The Great Expansion

Despite enthusiastic student support, the Faculty Council refused to approve a third co-op in the spring of 1952. Students were puzzled and frustrated over the refusal since many applicants had not been able to get places in the two existing co-ops. The charges leveled against co-ops included their going barefoot, wearing shorts, failing to observe the College dress code at dinner, putting milk bottles on the dinner table, and neglecting to transfer jams from jars into bowls. Students argued that the benefits of increased individual and group responsibility outweighed the possible disadvantages of the allegedly informal lifestyles.

Throughout the fifties, a controversy raged concerning the merits of the unique co-op atmosphere. Co-op proponents argued that co-ops contained a wider variety of people than other groups in Oberlin, and that the atmosphere was more conducive to free intellectual exchange in which the College hoped the students would engage. Critics contended that the co-ops fostered rampant individuality, “forced non-conformity,” and toleration of “obnoxious” behavior which would normally be discouraged. The College took the latter position most of the time, continued to insist that there was no real need for a third co-op, and likely harbored the fear that, if allowed to multiply, the co-ops and their non-traditional culture would become entrenched on campus. Their stated reason was lack of student interest, but a key factor was financial unfeasibility. The College would lose considerable income if all students who wanted to be in co-ops were allowed to join.

The administration hedged for twelve years on approving a third co-op. The conflict came to a head in 1961, when an article appeared in the Oberlin Review pointing out that the charges against the co-op stood on flimsy evidence. Administrators argued that the College’s national reputation would be damaged by the establishment of a large co-op system. But long-time Oberlin residents agreed that the College’s reputation remained untarnished after eleven years of co-ops.

Co-ops were quick to defend themselves in other areas, explaining that social rules, hygienic regulations, and dietary guidelines were actually enforced by a Standards Committee at Grey Gables, that many co-opers dressed like “typical” College students, and that while co-ops did make fun of “gracious living,” they were not offensive. The week after the article was printed, the Faculty Council voted to approve a third co-op.

Just when it seemed that a third co-op was definitely on its way, another group stepped into the battle. The College Board of Trustees wanted more information on co-ops before making a decision and ordered that a study be made “of the climate which these cooperative residences create, and whether that climate conduces to the best possible product in terms of Oberlin students.” Robert K. Carr, the College president at the time, expressed his own and likely the Trustees’ worries in an internal letter, requesting clarification on several issues. Among the financial questions included in the letter: whether financial need ought to play a larger role in the selection of co-op membership and whether co-opers were paying “their fair share” of the basic overhead of the College’s housing and dining system. Also, in regards to the constitutional status of the co-ops, Carr asked how it would be possible to “avoid letting the [co-op] system become so firmly established that it would be difficult or impossible to alter its character or abolish it entirely, however strong the case against its continuance might seem to be at some moment in the future.” As for the social implications of cooperative living, President Carr asked whether co-ops “have an adverse effect upon the desirable spirit of ‘community’ at Oberlin College” and if their members enjoy “greater freedom in their social activities than is permitted students living in regular college dormitories.” Finally, he asked that the impact of Oberlin’s student co-ops upon the educational environment around it be assessed: do co-ops create “unfortunate concentrations of students who are strongly motivated academically or intellectually” and, in a different vein, are co-opers “asked to give too much time an energy to the tasks of cooking and cleaning house?”

Committees were commissioned to evaluate these and other questions posed by the Trustees and President Carr. Their results proved beneficial to the co-op cause, dispelling many doubts still lingering in the administration about the benefits of preserving and expanding student co-ops in the Oberlin community. Financially, the co-ops were found to have contributed adequately to paying the fixed costs of housing and dining in the College at-large, but there was indecision as to the question of whether financial need ought to be given more priority in membership selection. Co-ops want to simultaneously take in members who value “Cooperative living and self-government” as well as those in financial need, but, in the view of the Committee, those values can sometimes conflict. Most interesting, however, was the sociological study. It showed that co-opers tended to receive higher grades than their College dining hall counterparts, and that the co-op experience had no adverse effects on post-Oberlin life. Co-opers were more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities, but did not “monopolize” leadership positions. Cooperative life brought vigor to students’ sense of community, and gave them opportunities for democratic self-governance and responsibility that they might not otherwise have. After receiving these results, the Board of Trustees decided that coops should be viewed as an “integral” part of the College. Keep, a senior women’s dorm, became the third co-op in October of 1965 and opened the following spring.

While the fight for expansion continued, co-opers made significant advances. In 1962, Pyle Inn merged with Grey Gables, replacing the Inter-Cooperative Council with the incorporated Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA). Its board of trustees was an administrative body composed of students, faculty members, and town residents. New administrative jobs included president, secretary, treasurer, representative-at-large, and representatives from each co-op (often the house president). OSCA would provide a needed foundation for the student co-ops – the number of which would triple in the fifteen years after its incorporation.

Starting in 1952, the co-ops sponsored annual all-campus Creative Arts Festivals. The first of these attracted sixty artists and craftspeople of all kinds. Later festivals showcased poetry, chamber music, and folk-singing. This tradition declined in the early sixties; the last al co-op festival took place in 1962.

Students rallied for a fourth co-op in the spring of 1967. As the faculty voted, students stood outside of the doors of King 306, carrying signs and offering candy, coffee, and homemade cookies to those who entered. The demonstration was a success: the faculty voted 86 to 22 in favor of the proposal. Following Board approval, Harkness became a co-op, to start the following year.