This spring, the Oberlin Student Co-op Association (OSCA) will be negotiating with Oberlin College senior administrators as the College implements the AAPR’s recommendation to “eliminate [OSCA’s] $1.9 million annual negative impact on Oberlin’s budget.” OSCA will enter these negotiations at a disadvantage, lacking the results of a study designed by Membership Secretary Bhairavi Mehra and Prof. John Petersen (OC ‘88) that multiple Oberlin administrators repeatedly supported before other administrators either firmly impeded or neglected their commitments to support.
This study would have surveyed a random sample of Oberlin alumni and generated data about OSCA’s educational value, compared to other non-academic experiences at Oberlin, such as dining in Campus Dining Services (CDS) or living in the various dorms and themed housing maintained by Residential Education (ResEd). It was designed in June of 2019 and sent to OC administrators for feedback in the first three weeks of July. During this consultation period, Mehra and Petersen made moderate amendments to the survey, though it didn’t undergo dramatic changes.
Then, the day prior to its “release date,” then-interim vice president for development and alumni affairs Rachel Smith Silver stopped the survey in order to review it — blindsiding the study’s designers, who only found out days later when Mehra noticed that zero responses had been registered. Thus began a period of indefinite “stalling,” said Mehra, bringing us to the present moment, when “nothing [has come] to fruition” and the survey has still not been sent out.
This project, and sequence of events, was not divulged to the Oberlin community until a public forum held in December 2019 by OSCA. At the forum, all-OSCA staff explained that they had committed to reducing OSCA’s negative impact on OC’s finances in their negotiations. They recapitulated AAPR’s report from last May, titled “One Oberlin,” which showed that OC loses out on $1.9 million in revenue due to students living and dining in co-ops. However, as Teagan Webb, then liaison between OC and OSCA explained in the forum, AAPR only assessed OSCA’s impact on OC’s bottom line — its financial value — and failed to account for OSCA’s educational value.
“Students in OSCA learn a lot of business skills,” said Mehra, in an interview with The Spectre. “Treasurers learn budgeting skills, [and] DLECs learn communication, discussion, organization. Staff members basically run a nonprofit.” Mehra pointed out “One Oberlin” recommends the implementation of a business concentration, approved by faculty last week, “to combine core business management and financial skills with [a] liberal arts major or ‘conservatory specialization’”: however, the report does not consider that OSCA is an existing organization where students acquire these precise skills.
Following the report’s release in May 2019, Mehra and Petersen commenced designing the study, motivated by Mehra’s “conviction that, in order to cut money from an organisation, one should first evaluate said organisation.”
Mehra received a fellowship from EnviroAlums, an Affiliate Group of the Alumni Association, and began working with Prof. Petersen in her capacity as an independent student researcher, not through the resources afforded by her MemSec position. The study would consist in a voluntary survey of Oberlin alumni, and Mehra and Petersen received assurances from the Alumni Association’s former President, Danielle Young, that her organization supported their initiative and would email the survey to alumni. Mehra and Petersen also applied for, and received, an exemption from the Institutional Review Board, which oversees scientific studies involving human subjects — this meant that they were able to proceed.
This survey was initially designed to quantify the educational value of OSCA, but after further consideration and consultation with various administrators, Mehra and Petersen decided to expand its scope. They redesigned the survey to be comparative in nature, evaluating experiences with OSCA along with experiences in dorms run by Residential Education (ResEd), in theme housing, the experiences of Residential Advisors (RAs), and experiences on Campus Dining Services meal plans (CDS). “In the context of Oberlin, ResEd, and CDS,” said Mehra, the survey would “give more of a ground for our data.”
Mehra and Petersen worked on designing the survey during the month of June 2019, after which point, they initiated a three-week-long consultation process, which lasted the majority of July. Although Mehra said they “tried [their] best to have the questions not just deal with things that OSCA is good at,” she acknowledged that neither she nor Prof. Petersen had spent significant time living in ResEd or dining in CDS. Because of this, they felt that they lacked knowledge about the potential educational benefits of CDS or ResEd experiences — hence, the need to consult.
They then solicited feedback from college administrators in every relevant area: from vice president for finance and administration Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings, associate dean of students Dana Hamdan, and senior administrators in CDS and ResEd. “As much as we want this survey to be like ‘OSCA is great,’ we also wanted to have data that was honest.” In addition, they received input from OC alumni, including OSCA and non-OSCA alumni.
Mehra characterized the feedback they received as both supportive and constructive. Ms. Vazquez-Skillings, in particular, “pushed us to have it be fully comparative,” said Mehra, rather than narrowly focused on OSCA. Some feedback was solely supportive, as “a lot of people didn’t give us a lot of concerns, a lot of people thought it was solid.” The survey did undergo changes — questions that may have alarmed alumni, such as perceived implications of existential threats to OSCA, and other objectionable questions, were “removed or radically reconsidered.” Generally, because “alumni data [are] spread out across departments” at Oberlin, administrators don’t have easy access to much data. Conducting this study, they were told time and time again, would be a gift to administrators.
Mehra and Petersen also requested feedback from College vice president and dean of students Meredith Raimondo. At the time, Raimondo was busy navigating the fallout of the Gibson’s verdict, said Mehra, so “understandably” did not respond to their request.
After applying tweaks to the survey, Mehra and Petersen sent the final survey to Danielle Young for one final round of consultation with the Alumni Leadership Council, the “governing body of the Oberlin Alumni Association, empowered to undertake and regulate any action of or on behalf of the Association.”
Of the 19 responses that Mehra says they received from the Alumni Council, “all of them were really excited about the survey.” One member pointed out that the survey’s length could discourage participation, and suggested incentivizing completing it. This drove Ms. Young to create a raffle, available to survey respondents, for Oberlin “swag” (the likes of t-shirts, coffee mugs, etc.) In addition to the moral support that Mehra and Petersen received from the Council and from Young, and the financial support that Mehra received from EnviroAlums, the Alumni Association was prepared to invest in swag to support the initiative.
Then, the survey wasn’t sent out.
“It was supposed to be sent out on Monday [July 29th], and when Tuesday rolled around ... we didn't seem to have any responses,” said Mehra. “So I waited another day, got nothing, and I emailed Prof. Petersen,” alerting him to the conspicuous lack of responses.
When Prof. Petersen got in touch with the Alumni Association, he learned that Rachel Smith Silver had intervened, according to Mehra. Because the President of the Alumni Association — then Danielle Young — answers to the vice president for development and alumni affairs, Smith Silver was able to block the Alumni Association from emailing the survey until it passed her personal review.
According to Mehra, Prof. Petersen began attempting in earnest to meet with Ms. Smith Silver. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to secure a meeting, Petersen and Smith Silver finally met in early August. “From what I understand, the meeting did not go well,” said Mehra.
Ms. Smith Silver gave two reasons for quashing the survey. Her first cited precedent: the Alumni Association only surveys alumni every four years, and not at other times. To Mehra, this was not a sufficient reason: the “One Oberlin” report specifically recommended that “the College and OSCA [assess] the learning outcomes from different residential experiences” (“One Oberlin,” p. 29). This recommendation placed a clear mandate on OSCA to generate precisely the kind of data which the survey would have produced.
Additionally, the survey was only going to be sent out to a random sample of one thousand alumni — a compromise to Mehra and Petersen’s original intention, to send it to everybody they could. The Alumni Association’s every-four-years surveys are comprehensive surveys of the alumni network: in 2013, 21,000 alumni were sent surveys, everybody “for whom [the Alumni Association] had active email addresses.”
Second, Ms. Smith Silver believed that it was a bad idea to survey alumni during such a sensitive time, with respect to the then-recent decision in the Gibson’s lawsuit and the spate of bad press that Oberlin received. According to Mehra, Danielle Young believed that the opposite was true: the survey was “a way to positively engage” alumni, encouraging them to reflect on the skills and educational experiences they acquired from their time at Oberlin.
Mehra and Petersen had reached an impasse. Looking for a path forward, they got in contact with Dean Raimondo, and set up a meeting with her.
This first meeting went well for Mehra and Petersen: according to Mehra, Raimondo “seemed really enthusiastic about the survey and offered her resources into looking into what could be done.” Because Raimondo was unable to provide feedback over the summer, Mehra and Petersen sent her the survey. “She was going to send us a document with her feedback — a ‘brainstorming’ doc” where the three of them would work out alternative strategies. “A few weeks later, we hadn’t really heard back,” said Mehra.
“We [continued] contacting her and ... got late responses, or responses saying, like, ‘oh, I haven’t talked with Rachel yet, or I need to touch base with this person,’” said Mehra. “After a few more email exchanges,” and one additional meeting, “it seemed that ... [Raimondo] was under the impression that [they] didn’t need to meet anymore. She was basically like ‘there’s nothing that I can do for you’” (Ed. note: Dean Raimondo did not respond to The Spectreâ€™s request for comment).
“Throughout this process, Prof. Petersen and I were open to adding or removing a couple questions — we just really wanted this survey to go out,” said Mehra. It was crucial for the survey to be sent out using the Alumni Association’s mailing list, and not the OSCA alumni mailing list — as Mehra explained, they did not want their pool of respondents to be skewed toward OSCA alumni, which would misrepresent the diverse types of student experiences at Oberlin.
“Even though we went through this process,” designing the survey, consulting, redesigning, and coordinating with the Alumni Association and the IRB, “it just seems that ... certain players didn’t want this data to exist,” said Mehra.
Prof. Petersen echoed this sentiment at December’s forum. OSCA’s minutes quote him saying “I am so disappointed that, for political reasons, that [the sending out of the survey] was stopped. I conclude they didn’t want us to collect the [data] because it would hurt their position” — that OSCA is a liability, not a benefit, to Oberlin.
Since the forum, Rachel Silver Smith has left her interim position, and Michael Grzesiak has been named the College’s new vice president of development and alumni affairs. As such, Mr. Grzesiak now has the authority to permit, or not to permit, the Alumni Association to conduct the survey. (Ed. note: after initially agreeing to an interview, Mr. Grzesiak has not responded to multiple requests for comment. The Spectre invites both Ms. Raimondo and Mr. Grzesiak to confirm or dispute its reporting.)
Following December’s public forum, the student group Oberlin Beyond Austerity began circulating a petition titled “Demands for Increased Transparency and Accountability in the One Oberlin Implementation.” First among its demands: “Collaborate with OSCA to conduct the survey ... additionally, incorporate this data into the model selection process.”
“One of the things that’s most disheartening to me in this whole process ... is that the [project] was endeavoring to do what Oberlin supposedly asks us to do: think critically about what we’re doing and where we are,” said Mehra. Oberlin College’s mission statement reads “Oberlin aims to prepare graduates with the knowledge, skills, and perspectives essential to confront complex issues and to create change and value in the world.”
“This endeavor was funded by a group of alumni, and was an independent student project,” said Mehra. “And the institution wasn’t supportive.”