts great emphasis on differences. I think there are so many individual differences among women, and among men. Those ideas tend to be restrictive."

Although some have expressed the desire for more hierarchical leadership, Evans had nothing but praise for Dye. Evans has worked for more than a dozen people, including the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe. He said, "She's one of the top two leaders I've worked for."

Dye is renowned for her charisma and personality. "She's less elitist, more homey," Blackman said.

Dye has employed a personal chef to help hold dinner parties with athletic teams, alumni, student leaders, faculty who have been granted tenure and virtually anyone who crosses her path.

Though a simple dinner party may not seem like much, Dye has managed to win affection with food. Attendees at her first faculty meeting were treated with cookies and coffee. "She understood the importance of human touches. It doesn't take much, but it makes people feel valuable," Colish said.

Others take a more negative view. Junior Dan Spalding, OSCA treasurer, said, "That fact that she's so charismatic makes talking to her seem more productive than it is. It's the sleazy that's hard to see."

The Oberlin ethos

Although Dye uses Oberlin's values to justify her policy decisions, not all of her actions have been consistent with Oberlin's ethos. Despite this, almost all feel she is