(Photo: Yeobie the Squirrel enjoying a burning ice sculpture, an icon of the school's wonderful usage of money during the "Winter Oberland" spectacle.)
Oberlin’s new motto should be: “keep the savings, pass on the sacrifices.” This, at least, appears to be the line taken by President Ambar, as evidenced in her recent interview with the New York Times; a rosy portrayal which glosses over the serious hardships taken on by students, staff, and faculty in a dismal year.
Though Oberlin may be able to paint itself as a shining beacon of light in an abyssal year, it does not show in their actual actions. Chief amongst these considerations has been a complete absence of any effort to make school fiscally accessible for the countless students who have been viscerally affected by the results of a year of lockdowns, illnesses, and deaths.
Oberlin has not made any attempt to lower their tuition for current students during the whole of the pandemic. In a year which has seen the worst job losses and employment since the Great Depression, it is almost a surety that the families supporting our students have been affected. This is to say nothing of the students themselves, who are dependent upon employment on campus or elsewhere to afford their tuition (frequently in addition to predatory loans). It is unconscionable that the school has not attempted to alleviate this matter whatsoever.
So obvious was the matter of fiscal accessibility that even in an often politically negligent publication such as the New York Times, President Ambar’s interviewer pressed her as to why no attempt was made by the school to change their tuition rates.
Ambar coldly says in response to this question that one is "investing in is a high-cost model […] [a] full student life experience. […] everybody was on-campus, so that value didn’t change." No further explanation is given.
First, we should remind ourselves that students are not solely driven by the cold calculations of rate of interest on their education. Many, on scholarship or on work grant, cannot choose to skip a year due to the conditions of their funding. Others might face a return to unsafe living circumstances if they choose to forego a year of their education. Many might lack reliable internet or technology at home to make remote learning possible. For many, the choice to return to campus does not reflect the cold economic calculus which Ambar offers – there is no choice at all.
Second, we must remember that in a great many ways, the quality of the education itself has fallen drastically. Even Ambar herself concedes that earlier in the school that "we were altering their college experience in the most profound way that one could possibly alter it." Even though most students have remained "on-campus", they remain so only in the most nominal way: the vast majority of classes are still conducted digitally. Learning outcomes from digital education often fall far short of the standard of in-person education, from the combination of factors including a work/life imbalance, the stress placed on professors to make the transition digitally with little help, and the general malaise from continued quarantine measures. Students may have been able to attend lectures and complete assignments, but were often unable to actually participate in class discussions, socialize with any of their colleagues, or utilize the school’s on campus resources which are a critical component of students’ massive investments as well as their mental-health and general well-being. Hardly the "full student life experience" which Ambar claims has been held up throughout the pandemic.
Conservatory classes have suffered especially. The artistic development, as well as the simple emotional connection that comes with collaboration is all but lost, and conference call technology can’t bring that back. While President Ambar remains hopeful about the development of real-time rooms or other remote collaboration options, the actual use of these softwares is frustrating, fraught with technological errors, and overall, demoralizing for musicians hoping to make a career out of their art.
We realize, of course, that for reasons of health and safety, the school could not have afforded to return fully to the normal model of education. But this makes the whole situation even more insulting. Administrators across the nation knew that a return to campus would result in the infection of students by a potentially life-threatening disease, but continued to open so as to continue taking students’ tuition. To claim that the potentially life-risking activity of an "on campus experience" was taken by students purely only the wish to "buy into an experience" is shockingly out of touch. For many there was no choice of opting-in or opting-out of an "experience" whatsoever due to their circumstances. To offer no extended relief to those who had to continue out of necessity is unconscionable.
The problem of tuition relief, however, raises the larger question for the school throughout the pandemic: who is going to fit the bill for the inevitable economic losses? The students, the staff, the faculty, or perhaps finally – the school?
In a bizarre assertion late in the interview, Ambar claims that “we have the ability to be able to tap our endowment for an emergency.” And yet, despite the most clear and present sign of an emergency in the past century, the endowment remains barely tapped. The school reportedly withdrew $70 million from the endowment this year, almost twice as much as its expected annual withdrawal of $40 million. While this figure looks large, it becomes paltry in the face of the fact that the school earned a fine $63 million between June and November 2020 from gains on the stock market during the pandemic. If this is the best we can do with the endowment for a once-in-a-century natural disaster, what exactly might a real "emergency" look like?
The best Oberlin could do in terms of offering fiscal relief for this year was a temporary period of $10,000 grants to student applicants for Fall 2021. But obviously, but this does not extend to all of the current students who have been deeply affected by the pandemic. Given changes in administration at Oberlin, so far all of which have been aimed at a regime of fiscal austerity, it is all but certain that the college could have done more.
In addition, tapping the endowment could have done more than just alleviated the sufferings of students who have taken up further debt to keep the student afloat - it could’ve also helped those laid off by the union-busting practices of the school during 2020. The cost to have kept the UAW workers on employed or on temporary furlough would have amounted to approximately $2 million a year, according to fiscal reports made by the school itself. A mere fragment of the money the school’s investment funds made during the stock market killings of the past year.
At the end of the day, we know the costs will undoubtedly be passed on to us, and those we hold in solidarity amongst the critical workers of the school. As with the rest of the ironies of the pandemic, we have learned that those truly most "essential" to any institution are viewed as little more than expendable in the end. We must remain vigilant and continue to hold the administration accountable for their negligence during the pandemic.