Charles Hillinger’s America : Oberlin: Little College That Could

Times Staff Writer

Ever since its founding in 1833, Oberlin College has been a pace setter. It began as this nation’s first co-educational college and two years later became one of the first colleges to admit black students.

“Oberlin was founded by people who had no doubt whatsoever they could improve the world,” said S. Frederick Starr, 49, the school’s 12th president. “They had a simple optimism about the human potential for good that has been passed from one generation to the next.”

Throughout its 156-year history, Oberlin has been a giant in the academic world. A survey of college presidents in U.S. News and World Report listed it among the five top liberal arts colleges in the nation, as well as first in its science program.


A higher percentage of Oberlin graduates have gone on to earn doctorates since 1920 than from any other college. And at the internationally renowned Oberlin Conservatory of Music, fully 70% of the graduates become professional musicians or music teachers.

The school also claims three Nobel laureates: Robert Millikan, class of 1891, for physics, and Robert Sperry, class of 1935, and Stanley Cohen, class of ’45, both for medicine. Charles M. Hall was 22 years old when, less than eight months after graduating, he devised a way for producing pure aluminum from bauxite. The process ushered in a new industrial era--the age of aluminum.

“How Oberlin accomplishes all that it does with fairly modest resources is a perpetual magic show,” Starr said. “I feel I’m the luckiest person alive to be president of this great institution.”

A small school in a small town 40 miles southwest of Cleveland, Oberlin has been a beacon for social justice.

During the 1840s and 1850s, the school was one of the main stops on the Underground Railroad helping slaves resettle in the North or escape to Canada.

John Mercer Langston was one of the slaves who sought refuge in Oberlin. He graduated from the college in 1849, became dean of law at Harvard University and a member of Congress from Virginia. Mary Jane Patterson, an Oberlin student in 1862, became the first American black woman to earn a bachelor’s degree.

By the turn of the century, one-third of all black students to graduate from predominantly white schools were Oberlin alumni.

Oberlin’s student body--2,300 in arts and science and 500 at its Conservatory of Music--is one of the most representative of any small college.

This year, 34% of the students are from the mid-Atlantic, 26% from the Midwest, 13% from New England, 11% from the Far West (California, with 159 students, accounts for 5.6%), 9% from the South, 3% from the Southwest and 4% from 26 foreign countries.

“Because of this diverse student body, the campus is alive with different points of view and the students learn a great deal from one another,” said Douglass Gardner, 54, dean of enrollment and planning.

Oberlin’s library is rated as unexcelled among colleges, as is the school’s 62-year-old Allen Memorial Art Museum with its Picassos, Rembrandts, Rodins, Renoirs, Monets, Cezannes and other masters. Only Harvard and Yale have better collections, say school administrators.

Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music, the country’s first when it was established in 1865, is the only conservatory devoted entirely to education of musicians at the undergraduate level.

Its instrument collection includes 171 Steinway grand pianos, the most housed under any one roof.

David Zinman, class of ’58, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is a graduate. So are nine members of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Other graduates can be found in 60 major orchestras and more than 40 major opera companies throughout the world.

Nancy Coade, 19, a music major from San Diego, is following in the footsteps of her two older sisters, Sarah, 22, and Caroline, 21, who both graduated from the conservatory.

“This is really a good music school,” Nancy said. “Once my sister Sarah came here, I knew this is where I wanted to be. Actually, I’d never heard of it before (Sarah attended). Not many people on the West Coast have heard of or know much about Oberlin.”

Well-known composers, conductors and performers make up the faculty--musicians the caliber of Alice Chalifourx, 80, known as the “Grand Dame of the Harp,” who was the principal harpist for the Cleveland Orchestra for 43 years before retiring. She has been teaching at Oberlin 17 years. On average, there is one professor for every music student.

Oberlin’s President Starr fits the school’s uncommon profile remarkably well. A renowned scholar on U.S.-Soviet relations--he’s written or edited 11 books on the Soviet Union--Starr is also an outstanding jazz musician.

Late last year Starr spent three weeks in the Soviet Union playing clarinet with the seven-man Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, a group of New Orleans musicians he started when he was a vice president for academic affairs and professor of history at Tulane University.

He did not attend Oberlin, although his great-grandfather taught clarinet at the school’s conservatory. Starr holds degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Princeton.

Two months ago Starr was the first non-Soviet citizen given the honorary title Laureate by the Soviet Union’s prestigious Literary Gazette, the official organ of the Union of Soviet Writers, a publication in which the issues of reform have been most vigorously aired. He was also one of the Soviet experts called to the White House to confer with President Reagan prior to the Moscow summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev last May.

Starr calls his college “a kind of intellectual Noah’s Ark. Oberlin is interested in educating both sides of the brain and the heart as well, a place for students genuinely interested in education, a place where enormous energy has been released by its students the last 156 years.”