From Michelle Malkin to Karen O, Oberlin College has had its share of famous — and infamous — alumni. Most recently, one of our more celebrated success stories — Adrian Fenty, OC’92 and mayor of Washington D.C. — has made headlines due to his recent loss in the D.C. Democratic mayoral primarys. After four tumultuous years as mayor, Fenty gained an enormous amount of support, and a comparable amount of criticism, for his sweeping overhaul of the city’s education system, among other controversial actions. Now, as he cedes his position to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (who looks poised to win the general election), Fenty is searching for alternate professional paths. And apparently, Oberlin is one of them.
In a recent Washington Post article, President Krislov and Fenty were said to have “exchanged e-mails … and both expressed interested in the possibility of teaching,” according to Oberlin Director of Media Relations Scott Wargo. The College is interested in Fenty teaching in the Politics department, and Wargo acknowledged that “this would have to be approved by the faculty.” The students, interestingly, go unmentioned.
Oberlin College has a long tradition of hiring exceptional faculty — most of whom are professors with Ph.D’s who have chosen teaching and research as their professional career.
This is not to say that Ph.D-less candidates are entirely unqualified for teaching posts. Rather, many of the most fascinating professors are those who have remarkable life experiences that add a real-life angle to the scholarly study of a given field. For example, Dan Chaon brings his expertise in the field of fiction to the Creative Writing department, and is one of our most celebrated faculty members.
Nevertheless, what real-life experience a professorial candidate holds, and what this experience allows us to glean about them, are both valid and worthy inquiries.
For Adrian Fenty, his track record as D.C. Mayor reveals potentially worrisome facts about what he could offer as a possible professor. Admittedly, the mayor has accomplished some incredible feats during his four years in office. Nevertheless, his most celebrated feat — restructuring the D.C. public school system — consisted of various questionable tactics, regardless of its outcome. Fenty instituted performance-based teacher compensation, hired the controversial Michelle Rhee as chancellor of the D.C. public school system, and subsequently allowed her to fire an enormous number of teachers and professors, leaving large gaps in the D.C. education system’s faculty.
Michelle Rhee began her career as an employee of one of the first for-profit charter schools in the nation. Moreover, after hiring a for-profit education disciple to restructure the public school system, Fenty allowed Rhee to “reform” the system by following an ideology that blamed teachers, rather than systemic poverty, underfunding or a lack of familial support, as the reason students were performing poorly. Oberlin College ought to question whether, as a progressive and pro-union institution, we are interested in hiring a professor who has touted his adherence to anti-union methods of reform that blame and easily dismiss teachers.
Moreover, one must question why Mayor Fenty was not re-elected in 2010. Undeniably, as we have seen in the disastrous mid-term elections, voters often cast their ballots against the incumbent out of sheer frustration. Many who once held Democratic seats were ousted because of an economy and a job market that they could not be blamed for. Nevertheless, recent coverage has suggested that Fenty’s failed primary bid was largely due to his personality. The Washington Post reported that many citizens found his leadership style offensive, and wrote that he seemed to ignore citizens’ concerns. One writer for the Washington City Paper wrote that Gray was benefiting from “voters’ conclusion that Fenty is a jerk.” Many journalists have found that he is incredibly closed off from reporters, making his decisions without taking the time to inform the media.
Regardless of his (debatably) progressive politics, Fenty has shown himself to be aloof, closed off and slightly arrogant. Perhaps, when the College decides whether to hire him as a professor, they might consider whether these personal qualities, combined with his educational reform policies, will truly benefit the students. Let’s hope Oberlin can see past the initial appeal of celebrity.