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Alumni Share Thoughts on Strategic Plan During Phonecast

March 11, 2015

  Photo by John Seyfried

I thoroughly enjoyed discussing our strategic planning effort with more than 5,000 alumni this past Tuesday evening as part of the first ever Oberlin College alumni phonecast. This very 21st century event has Oberlin roots that go back to Elisha Gray—the great telecommunications pioneer who studied science and later taught at Oberlin in the latter half of the 19th century. (More on Gray below.)

The phonecast, a live call-in question-and-answer session moderated by Chuck Spitulnik ’73, president of the Oberlin Alumni Association, was a great success. We called some 37,000 Oberlin alumni and connected with a total of over 5,000 at the peak.

In each of the two 45-minute sessions (one aimed at the East Coast, one at the West), Oberlinians called in to ask questions and share their ideas about current and/or future challenges they see as most important for Oberlin. We also talked about what opportunities they feel we should explore as we work to build a great future for the college and conservatory.

I took 34 questions on a wide range of topics, including diversity and inclusion; affordability and the cost of higher education; financial aid; the value of liberal arts education; helping students in the job market; jazz studies; and the importance of music and the arts. There was even a question about whether we would consider banning alcohol on campus. (This question would have baffled Gray since Oberlin was a dry town and a stronghold of the temperance movement during his lifetime!)

The phonecast technology, provided by a company based in Grinnell, Iowa, enabled us to ask participants poll questions. We wanted to know what they thought Oberlin’s highest priorities should be as we create a plan for the future that articulates a shared vision as well as specific recommendations to be implemented over the next three to five years. The priorities alumni said they favored included strengthening our academic rigor and curriculum, providing financial aid, hiring the best faculty, and attracting outstanding students.

Recordings of the two sessions will be available after March 16 on the Oberlin Strategic Plan website. The idea for the phonecast belongs to Danielle Young, executive director of the alumni association, and Bill Barlow, vice president for development and alumni affairs.

This phonecast may be a minor milestone in Oberlin history, but it was still amazing to those of us born back when rotary telephones were the norm. It is also a reminder of the great tradition of scientific research and innovation at Oberlin.

Elisha Gray came to Oberlin from Barnesville, Ohio, and studied here for a couple years. While at Oberlin, he became fascinated with electricity and its communications applications. That fascination launched his remarkable career as an inventor and entrepreneur. Gray invented a telephonic device at the same time as Alexander Graham Bell and contested Bell’s patent in court. Gray lost that case, but his telephone worked. He went on to found what became the Western Electric Company, which became an American industrial and research powerhouse. Elisha Gray returned to teach at Oberlin in the 1870s. You can read more about this piece of Oberlin history on the Oberlin Archives website.


As part of the strategic planning process, we’ve been bringing to campus some of America’s foremost experts on higher education and educational innovation. Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and executive director of its education program, will be speaking about disruptive innovation and higher education on Thursday, March 12, in the King Building, room 306.


Bryan Alexander, one of the country’s leading proponents of creative and connective technology in education, will also be on campus this week. Alexander will speak Friday, March 13, at 4:30 p.m. in Mudd 052 at the invitation of the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence.

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