The Paula Gordon Show
Uncertain Learning

Nancy S. Dye

      . . . is President of Oberlin College, the 13th person and the first woman to hold that position since the College's founding in 1833. A graduate of Vassar College, Dye earned a Ph.D. in social history from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She is a highly regarded teacher as well as one of the leading voices in American higher education. She and her family make their home in Oberlin, Ohio.

Excerpts3 min: 39 secs

      American culture's challenge is higher education's challenge, according to Nancy Dye. How do we create community with diversity? Dye's confident both today's young people and tomorrow's historians will be asking what kind of job higher education did at the end of the 20th century, breaking down fragmentation in the United States, enhancing our diversity.

      Nancy Dye is the 13th President of Oberlin College, an educator and scholar. She earned a PhD in social history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In addition to having held a variety of administrative positions in colleges and universities, she is well loved as a teacher. No "ivory tower" for this leader. She is profoundly committed to the connection between society and community set forth in Oberlin's motto "Learning and Labor."

      Society's issues are being played out in colleges and universities across the nation today. That is very, very healthy, Dye believes. In fact, in a democracy, it's vital. When we think about what is useful in an education, perhaps we should begin the list with the our ability to embrace conflict, to disagree while staying engaged with each other. Our young need the experience of disagreeing strongly with others in a civil manner, staying open to the ideas of others, not taking their marbles and going home. President Dye sees a liberal arts education as particularly well-suited to providing that experience.

      The ambiguities of The Academy are everyone's ambiguities, the challenges facing the world are the same ones Dye faces every day as president of the nation's first co-educational college, which admitted African-Americans two years after it was founded in 1833. We must all stay engaged in sometimes uncomfortable struggles. To question and critique is the job of intellectual pursuit and everyone's challenge in a rapidly changing world.  Our young people are already well ahead of the curve dealing with change, Dye believes. Education's challenge is to combine the tools they will need 40 years from now, with the traditions and knowledge amassed through the ages.

      The similarities of today and 100 years ago might well give us pause, says this historian/educator. Progress is not inevitable. Making things better is an ongoing struggle, Dye reminds us, citing the Progressive Era (her field of study) yielding to the rest of the 20th century. And, by the way, the qualities of mind that are associated with "political correctness" are the opposite of Dye's definition of the "liberal" in "liberal arts" -- to be free and unfettered.

Conversation 1

Nancy Dye puts the current century in context for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, comparing today with 100 years ago. She reminds us that progress is not inevitable, drawing on her own scholarly work in the Progressive Era during the first two decades of the 20th century.

Conversation 2

President Dye describes people's heightened sense of how much change surrounds us as the speed of change increases around us. She uses the movement of people throughout the world as an example, then compares the impact and advent of the Internet to how television affected America. She describes how the world's changes will affect students in her liberal arts college. She describes young people's psychological and social orientation toward change, comparing it to their teachers and describes the dilemmas that can cause.  She explains why she thinks all of education is now in a very challenging time, listing many of the issues which are playing themselves out in The Academy.

Conversation 3

One of the ambiguities of higher education, according to President Dye, is the pull between how traditional institutions of higher education and the issues being agitated in a society in any given moment. She describes higher education's relationships and non-relationships to the marketplace. She uses research as an example. Another role of the university, she maintains, is it's ability to be a critic, a role that must be protected. She explains why one of the major points of intellectual pursuit is to question, which is often in conflict with the need to be useful. President Dye describes ways in which today's "rating" systems for colleges can be both useful and destructive.

Conversation 4

Nancy Dye describes how a liberal education is good at helping people develop flexible ways of thinking. She describes what a liberal education is -- where liberal means "intellectually free" and is not to be confused with one's political views or beliefs. Political correctness is called into question. President Dye offers her perspective on how people can become more comfortable with the ambiguity which increasingly surrounds us. She suggests that institutions of higher education must embrace a fair amount of conflict to be effective in their mission, then tells us what she thinks the real challenge is for American culture.

Conversation 5

Being able to deal with conflict, to disagree and stay engaged, is essential to democracy, Dye contends, and amplifies on that idea. In describing how fundamentally people can be different, she uses the ways we learn as an example. On the one hand, people are going to disagree in a college or university, but we must all be committed to disagreeing in ways that respect individuals. She tells how the academic institutions keep professors for "going too far," while preserving the flexibility to question and explains how important the principle of academic freedom is. Oberlin's motto is "Learning and Labor." Dye tells why she thinks that link between academic learning and using one's knowledge in society is "enormously important" and a source of Oberlin's strength.

Conversation 6

Dye suggests that part of the mission of education is to help people have a sense of being centered in one's own values and perceptions and goals, but at the same time, to realize that the world is far more complicated that one person can possible see and experience. She explains why learning can only happen in relationship, citing John Dewey. She describes every day as President of Oberlin College as a day certain to defy her expectations.


Nancy Dye was willing to record this conversation in the midst of Oberlin's Commencement/Reunion weekend. While circumstances allowed a more leisurely arrangement, we were deeply impressed by her willingness to make us part of the busiest weekend in the academic year.

Al Moran, Vice President of College Relations at Oberlin, is a thoroughgoing professional. We appreciated his interest and help making this conversation come to pass.

We also thank Al's assistant in the Office of College Relations, Darla Warren.

Related Links:
Oberlin College

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