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Do Oberlin Commencement Speakers Represent A Shift in its Values?

by Fionna Farrell

Staff Writer

art by Eva Sturm-Gross

[originally published May 20, 2022]


Historically lauded (or ridiculed, depending who you ask) as one of the most liberal colleges in America, Oberlin has accrued quite the roster of notable commencement speakers over the years. Perhaps the one caveat being you might not recognize all of their names at first glance.

There are the “big four” that might jump out at you as you scroll through the pages-long list: Woodrow Wilson, Maya Angelou, MLK, and, for fun, David Sedaris (maybe you’ve even heard of Florynce R. Kennedy or Harvey Gallagher Cox…). But beyond those few historical iconoclasts, who actually constitutes the majority of Oberlin's commencement speakers? Who does our school invite to send its graduates off into the world, with a vision of its values still fresh in mind?

It is no surprise, as the college was founded by a Presbyterian minister and a missionary, that the first handful of Oberlin’s commencement speakers were also theologians and ministers of various sorts. This goes for Oberlin’s first ever speaker, Frank Gaunsaulus, who was a pastor at the prominent Plymouth Church in Chicago. Many of these early speakers, though, were known as much for their social advocacy as they were for their religiosity. Take Lyman Abbott, for instance, who served as editor-in-chief of The Outlet, a liberal periodical that chronicled the urgent need for various social reforms. Almost all of Oberlin’s early speakers, in this regard, were by some means attached to the inchoate seeds of progressivism that were beginning to bloom across the country—both socially, politically, and spiritually.

As Oberlin began to establish something of a name for itself, though, its speakers seemed to adopt a different nature leading into the 1930s. As opposed to theologians, ministers, and philosophers, the school welcomed decidedly more public—which, in many cases, meant more bureaucratic—figures to its podium. Maybe it all started after Robert Frost came in 1937 (I always knew he was up to something). 1938’s speaker was Alan Valentine, a Marshall Plan official under the Truman administration, and 1938 saw James McConaughy, former governor of Connecticut, make an appearance. It seemed that many more university presidents—and people who had worked with the actual president—were being ushered in.

When the world itself was changing, this did not mean that Oberlin had to change its values—far from it. Leading into the 1950s and 60s, Oberlin hosted an array of speakers who, if themselves established, railed against the injustices of the establishment. Yes, this obviously included figures like MLK, who spoke in 1965, but also myriad lesser-known figures equally involved in the civil rights and other adjacent movements. As early as 1949, Oberlin invited Ralph Johnson Bunche, the first African American Nobel Peace Prize winner and key founder of the UN, to speak at commencement. Some other notable activists who spoke during this period include Roy Wilkins, Richard G. Hatcher, and Pete Seeger—who you may have heard of.

Comparing these speakers from the past to Oberlin’s current round of commencement speakers might cause one to grimace slightly. It would appear that, over the past decade or so, we have traded truly progressive, if established, voices for those less exciting ones of the corporate milieu. As stated earlier, simply because a name is “established” does not mean it is automatically a slave of the evil neoliberal machine. However, have Oberlin’s speakers over the past handful of years really had something to say? Like their predecessors, have they put their words into action? Perhaps most critically, do their voices and presence align with Oberlin’s values or undermine them?

Maybe there are two different answers to that question. Oberlin would never invite anyone who might incite a small or large uprising among students—i.e. we will usually invite someone who at the very least says they are liberal. However, while in the past, this entailed civil rights legislators and open-spirited activists, now it means Apple executives and Foundation presidents. Here I allude to Lisa Jackson and Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, both of whom have spoken at commencement within the past five years. It certainly feels ironic when an executive at one of the largest corporations in the world reminds Oberlin students to “stay woke”—I only wish that I were paraphrasing. Ms. Jackson surmised that “staying woke” is “what we still need from you, Oberlin.”

Who is this elusive “we”? The entire rest of the world? That certainly seems like a heavy weight to put on a bunch of 22-year-old’s shoulders. Whereas, in the distant past, it was real leaders who invoked Oberlin students to join them, Oberlin students have now taken on the role of “leader.” It can’t help but feel a little condescending—-like Oberlin is inherently separate from the rest of the world, and no more than an amalgamation of its stereotyped “wokeness.” More often is Oberlin now being called out, as a singular, autonomous entity, than called in to join the efforts of others. Collective, universalized efforts upon which the very name and spirit of the school was built.

What does this mean or signify about how Oberlin has changed? Has the school entirely lost the spirit of radicality that once existed at its core? I don’t want to come out and say that this has to be the case. If there’s anyone who’s still fighting, it's the students. So long as we are cognizant of and actively try to reintegrate positive change into every sphere of Oberlin, then I do think the “original” spirit of Oberlin will always exist in some way. That certainly amounts to more than nothing. However, it’s undeniable that the institution, in itself, is not moving in the direction that we’d hoped. Oberlin’s new era of commencement speakers seems to serve as a microcosm of this. Which foundation executive or Board of Trustees member will we be hearing from next year? As for closing out 2022, the graduating class will be hearing from Joshua Angrist, an Oberlin alum and MIT economist—-who also is head of MIT’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative and researches the relationship between human capital and income inequality. No one ever said that these speakers necessarily have the wrong ideas. They just might not be putting them out there in the right places.

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