The cooperative movement came to Oberlin College in the spring of 1950, when a group of women and men students, seeking an alternative to expensive, low quality food, and restrictive housing policies, brought a proposal for a co-op house before the administration. The Collegeafter a period of some reticencegave way to student demand. After consulting with the manager of the local Consumer Co-op, the students created their business plan for a cooperative residence of 28 female roomers and 28 additional male boarders. The Faculty approved the plan, and the co-op opened in the fall of 1950.
The founding co-opers also had social and political goals. They hoped to practice social ideals, prepare members for a future as productive, resourceful members of a democratic society, and revitalize the concept of Learning and Labor, the Oberlin College motto.
Since the co-op had only provisional approval, members were serious about making the co-op work. Boarders worked five hours a week at two kitchen jobs, and residents worked an additional two hours at a house job. Weekly meetings were held to discuss problems and rules were strictly enforced. These diligent efforts paid off: at the end of the first semester, Pyle-Inn Co-op showed a 40% savings over College Board rates.
Relaxed social atmosphere was another attraction of co-op life. Most people agreed that the interesting, intellectual conversation made co-op meals worthwhile, while folk sings drew students from all over campus. Some claimed there was less tension between the sexes in co-ops with their geographic and social segregation less demarcated than in the College houses.
The following spring, a second co-op, provided room and board for 35 women and board for 35 men. Six students formed an Inter-Co-op Council to administer the two co-ops the next year. The co-ops quickly developed distinctive personalities and reputations. One was thought to be sedate, responsible, and political. The other was reputedly loose and bohemian.
The Great Expansion
Despite enthusiastic student support, the Faculty Council refused to approve a third co-op in the spring of 1952. Throughout the fifties, a controversy raged concerning the merits of the unique co-op atmosphere. Critics contended that the co-ops fostered rampant individuality, forced non-conformity, and toleration of obnoxious behavior that would normally be discouraged. The College likely harbored the fear that, if allowed to multiply, the co-ops and their non-traditional culture would become entrenched on campus. The stated reason was lack of student interest, but a key factor was financial. 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. 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.
Committees were commissioned to evaluate these and other questions. Their results dispelled many doubts still lingering in the administration. Financially, the co-ops were found to have contributed adequately to paying the fixed costs of housing and dining in the College at-large. Co-ops wanted 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. A sociological study showed that co-opers tended to receive higher grades than their College dining hall counterparts. 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. Given these results, the Board of Trustees decided that co-ops should be viewed as an integral part of the College. A senior womens dorm became the third co-op in October of 1965.
In 1962 the incorporated Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA) was established. 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.
A Golden Age
In the spring of 1971, students presented proposals for an ecology program. Natural food and environmentally safe soap were suggested as part of the plan. The ecology center opened in fall, boasting healthier and more interesting food. Since half of the diners were vegetarians, meat was served only twice a week. Neither sugar nor white flour was used. Garbage was sorted into organic and inorganic components to facilitate recycling and composting. An all-womens living co-op with co-ed dining opened in 1972.
All the co-ops discontinued the use of professional cooks by 1975, and relied on student meal planners and elected student cooks. This was typical of a movement to de-staff OSCA of paid employees and make it entirely student run. Board President Andy Ferguson (1973-74) began a study to determine whether OSCA should buy an off-campus house-a purchase that OSCA would not make for another decadeanother move to increase co-op autonomy from the College.
In 1977, a new co-op was designated all-natural (the definition of which produced some debate) and a vegetarian alternative would be served with every meat meal. This designation was based on the results of a 1000 student survey in which 45% of the students indicated that they would prefer a natural diet.
Off-Campus and A Few Stumbles
OSCA began to look outward at the turn of the decade and into the mid-eighties. It chose to join a national federation of student housing cooperatives, the North American Students of Cooperation (then called the North American Cooperative Society) after a visit from John Klein, the NASCO representative. Many OSCA members attended its Cooperative Management Training Institute in Ann Arbor the following fall to take courses, attend workshops, and listen to lectures from co-op activists from around the continent. In January of 1978, OSCA also became a member of the Federation of Ohio River Cooperatives, a co-op food warehouse centered in Columbus, Ohio. Their relationship would endow the OSCA Board with the consensus decision-making process. In its first major move to disentangle itself from rent agreements with the College, OSCA decided to purchase Fuller House in 1985 using the three-decades worth of accumulated cash in its Building Fund.
OSCA, unfortunately, began to stutter and trip in the middle of the Reagan decade. In 1987, OSCA was audited by the IRS with the discovery that financial records from the previous two years were missing and that the organization was on the verge of bankruptcyOSCA nearly lost its tax-exempt status. It was a year of a few tears, frazzled nerves, failed exams, and dropped honors in the words of Hadley Boyd, OSCA President. But despite its near fiscal insolvency, OSCA also made the purchase of its second off-campus house. The OSCAcrats learned something from their encounter with near tax-death, and decided to hire a full-time bookkeeper. Financial and administrative problems nonetheless continued to fester. All three corporate officers resigned during the 1990-91 school year, leaving three volunteers to split the job of Treasurer. A financial consultant from NASCO was brought in, and advised OSCA to hire a financial manager.
But there was light in this darkness. Expansion became the catchword on co-ops lips once again. Kosher Co-op came on board as OSCAs seventh co-op in1987, making OSCA more accessible for Jewish students, as well as Muslim students following Halacic dietary laws. The insurgent Revolutionary Local Foods Party began their guerilla campaign to supplant corporate food suppliers with organic stock from local farmers. OSCA began to buy some of its food locally. Building on their momentum, students started the Oberlin Sustainable Agriculture Project in 1995, bringing even more community food to the ranks of OSCA.
Accessibility came to the forefront with Koshers inclusion in OSCA, and an all-OSCA vote was taken on whether to form a special interest co-op for people of color. It was not then successful, but in 1994, Third World Co-op opened, providing a space that was more accessible for people of color, low-income students, and first generation college students and creating a community for dialogue and coalition building among all students.
Staffing and financial problems that had plagued OSCA through the eighties, and had their beginnings in the early seventies, began to be ameliorated-in part through increasing hired staff. A Facilities Manager was hired to maintain OSCAs off-campus properties in 1996, Two years later, OSCA split into two corporations while retaining the same Board and membership: OSCA and OSCA Properties, the latter being a tax-exempt, charitable organization owning two houses. The tax designation created a space for low-income housing and finally allows OSCA to fulfill its long sought after (try nearly three decades) goal of offering scholarships to students with financial need. While the Board chose not to renew the Facilities Manager position, OSCA hired a full-time Office Coordinator in 2000 to relieve the Financial Manager of her enormous and increasing workload.
With its staff and fiscal structure somewhat rehabilitated, OSCA looks forward to celebrating its 50th year of cooperation at Oberlin. Its twin corporations have nearly two million dollars in assets, comprise eight dining co-ops and four housing co-ops with a total of 630 members, and still manages to maintain two off-campus properties. This is just the first half-century.
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