Oberlin College students protest commencement speaker

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  • Protesters disrupted the keynote speaker’s address during commencement on Tappan Square in Oberlin on May 27.

    Thomas Fetcenko / Chronicle

OBERLIN — During the Oberlin College commencement speech led by Lisa Jackson, vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives at Apple Inc., a group of students marched silently through the aisles with large canvas signs.

The signs had words criticizing the college and Apple, calling them “unsustainable.” Jackson continued her speech as some of the audience cheered as the signs passed in view.

The group identified itself as Oberlin Beyond Austerity, a student umbrella organization comprised of Students for a Free Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Student Labor Action Coalition and Students for Energy Justice.

Three of the organization’s members, junior Matt Kinsella-Walsh, junior Alex Chuang and junior Elsa Schlensker, took responsibility for helping organize the protest. The three said the action was a way to show the link between Apple and the college, which they claimed have been mistreating workers. The overall message was a warning to the administration that many active and vocal students will not accept potential future changes to the college, and the disapproval of having a corporation representative address the students.

“If you continue down this route, if you marginalize and harm those who you have quite literally stripped of a voice within this process, we are mobilizing as students, as alumni, as faculty to (do something about it),” Kinsella-Walsh said.

He referred to the current and ongoing budget cuts to the college that have created concerns among students. The college had a projected deficit of about $5 million for fiscal year 2018, according to a letter from President Carmen Twillie Ambar, Board of Trustees Chair Chris Canavan and Vice Chair Chesley Maddox-Dorsey last year. If the budget was not addressed, the deficit would have grown to $9 million, the letter said.

Oberlin Beyond Austerity was founded in March from the reaction to the college’s decision of the Academic and Administrative Program Review. The AAPR is a group of 31 faculty, staff, students, trustees and alumni, which launched in 2018 to make recommendations to help fix the college’s growing deficit.

The AAPR Steering Committee also posted their final draft of a fiscal report to President Carmen Twillie Ambar on May 17. Staff and compensation reductions began last year, including salary freezes for faculty and administrative and professional staff, and are expected to continue, according to the report. Multiple faculty positions selected by the college’s Board of Trustees were terminated in the summer 2018 due to budget cuts.

The equivalent of 25 full-time faculty positions will be eliminated by the fiscal year of 2024 through attrition, as well as reducing faculty positions. The committee also plans to cut the allotted hours worked for faculty positions, which could potentially affect as many as 40 active employees.

“Cutting through attrition does not mean that all faculty hiring or replacement will end,” the report read. “Similarly, the normal channels of faculty hiring and alignment will allow reallocation of replacement positions as needed.”

The report, however ,did say the college “can’t cut its way to excellence” and must find new ways to increase revenue to reduce its deficit. Some of the ways to increase revenue would be through increasing student enrollment and student retention.

“The Steering Committee takes seriously the disruption that large-scale change can bring to individuals and does not offer such ideas lightly,” the report said. “The Committee also recognizes the greater pain and disruption that would occur, both to individuals and the institution, if Oberlin does not make substantive and tough choices now.”

Scott Wargo, director of media relations for Oberlin College, declined to speak about the protest.

Contact Bruce Walton at 329-7123 or bwalton@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Facebook @BWalton440 or Twitter @BruceWalton.

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