Marvin Krislov: The Controversial Man Behind the Cheshire Cat Grin

by Monica Hunter-Hart

The promise of free ice cream will predictably bring people flocking: last Thursday, crowds flooded Oberlin’s gourmet ice cream shop “Cowhaus” to make good on its offering of free scoops. College President Marvin Krislov stood in the back, watching customers with his characteristically sincere-though-it-doesn’t-seem-to-be half-grin resting on his lips. It was his idea to sponsor this event: in response to Cowhaus’ recent financial troubles, he relocated “Koffee With Krislov” (a regular opportunity for students to talk with him one-on-one while enjoying free drinks) to this ice cream establishment.

While chatting with visitors, he took the opportunity to promote Cowhaus, as he does with any Oberlin affiliate. “This is locally made!” he proudly told a student. He hunted for words to describe the enterprise: “They’re very… kinda, hip—and all that stuff.” If these comments had come from an average businessman, they’d sound disingenuous. But while Krislov is undeniably a businessman, he also projects earnestness. As he spoke to a group of young students with his arms folded above his classic red sweater, they giggled generously, appreciating his efforts. They seemed to be freshmen, emoting wide-eyed sentiments of “I’m talking to a celebrity!”

This awe toward Krislov hasn’t always been felt solely by freshmen. Students have only become so cynical about him in the last few years. He initially came to Oberlin in 2007 after serving as vice president and general counsel at the University of Michigan, where he famously advised the school in the pro-affirmative action case it won in the Supreme Court. This is only the beginning of his long list of accomplishments, which also includes winning a Rhodes scholarship and prosecuting racial violence and police brutality through an honors program at the U.S. Department of Justice.

These days, his main jobs are parenting three kids and running a multi-million dollar corporation (see: Oberlin). Perhaps obviously, this is no small task. Diagrams of the power distribution at the school depict three intersecting circles: the Board of Trustees, Faculty, and Administration, all of which convene in the middle at a point marked “President.” Krislov is ex officio of the Board, head of the entire administration, and teaches a class. He’s not responsible for everything. But he has more power than any other single Oberlin official. As with Spiderman, so with Krislov, and with great power comes great responsibility. He engages in a constant game of weighing priorities: financial concerns, public opinion, student opinion, long-term plans, short-term plans, the advise and desires of faculty and staff members. It’s a volatile formula that defies both perfect solutions and outside approval.

Despite these challenges, he works hard to put forth a positive public face. In Cowhaus, he stood in the back and persistently greeted customers with many a “Welcome!” or even a “Hello! How are you? –Do I know you?” Side by side with his cohort Dean Eric Estes, he didn’t wait for nervous students to work up the nerve to speak to him, but approached them first with a smile. He even jumped on the chance to converse with non-students. He questioned a middle-aged couple about their experience staying at the Oberlin Inn: “I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.”

As always—or at least, since last summer, when he created the account—Krislov needed to capitalize upon the opportunity at Cowhaus to take a photo for his Instagram. With 570 followers and no reciprocation, his Oberlin-promotional account is a source of much student amusement. Of particular fame are his hashtags, which are occasionally misspelled and generally ridiculous, demonstrating an ignorance about how hashtags are supposed to work (ex. “Colleagues and I brainstorming about #Oberlin Project over breakfast at #Black River Café.”—clicking on the #Black will not, in fact, bring one to more posts about Black River, nor lead one to pictures of a similar nature). Perhaps his best hashtag array is under a picture of Kahn dormitory from early last fall: “Admiring beautiful #kahnhall with its #new #solarpanels. #oberlin #pretty #night #filters #light #trees #silhouette #omg #hashtags #sorry #imdonewiththehashtags.”

Students love to giggle at this and other Krislov gimmicks (whether or not he stages them intentionally). When I entered Oberlin in the fall of 2011, his reputation was largely defined by his goofiness. We all got to know him from the parody videos he made in honor of graduating classes (most successfully, remakes of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and the film The Hangover entitled “The HangOber”). And then we squeezed his face when Krislov-bejeweled stress balls were distributed during finals. Earlier in his term, his relationship with students was perhaps even more playful. An August 24, 2009 Fearless and Loathing interview with him begins, “So. Tell us about your first date.” To which he replied, “WHAT?” In the article, he’s also asked, “What are you currently working the hardest on to fix?” His somewhat frivolous answer suggests that he faced relatively little attack at the time: “The one thing that I try to do, but I’m not perfect, is to try to remember everybody’s name in my conversations with them.”

He still struggles with this today. At 9am this Monday morning, he engaged in a conference call with speakers who are coming to campus in late March, Darold Johnson and Derrell Bradford, two educational officials. These similar-sounding names would be a source of anxiety for anyone, but he assured them on the phone as he sat in the dim, wooden conference room in the Cox Administration Building, “I’ll get it, I’ll get it.” Midway through the call, Ferd Protzman entered, the man whose vague job description is “Assistant to the President” but whose actual duty is to draft many of Krislov’s statements to the school and the public. Protzman mouthed, “Which one is which?” in reference to Darold and Derrell, but Krislov shook his head sheepishly.

Protzman is just one of the many people behind Krislov who make his job possible and invisibly run the school. Krislov works extremely hard—on a given day, only an hour or two of his schedule is free of meetings, events, or other plans—but he also benefits from an administrative backing that includes the staff in his office, his Senior Staff, student assistants, and a host of others. The duties of these people range from giving him advice to shredding his papers. Jennifer Bradfield, his main secretarial assistant, not only organizes his entire life but also takes on the responsibility of being his emotional safeguard, laughing at his jokes and assuring him that difficult situations will work out somehow. Ginny O’Dell does his finances and organizes materials for the class he teaches every semester. The latter job is more high-stakes than it might seem, for he is absolutely devoted to his class and the students within it, and thus expects unfailing competence from O’Dell.

Discussions about his course took up much of Monday’s conference call: the guests will also come in to address his students. “It’s an embarrassment of riches to have you in my class,” he gushed. Krislov carefully considered how to maximize the utility of their visit to students, planning out their agenda within the classroom and the questions they’d be asked during the public talk. He prepared them for the Oberlin environment by stressing both how important the field of education is to Oberlin students, and how organizations like Teach For America—which he suspected might come up in the talk—are controversial on campus. After the call, he couldn’t contain his excitement: “I think they’re gonna be great—that was nice energy on the phone!”

Students who take his course make up much of the remaining positive student opinion of him. They enjoy his casual, hands-off teaching style, and—even if they disagree with the rare viewpoints he does express in class—tend to appreciate the fact that he thrives on dissenting student voices. However, these students are the exception, not the rule, and Krislov’s approval rating (while never technically measured) has undeniably plummeted in recent years. The first major shift in this direction came with the hate and bias incidents of the spring of 2012, in response to which Krislov cancelled classes but failed to address student concerns about prejudice built into Oberlin’s institutions in a way that satiated them. He interviewed with CNN on camera in front of Wilder Student Union that week. In the middle, a group of students—including then-senior class president A.D. Hogan—ran behind him, shouting “NO BULLSHIT!” over and over. Flustered, he abruptly ended the interview.

This past fall, tensions about racial relations on campus and across the nation again rose to the point of concentrated student activism in reaction to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. And again, much of the student body found Krislov’s responses inadequate. Student Kiki Acey created a petition asking the President to suspend the standard grading system for the semester to take pressure off students coping with related trauma. “‘[President Krislov] has made minimal efforts to help those of us on this campus who feel afraid for our lives,’” Acey told the Oberlin Review on December 12th. “’We are expect[ed] to be our best through finals? … This is not a fleeting pain.’” The petition got over 1,300 signatures, and was refused by the President.

Even in moments of relative activist calm on campus, Krislov cannot be said to be beloved. A Disorientation packet passed out to freshmen this year featured a distorted picture of his face on the cover and cynical statements about him on the inside. At a recent speaker panel on the future of Community Policing in America, a guest praised Krislov for his efforts on the aforementioned Affirmative Action case. Sick of hearing this story elevated by authority figures in the face of what they see as Krislov’s ambivalence to Oberlin’s institutionalized racism, students were unresponsive, whereas they bequeathed enthusiastic applause for faculty members earlier in the talk.

Krislov is well aware that many of his actions have been controversial. He confronts these mindsets by encouraging what he believes would be productive dialogue both among students and between students and the administration. In the conference call, he admitted, “One of the meta-goals of this series is to show that people can disagree with each other in a civil and thoughtful manner. Candidly, that does not occur as often on campuses, including ours.”

When faced with systemic social problems, is it understandable and often sensible to focus activist energy on the person in charge of an institution that perpetuates the issues. Of course, upon thoroughly examining Krislov as a human being, one can empathetically explain away many of his decisions with claims like, “There’s no way he could know any better,” or “His hands are tied,” or “He doesn’t have the power to make that change,” etc. When we stop looking at the problems systemically and instead track them on a specific and personal level, his motivations can be understood and blame becomes trickier to locate. But if that will always be the case when dealing with social problems, to what degree should our energies even be focused on attempting to reach that level of empathy? Is that always useful?

Most students would probably agree that we treat our President with too little empathy, even as they complain about him to their friends five minutes later. For all we know, Krislov goes home every day and gets out his frustrations with our animosity by jumping ferociously on the trampoline he famously keeps in his backyard. That would be fitting, as we certainly get out our frustrations by criticizing him.

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