Opinion | No Parties. No Sports. How Oberlin College Is Surviving the Pandemic.


[MUSIC PLAYING] (SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” Last fall, my eldest son, Louie, started college at N.Y.U. — during the pandemic. As a parent, I had a ton of questions, like how schools were making safety decisions, of course. But also, how would they justify their high price tags for what was essentially Zoom classes? Those are the questions that Carmen Twillie Ambar has been grappling with for the past year. She’s the president of Oberlin College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, well known for its music conservatory and for its progressive student body.

Welcome to Sway, Carmen.

carmen twillie ambar

Glad to be here.

kara swisher

So I want to start our conversation by going back to March of last year when —

carmen twillie ambar

Wow.

kara swisher

Sorry. Remember that? Remember March?

carmen twillie ambar

I do. I do. I remember March. It was a challenging time.

kara swisher

Yeah, absolutely. When COVID-19 first started to seriously spread across the US, during that time, my son was gearing up to start college for the upcoming fall, and we were all thinking about the safety of it. By March 12, you announced that students would not be returning back to campus after spring break, and that the remainder of the semester would be conducted online. Can you take us through that decision?

carmen twillie ambar

I remember that moment so vividly because it’s probably one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in my professional career. So, I came in on that morning. I called an emergency meeting of our two deans, dean of the conservatory and the arts and sciences, and our chief of staff. And I literally walked in — it was probably 7:30, 8:00 in the morning — and I walked in, and I said, “Hey guys, I think we’re going to have to shut this down.”

kara swisher

What had convinced you? Was it reports?

carmen twillie ambar

It was a series of things. It was the public health reports that started to demonstrate that they weren’t clear about how this virus spread. And remember, college campuses have this congregate setting framework that make it complicated to think about how you prevent the spread, and it became clearer and clearer that we did not have the ability and the knowledge to prevent a widespread outbreak on a college campus.

kara swisher

Is there something you saw that you were like, we can’t —

carmen twillie ambar

Well, I think that was shortly after the NBA announced its suspension. So that certainly was just another piece of the puzzle. We had already had on our campus — not a scare, but we are a campus that has students from all over the world. So we had started to think about this issue early on because we have a segment of our students from China. And so, they had come back in January. Some of our students from China were already wearing masks on campus, although at the time, that was not something that we knew was going to be necessary. And so it just became clearer and clearer that it would be really difficult for us to prevent a widespread outbreak.

kara swisher

And so you came in that morning —

carmen twillie ambar

I came in that morning, I said, “Guys, I think we’re going to have to shut this down.” We sent an email out to students and faculty that said that tomorrow is the last day of classes. And then saying that in two and a half days, they would all have to be off campus.

kara swisher

Wow. So were most students upset by the decision when you made this?

carmen twillie ambar

Honestly, I think that what mostly people felt was that Oberlin, the president, leadership is putting the health and public safety above everything. That is the first and primary goal, and they respected that decision. They may have disagreed with aspects of it or wished we could do it a different way, but they did respect that value and understood that that’s what we were trying to accomplish. And so I don’t remember the push back strongly. I will just say this one thing that was so difficult. So, two students came to see me as we closed down campus, and they came to see me that Friday, so the next day. They had tears in their eyes and they asked me, “Is there any other way you can do this? Do you have to close down campus?” And I said, “I don’t think there’s any other way.” And they were seniors, and so they said to me, “Remember, you get a chance to come back, but we don’t.” And that was the moment that I sort of just fast forwarded through all of the traditions, all of the athletics, commencement, that all of those things would be different, and that we were altering their college experience in the most profound way that one could possibly alter it.

kara swisher

So what did you say?

carmen twillie ambar

So I said to them that here’s what I want you to think about, that whenever you’re facing a really challenging situation, you have to look for the seed of opportunity. And this will transform you, and you have to ask, what can you learn from this transformative moment in your life.

kara swisher

I tried that with my son, you know, especially because he had senior prom, et cetera. And I was trying to be like, well, many people have it harder. That’s one way to go, which I think is sort of the guilt kind of, and it’s correct.

carmen twillie ambar

True.

kara swisher

And the other was, this is an opportunity and you can learn something here. And he said, “You know, mom? Well, here’s what I’ve learned. This sucks.” And I was like, that is accurate. That is an accurate assessment. But you also happen to be in a state where the governor actually took it seriously, versus —

carmen twillie ambar

Listen. I think that Governor DeWine has been an example of how you — from the state level — help each segment do its job well. And, you know, there were moments through this where I would say to our team, we’re alone in this. But it wasn’t because the governor wasn’t doing what he should do, but because we didn’t have a national testing framework, and some things that we really needed on the college campus. We had to be willing to find our own solution. And that’s the difference between a national strategy that everybody is a part of, and a fifty-state strategy where everyone has to sort of find their own way.

kara swisher

So going into fall semester of 2020, you decided to reopen the campus and implemented a three semester schedule for academic year. Effectively, you’re rotating students on the campus based on their year in school.

carmen twillie ambar

Yeah.

kara swisher

Can you explain that system, and how you ultimately landed on it?

carmen twillie ambar

Right so our students said to us, after health and safety as your primary goal, we want you to try to find a way for the on-campus, in-person experience to happen for as many students as possible. So for us, the three semester plan was about ensuring that for every student — because, you know, some colleges have had cohorts off, but they’ve done it fully online. Like the juniors are away, but they’re just in an online framework. Our system allows for everybody to have two semesters on campus, in person.

kara swisher

Three classes are there.

carmen twillie ambar

Right. So the fall we had seniors, first years, sophomores, juniors were away. This spring, we have first years, seniors, and juniors, and then juniors and sophomores will be here in the summer.

kara swisher

So the idea is you flip, and then September, you’re hoping to get everybody back together. Is that correct?

carmen twillie ambar

Well, as we say in the south, Lord willing the creek don’t rise.

kara swisher

The creek always rises.

carmen twillie ambar

The creek is always rising.

kara swisher

Always rising.

carmen twillie ambar

But maybe it won’t rise so much.

kara swisher

My grandma used to say that, and I was like, the creek always rises, grandma.

carmen twillie ambar

So we really need — like everyone, we need the vaccine to right to make its way to college students so we can get back to a two semester framework.

kara swisher

Is that the plan you have right now?

carmen twillie ambar

That’s what we’re working towards. We’ve applied to be a point of distribution for the vaccine so that we can effectively vaccinate our campus. We’ll have to do it in the order that the state dictates, but the goal is, if we can, to get the entire campus back, everyone vaccinated.

kara swisher

So how many Covid positive cases did you expect to encounter going into the school year? Because you have to expect that. And what did you do?

carmen twillie ambar

Gosh, when we started out, we had some of the folks say to us that we should expect 10% to 15% positivity when our students showed up. So we were planning on — oh, we might need to have 150 to 200 quarantine spots. We were really there. And when we showed up on campus that first time, and it was less than 1%, I think was something like 0.25%, we were all just elated. But I will say that our students showed up. If you walk on our campus right now, you will see everyone masked. And one of the great things that happen in our town was that the city council said to me that there was such adherence by our students that it encouraged the rest of the town to be more adhering to their mask-wearing.

kara swisher

There’s always sort of town and gown, push and pull in every major college town I’ve ever encountered. Was there a worry about that with getting infected by your students? That happened across the country, this idea.

carmen twillie ambar

Yeah, I think it was across the country, and I think Oberlin was no different. And remember, as we’re coming back to school, Oberlin doesn’t come back till late, late August and September. And so there were other colleges that were already back. There were outbreaks, decisions to close colleges down shortly after students got there. So people were watching it across the country. And so there was concern in the town about having 2,200 or so students, because we had cohort off, showing up on campus, and what that might mean for the community. That was one of the reasons why we said, to the Oberlin community and to the town, we will put the data up.

kara swisher

Oberlin is a pretty small school, for people who don’t know it. It has about 3,000 students total. How does it — when you think about your experience compared to larger schools?

carmen twillie ambar

Well, I think we were able to do some things that larger schools found more complicated. So first, we could put in a really comprehensive testing strategy. Now that helped because Oberlin has a strong endowment and a financial framework that allowed that. So we were testing 25% of our population every week. That allowed us to get a real snapshot. We could provide masks for everyone. We could put in an infrastructure that could do contact tracing. So we could put in some strategies that could help us mitigate against a widespread outbreak on campus. That was really complicated for larger institutions. I also think that the smaller community creates the kind of connection to each other that maybe it’s easier to know your neighbor and to be dedicated to not only your own health and safety, but your neighbor’s health and safety. And I think that a president of a campus for 3,000 students may have more influence and ability to encourage that collective action than it may be for a president with 20,000 students.

kara swisher

That required cancellation of sports and other campus events. So people were upset about sports cancellation. Specifically, there was a petition to bring them back. How did you answer these various things?

carmen twillie ambar

So this was all about balancing risk. And the risk in athletics, by its very nature, it asks you to do various things that the CDC would recommend you not do: be in close contact with each other —

kara swisher

Breathe on each other.

carmen twillie ambar

Breathe on each other, travel, all those things. And so what we said is, is that risk worth what it might mean to have an outbreak on campus? And what we determined was that particular risk wasn’t worth it. What we discovered over time is that we could create — I don’t like to use the word “bubble” because we know how Covid is. I knock on wood every time I say that. But we did create a framework where we didn’t have an outbreak on campus. The real challenge with athletics frankly, is the travel component, going to other campuses, engaging with other communities, and then the effort itself. So that’s what it required. And that was the only — one of the only areas where you couldn’t duplicate competition. Right? So in our conservatory, we had to make all sorts of changes too. There was no public performances, right? Here are these students here coming for this profession, they cannot perform for an audience. But we could do some things different for those students. Created a whole, sort of digital platform —

kara swisher

So people could see it?

carmen twillie ambar

They record their work. Yeah, there were things that we could do. Athletics, we couldn’t duplicate competition.

kara swisher

Right. There’s not a cello-off or something.

carmen twillie ambar

There’s not a cell-off. Although, knowing Oberlin — now that you said that, I bet you next year there will be a cello-off.

kara swisher

You know what? If I ran college campuses, there would be. There’d be a cello-off. The violinists would be—

carmen twillie ambar

You know what? But you know, that’s going to require you to name that with a donation, right? The Kara Swisher Cello-off.

kara swisher

No. No, I would make money from the ticket sales.

carmen twillie ambar

Oh, is that what we’re doing?

kara swisher

Exactly. That’s right. I’m a business-minded person. So also, partying. Same thing. You had very strict enforcement of social distancing?

carmen twillie ambar

We did. So we asked every student to sign a community agreement. And that community agreement indicated that you couldn’t have gatherings. It was pretty strict, and the first semester, in the first few weeks, we had to send about 15 students away. And so they had to be not only off-campus, but essentially, at least 50 miles away. So they went home because they violated the community agreement.

kara swisher

Do they get to come back?

carmen twillie ambar

They get to come back the next term.

kara swisher

So, you talked about the vaccine campaign program that includes vaccine distribution centers. Will you be requiring proof of vaccination in the future? How do you look at something like that?

carmen twillie ambar

Well, it’s interesting. So we did do that for the flu shot. So this year, we required all students to get the flu shot, and they had to provide proof of the flu shot. It’ll be a little bit different with the vaccine because it has emergency authorization and not complete authorization. So we’ll likely be in the strongly-encouraged framework. But we, for example, with our faculty and staff, we did a survey to ask, how many of you would be willing to get the Covid vaccine? And it was something like 85% of our faculty and staff said absolutely. And so, it just gave us confidence that our community is going to be willing to be vaccinated.

kara swisher

So do you think some of it will stick? Let’s start with the positive parts of it — the tele-education, remote learning. It does bring into question, do I need to be on a campus?

carmen twillie ambar

Yeah, I think some aspects of it will stick. Remember though, Kara, we were marching towards some of these things already in higher education, right?

kara swisher

Yes. These are accelerating trends that we’re having.

carmen twillie ambar

These are accelerating trends, accelerating trends. So we’re all now more open to what it means to be in flipped classrooms and hybrid models and online frameworks. I think that we’ve all learned a lot there. I think the other thing that will stick are conversations about our calendars and how they work, how we use our campuses in the summer. Does it mean that you can only start college at places like Oberlin in September? What does it mean to have block-type schedules, because a lot of colleges decided to truncate it so you were taking two courses over seven weeks as opposed to four courses. So I think some of those things will stick. I think that curricular-ly — so the conservatory is interesting, right? I mean, try to do orchestras and voice in a pandemic. That is hard to do. So we create these low latency classrooms so that you can be playing the field in one room and the piano player in the other room. That type of stuff is going to stick. We’re going to figure out a way to have more people experience Oberlin, even though they may be in Rome. And I think some of those things will drive innovation and creativity on college campuses in ways that will be really positive. And so what we have to do in this sector is to embrace the innovation. And I think we’ve been hesitant to do that because the truth of the matter is that colleges are some of the oldest institutions in the country. And we can be rather conservative, despite people’s views of us as liberal leaning. In terms of our desire to change ourselves, we can be really conservative.

kara swisher

I don’t think anyone’s surprised by that. I have to say, colleges —

carmen twillie ambar

Well, we’re built in a way that takes us a long time to get to a different model.

kara swisher

Speaking of that, a lot of liberal arts colleges are really struggling now. The financial strain of the pandemic has impacted the ability of students to afford education. Have you changed your tuition costs at all?

carmen twillie ambar

So we haven’t changed our tuition costs, although we have clarified how we provide need-based aid. So remember, Oberlin’s one of these places that meets full need. We happen to be blessed to be able to do that for our students. And so when you look at our sticker price, what you’re really seeing is that most students are paying between $35,000 and $40,000, not $70,000.

kara swisher

It’s $75,000 or almost $76,000.

carmen twillie ambar

Yeah, so I think that that’s really been the focus of our institution, to make sure it’s accessible. But it is an industry challenge. I think places like Oberlin have a little bit more protection because of our endowment and other things. But if you want to see gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands, get a group of college presidents together and ask them about our prices. And it just creates this instantaneous, oh my goodness. Because we know that this accessibility question is a value that most of us share. And our costs have not matched up with family income.

kara swisher

Right, but you’ve implemented some cost-saving measures during the pandemic like salary cuts, and you canceled some programs. Why is the price of tuition the same now? Is it that these costs aren’t going away or what is — if you had to explain, like a parent, like why am I paying all this?

carmen twillie ambar

Well, what I would say to parents is that what you are investing in is a high-cost model. So the model means, just like in K through 12, that you value a classroom with only 10 kids as opposed to a classroom with 30 kids. This model ensures that. You also are investing in the full student life experience. So for us, everybody was on-campus, so that value didn’t change. And the challenge for all of us is, how do we make that transformational experience more accessible to more students?

kara swisher

Well, which would be lower costs. I mean, I was just saying, people that think it’s not worth it — obviously, you’ve heard Peter Thiel go on about this. Don’t even go to college. And Scott Galloway, who’s at N.Y.U., and he’s been a vocal critic of rising tuition. He compared Harvard — I think he goes more at Harvard than you guys — but it’s a very expensive streaming service, that’s what he calls it, like Netflix. And that’s a joke of course but are you worried that remote learning. And the thought that, is this worth it, be a threat to the financial well-being of institutions like Oberlin? I mean, Harvard — you have a very large amount of money that you can rely on, but Harvard, of course, could buy and sell France at this point.

carmen twillie ambar

Well, I call those students the nation-states, right? I mean —

kara swisher

Nation-states? You do?

carmen twillie ambar

Yeah, because Harvard, Princeton, and Yale — the multibillion dollar endowments. But I would put — obviously, Oberlin’s not in that category, but I do think we’re in the category of institutions that are not as concerned about this challenge as some institutions that have really small endowment and are hugely tuition-dependent. But listen, every sector, and higher ed is no different, has to be concerned about people’s perceptions of our value and whether the investment is worth it.

kara swisher

And the return on investment. Right.

carmen twillie ambar

And the return on investment. And listen, I’ve been in higher education for 20 plus years, and I do a lot of admissions events just because I think it’s important for the president to be there. Fifteen years ago, parents were not asking us about ROI. They literally ask that question. “What’s my return on investment for this experience?” And you never got that question.

kara swisher

ROI. Yeah, never got an ROI, but now you are.

carmen twillie ambar

Never. Now you get it all the time. I mean, literally, that is a normal question at an admissions event. So parents are asking you, why is this investment worth it? Here’s what we have to demonstrate. We have to demonstrate that the academic experience is obviously worth it, what they’re getting outside the classroom. We also have to demonstrate that what their life after Oberlin is like. And are we doing a good enough job to prepare them for the variety of opportunities and experiences that they envision after Oberlin? And let me just say, it’s beyond careers, but it’s also about preparing your soul, frankly, preparing you for change, for the resilience to solve complicated issues. And that’s what happens on a liberal arts college campus. I mean, we’re about all those pieces.

kara swisher

Yeah, that’s about the priceless. Priceless! You can’t put a price on it. Which is, I think, a good argument for you to make in front of parents. But you do have parents going ROI. Where’s the— Do you need to provide them data that it’s worth the investment now? Do you find that offensive?

carmen twillie ambar

I don’t find it offensive. I mean, what I’ve said to people about this all along is that we can’t be resistant to demonstrating our value. We talk about placement and what happens to students in particular industries. It’s right for parents to ask us that question. And if we are offended by it, it’s to our peril that we’re not willing to say, here’s the value.

kara swisher

But one of the things that’s hard though, is that a lot of higher education institutions are struggling financially and had been even for Covid, as we discussed. And declining enrollment is part of that problem. Now you are a little bit of a nation-state. You have a $1.05 billion endowment. Is that correct?

carmen twillie ambar

A small nation.

kara swisher

A small nation. What nation would you be? You withdrew an estimated $31.2 million from that last year, which is what the endowment’s for. Is that your survival plan, the endowment, versus tuition and other revenue?

carmen twillie ambar

No, I just think we have the ability to be able to tap our endowment for an emergency. That’s what it’s for. But we are — colleges and institutions have a business aspect. As I say to our faculty and staff all the time, we’ve got to make our business model work. And so our revenues have to be stronger than our expenses. So for us, that’s about mainly, tuition dollars, and then also having a cost structure that matches up. And we happen to be blessed by an endowment that could help us out in this instance. But I don’t think the strongest institutions are relying on their endowment to solve operational challenges.

kara swisher

Now speaking of tuition — which you’re relying on obviously — a lot of kids don’t pay the sticker price for college except, for Kara Swisher. There’s a significant economy in financial aid, both need-based and merit-based aid, and it means many students are shopping around and buying their degrees on sale, essentially, a discount. Is merit aid a way to bring in wealthier students who other schools may be competing for? And why isn’t that money, say, right now at Oberlin for example — Oberlin’s almost 700-strong freshman class, 270 students, almost 40% of the class, were not awarded need-based aid, but got this merit-based aid, and received $17,000 on average. Why isn’t the money going to more low-income students or is the tuition just being dropped? How do you think about that, merit-based aid?

carmen twillie ambar

How I think about that. So I think it’s one of these natural tensions that I think exists in all of our sort of financial model, which is, how do you have access and opportunity, handing out financial aid to need-based students. How do you generate revenue? How do you have the revenue to provide the academic experience that all students want and that add value? But it certainly is true that we’re trying to balance our revenue and our expenditures. And merit aid is a piece of that balance. I wouldn’t describe it as out of whack, at least not here at Oberlin, but it is part of how this financial model works.

kara swisher

Would you eliminate merit-based scholarships? Is it something that — I mean, other colleges, Hamilton, Franklin and Marshall — and Franklin and Marshall’s endowment is less than yours —

carmen twillie ambar

Right.

kara swisher

to the focus more on financial aid for need-based students or do you feel like you’re serving those?

carmen twillie ambar

I think we’re serving our students well. You know, Oberlin’s history is a part of that serving. But I think our commitment to diversity and inclusion is well documented. I mean, we will be spending time in the future, thinking about, kind of through the presidential initiative that we launched after the George Floyd murder, how we do better in diversity across all ranks of the institution. And I think — remember that one of the things that’s a little bit different about Oberlin is that we’re kind of outsized in terms of number, small liberal arts college, right? So most of our peers are 1800, 1200. We happen to be close to the 3,000. That makes our model a little bit different.

kara swisher

You know, this idea of artificial constraints on supply. Why not make it bigger, either through remote learning and put your investment money there where you bring more people in? Do you see that happening? Because the idea of — colleges are proud of their rates of non-admission. It’s really quite — I’ve never seen any, like we aren’t letting anybody in, like lucky us.

carmen twillie ambar

I know. It is one of the aspects of our sector that concerns me. I jokingly said on a panel one time, it’s hard to sort of be proud of how many people you reject. I do think that as colleges imagine what the future will be — and this is part, Kara, too about what the sector ultimately looks like, meaning how many institutions make it through this Covid era, and what the demand will be. I think there will be some pressures to think about what expansion looks like. I said early on when I got here to Oberlin, doesn’t Oberlin education mean the only way they get it is to show up in Oberlin, Ohio? And so I do think it’s worth thinking about what it might mean. And I do think that Covid will force us all — if you ask me the main thing that’s come out of Covid in terms of our thinking, I think the sector is valuing flexibility, nimbleness, and innovation more than it ever has. And yet, we all value this residential experience.

kara swisher

Certainly, certainly. But I think one of the things that people like Peter Thiel and others get mileage on is the high price and the limiting factor, the sort of artificial limiting factor, where they could say, what do you need that for? And if it expanded and it didn’t cost that much, there’s a great argument for lots of — and by the way, that’s been the history of this country is people that didn’t have money get these amazing educations, especially from public universities. And so it sort of plays in their hands when you’re not innovative, and you’re too pricey, and you’re exclusive. Like not you, but colleges.

carmen twillie ambar

Yeah, but I totally understand. But the question is, can you create the value of the experience by being 30,000 people?

kara swisher

Well, maybe some get it and some don’t. Right?

carmen twillie ambar

And some get it and some don’t. So the question is, how much are you willing to play in that space where some get it and some don’t? [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, hit “subscribe.” You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed — like my conversation with economist Raj Chetty — and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Carmen Twillie Ambar after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]

I want to finish up talking about diversity and culture and how to get more diverse schools. Oberlin has a rich history of this, a rich and laudable history in this way. Let me just say, Oberlin was one of the first colleges to admit Black students. There’s a history of inclusion in that sense. But right now, less than 6% of the students on your campus are Black. What are your targets or goals for increasing diversity on your campus? And think of it in a larger sense.

carmen twillie ambar

Yeah, it is a conundrum that I think we all face around, how do we create access on our campus. You know, because they changed the federal standards and people can check “two or more,” our numbers of Black students are really more like 10%. But it’s still not enough. So I’m not saying that it’s enough. You know, this issue of access and opportunity on college campuses, particularly places like Oberlin and these selective places, is a conundrum that I think we’re all facing. And I don’t want Oberlin, I think none of us want our institutions to be a place where students show up and it doesn’t look like the world. That’s not what we want at all. So for me, this is about, how do we create a financial framework to create accessibility? How do we create a campus climate that is supportive and welcoming? And that climate is around things like, what does the staff look like? What does the faculty look like? What is the curriculum? Climate is more than just kind of a feel, but it is a sense of belonging and connection to an institution where you walk in and you feel like you’re a part of it.

kara swisher

Do you have targets and goal percentages for diversity, and what are they?

carmen twillie ambar

No, we don’t have targets right now. We don’t sort of think about it in quite that way. What we really have are efforts to try to improve some of our processes in order to ensure that diversity happens, right? So the Presidential Initiative to me, was — well, to be truthful, it was born out of pain, really, after the George Floyd murder happened. And I, honestly, to be really honest about it, I was almost not going to comment on it, as crazy as that sounds in retrospect. For people in the audience that don’t know, I’m an African-American woman. And I wasn’t going to comment on it honestly, Kara, because we were in the midst of Covid, remember that’s kind of May, we’re reshaping the campus. And we were just all exhausted. And as a Black woman, I was exhausted of these images, and just it’s like, oh my God, I cannot take another one of these. And so it was out of that anguish really, that I said, what’s Oberlin’s part in this? What role can we play in what I hope will be a nationwide effort to rethink ourselves? So out of that initiative, I’m expecting more clarity about Pell-eligible students. How can we have more diverse students on campus, both ethnically and economically? What does it mean to have a center for race and equity and diversity? You know, I think how we think about diversity in our faculty ranks is going to be important. So for us, that’s about, first of all, the kind of training and support that helps all of us not sort of bring our biases to the table, which we all have, contrary to popular belief sometimes. And then I think the next process is about, what does it mean to strengthen our work in our admissions framework? Although, we have 27% to 30% students of color on our campus. And so I’m proud of that, but the question is, can we do better?

kara swisher

Right.

carmen twillie ambar

And can we do better in areas where we have not demonstrated as strong results, where I think representation is particularly important?

kara swisher

Absolutely. Political views. Oberlin definitely has a reputation of being one of the most progressive schools in the U.S. It’s a meme at this point, the radical activist Oberlin student. But would you or are you actively trying to enroll more conservative students, for example?

carmen twillie ambar

Well, I wouldn’t describe it as sort of actively trying to recruit people from different diverse political perspectives. What I would say, it’s trying to make the climate more open and welcoming to people who have different perspectives. So when I first got to Oberlin, we focused on expanding Sustained Dialogue. So Sustained Dialogue is a program where students literally practice how to talk to people who have different perspectives, and to take these lightning rod issues and just practice it. Right? And then we expanded it to this program called Bridging the Gap, where we connect with a small Christian college to try to have our students have this experience. And I think that the truth of the matter is that we all need to practice how we listen with the purpose of understanding, not with the purpose of changing people’s minds. And the only thing I will say about college students that I think, that they’ve sort of gotten a little bit of a bad rap here. It’s not like society has done any better, right?

kara swisher

No. Indeed not.

carmen twillie ambar

And so this notion that —

kara swisher

Let’s focus on college students.

carmen twillie ambar

Let’s focus on these 18 and 19 and 20 and 21 year olds, who are in the development stages of their life and say, “Boy, you guys are getting it wrong.” OK, Congress. OK, family at Thanksgiving.

kara swisher

That is a fair point.

carmen twillie ambar

So it’s a little bit unfair. And I think this has been a hyper-focus on college students. But I will say that we are taking it head on at Oberlin. I do believe we have to send students out in the world that have an ability to hear and understand.

kara swisher

Yeah, absolutely. But, you know, it isn’t specific to Oberlin at all, by the way. And you’re absolutely correct. And there’s criticism, this idea of hotbeds of cancel culture. But at the same time, you have to worry if the colleges are reflecting the real world. Or sometimes it’s a good thing. I have big issues with this cancel culture idea. I think sometimes it used to be called accountability. For if you say offensive things and people are offended, how can you be offended that they’re offended? You know, what I mean? Like it gets into this weird thing. But in one case, at Oberlin, it turned into a pretty costly lawsuit with students accused a local bakery of racially profiling a Black student. The owners of bakery sued the school. You were initially ordered to pay $44 million because it looked like you were supporting this. It was later slashed to $25 million. I know you’re appealing the case, but how do you, in the real world, deal with these costly experiences, which might cause you to distance yourself from student activism, which is an important part of Oberlin?

carmen twillie ambar

Yeah. Well, because we’re in the midst of litigation, I can’t talk about that specific case. But I will say that this discussion that we’re having in this country about how we have conversation across difference, right? And how we do it when we have these radically different lived experiences is one of the issues of our day. We’re living it out right here, right now, through this impeachment trial and all these things that are going on nationally, right? How do we have these conversations? And I think for Oberlin, we are really committed to that space. How do we do that together? Because I don’t think we’re serving our students well if we don’t give them that skill set, we don’t give them the way to do that. And because it’s important to our democracy to, I think, what good citizenship is, to I think what it means to be a great partner, to be in your own personal sphere, our ability to hear and listen and understand and appreciate different narratives is some critical skills that I think we have to provide to our students. So it’s not about conservative or liberal, really. I mean, that’s making it too simplistic. It’s about the nuance of the different lived experiences that I think we all have in this country, and how we hear that from the other person. And we all find it difficult, frankly. Not just college students.

kara swisher

Yeah, it’s interesting when you do that. I was saying something was complex and I got like piled on Twitter. I’m like, it’s complex. I’m just not going to back off. But the pile-on of everyone had to be, it’s this person is this, was really fascinating to watch from a sociological perspective. I would love to know, as a college president, because you are sort of in the middle of all this. How do you — because you want to encourage activism, you want to encourage disagreement, really.

carmen twillie ambar

Discourse, right?

kara swisher

Discourse.

carmen twillie ambar

Public square.

kara swisher

Yes, public square. But the public square is pretty ugly at this point. It sort of degenerated in a way. So I’m going to ask you a question. Is this idea of cultural right versus left, free speech versus hate speech that’s happening across the U.S. and college campuses. And college campuses have played a big role in what should be said and what should not be said. And some things possibly shouldn’t be said, in some cases. A lot of this is due to the Trump era where the brakes came off, in this way. This is when it’s really reached the sort of strongest, loudest, noisiest, ugliest part of it. So when you’re running the college campus, what is your Trump learning about teaching students this?

carmen twillie ambar

Right, gosh. You know, it’s interesting. I mean, I think that every political sort of transition creates something on a college campus. I mean, a lot of college campuses are activist communities in interesting ways. I think what’s been interesting about the Trump era has been the discourse that decides to focus on the personal as opposed to the issue. It begins with the personal, right? It begins with “you’re stupid.” That kind of engagement that doesn’t elevate the conversation and the issue, but starts in the personal. And one of the things that I think we say on this campus is, instead of calling somebody out, how do you call somebody in? And I think that one of the challenges with social media is that it gives people license to be more vicious. And it also gives people license to think that, I’m never going to see you. I’m never going to engage with you again. I mean, one of the things I love about our Sustained Dialogue program is it’s a series of conversations with the same people, and what that means is that you don’t get a chance to be rude and walk out the door and never talk to the person again. You don’t get a chance to send them a nasty note and decide that you never have to take responsibility for how that note landed, how those words felt. So the two learnings are, let’s don’t start with the personal, and let’s remember that we’re going to have to see each other again. So let’s have a conversation that’s about colleagues as opposed to about people who never have to talk to each other ever again.

kara swisher

So after all this, do you have hope? Do you feel like you’re hopeful?

carmen twillie ambar

Oh gosh, of course. Absolutely. No, I mean, it’s my natural way of being in the world, but I also think it’s backed up by what I see on a college campus. I mean, the beautiful thing about being on a college campus is that college students, despite people’s view of them as cynics and everything sucks, they believe the world can be different. A protest, a reasonable protest, is nothing but an exercise in hope. It is a belief that the world can be different. And so on a college campus, you can’t be anything but hopeful because you see these incredible students who you know are going to go out and change the world for good.

kara swisher

I actually agree with you. Talking to young people always makes me feel better, always. I talk to my son.

carmen twillie ambar

Does it?

kara swisher

I never worry about the future, once I —

carmen twillie ambar

Yeah, you go — and that’s why when people say, oh, the world. I say to our senior staff all the time, whenever you feel kind of down or beat down by whatever it is, go out and talk to some students.

kara swisher

100%. President Ambar, thank you so much.

carmen twillie ambar

All right. Appreciate it.

kara swisher

Good luck with September.

carmen twillie ambar

Oh, gosh. It’s going to be fine.

kara swisher

Yeah, let’s hope. Let’s hope. All right, bye.

carmen twillie ambar

Thank you. I appreciate it. Nice meeting you. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of a New York Times opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Heba Elorbany, Matt Quong, and Vishakha Darbha Edited by Paula Szuchman. With original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Eric Gomez, and fact checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to subscribe to a podcast, so subscribe to this one. If you’re listening on the Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you on the same devices where you may be attending your very expensive Zoom classes, download any podcast app and search for “Sway” and hit subscribe. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.



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