A World Without Oberlin

by Kayla Kim


[originally published May 9, 2022]


On April 26, 2022, Harvard released a 134 page report titled “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery.” The findings revealed that four Harvard presidents owned slaves, 70 enslaved people lived on campus to serve students for over 150 years, and a plethora of professors promoted race science and eugenics in the 19th and 20th century. The next day, on April 27, they announced a 100 million dollar endowment to reassess their legacy.

When I first read this news, I thought of an article written by Caleb Dunson for the Yale Daily News titled “Abolish Yale”. He spoke about an experience attending an extravagant holiday ball hosted by Yale, complete with ice sculptures and a 10 foot loaf of bread. This all occurred while homeless people froze outside in the cold. Reflecting on his experience, he said “There’s something unsettling about Yale, about the way it operates, about its very existence. And now, having sat with these uncomfortable feelings for a while, I have come to realize that Yale is a problem. To fix it, we must get rid of the University. Completely.” Dunson also talked about Yale's philosophy that only a fraction of the population are worthy of its education. While the university is fully capable of accepting more students, the acceptance rate continues to plummet in order to preserve its prestige, ranking, and exclusivity.

With this information in mind, I thought, “What about Oberlin?” Our school is very different from Harvard and Yale. The College prides itself on being the first institution of higher learning in the United States to accept women and Black students. In fact, the College and the town played a substantial role in the abolitionist movement. However, Oberlin was founded by Christian abolitionists who wanted to “train teachers and other Christian leaders for the boundless most desolate fields in the West,” per Oberlin’s website. It’s important to note that the original tribe on Oberlin’s lands, the Erie, are not mentioned. Neither Oberlin’s website or admissions guides mention that Black students were slowly being segregated on campus, as Cally White wrote about in her book, “The Segregation of Black Students at Oberlin College after Reconstruction”, or that Edmonia Lewis was forced off of campus because of the racism she experienced.

We still see inequity at Oberlin today. While the school did not release a detailed racial makeup of the Class of 2025, only 26 percent of the class were identified as ‘students of color.’ From 2018 to 2020, Black students had one of the lowest retention rates. Oberlin gained national attention in 2013 for having a ‘no trespass list’ for the College and downtown that was composed of low income and Black residents who committed ‘crimes’ like skateboarding on campus. Knowing that the median income for Oberlin families is $178,000, it’s jarring seeing rich students from New York and Los Angeles walk around pretending to be poor while the town of Oberlin’s poverty rate is about 28.1 percent. And like many college towns, it is much higher than the average poverty rate in the U.S. (11.4), mostly due to the fact that Oberlin is one of the largest landowners in the town.

Whether it’s Harvard, Yale, or Oberlin, I don’t think private colleges in the U.S. can be reformed, no matter how many buildings they rename or DEI committees they create. While Harvard is attempting to reform right now, it should be noted that their overall endowment of 53.2 billion could put an immediate end to both homelessness and hunger in this country. And yet, they’re only spending .0018% on their reform fund, an initiative that wouldn’t have ever happened without the labor of Black student activists (who aren’t even acknowledged in the acknowledgements of the report). Simply put, all colleges harm the residents of the town they are situated in. The institutions are built off of the labor of Black and Indigenous people, and continue to see students as products and investments, not as actual people. So what would the abolition of colleges look like? I don’t have all the answers, but I think it would be a world where we didn’t rely on acceptance rates for ranks of prestige, and where anyone can come to Oberlin regardless of how much they accomplished. Until that day comes, I think the best solution is to continue organizing and caring for the community, especially through mutual aid.

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