OSCA is an organization with a history of creating passionate communities who work for radical societal change. From its beginning in 1950 and throughout the 60s, OSCA was on the forefront of the movements for independent student living (dorms not overseen by "house mothers") and co-ed housing and dining, in an era when such notions were virtually unheard of.
Throughout the years OSCA has engaged in social justice issues, taken stances on fair-labor practices in agriculture, participated in boycotts, created policies to reduce our environmental impact, and worked to create partnerships with other like-minded organizations nationally and internationally. Each semester, OSCA also hosts a symposium on Privilege and Oppression which all Members are required to attend. OSCAns are continually trying to make OSCA, and the larger world, a more just place.
Read on to learn more about OSCA's rich history!
1950s – Beginnings on West College Street
The cooperative movement came to Oberlin College in Spring 1950. When a group of about eleven upper-class women and men seeking an alternative to what they considered to be expensive, low-quality food, and restrictive housing policies brought a proposal for a co-op house before the Administration, the College — after a period of some reticence — gave way to student demand. After consulting with the manager of the local Consumer Co-op, the students created their business plan for the first cooperative residence: 28 female residents and 28 additional male boarders. The Faculty Council approved the plan. In Fall 1950, Pyle Inn opened on West College Street.
In addition to economic and culinary reasons, the founding co-op members had social and political goals. They hoped that the co-op situation would allow the group 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). Some early co-op members had other benefits in mind. Helen Lewis, ’49, wrote a letter to The Oberlin Review the year after her graduation advocating co-op living for marriage. She explained that an Oberlin College education alone had its merits, but did not “tell a poor frightened bride how to handle a frying pan"!
Since Pyle Inn members felt they had been given only provisional approval, they 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 showed a 40% savings over Oberlin College board rates.
The 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 members claimed there was less tension between the sexes in co-ops with their geographic and social segregation less demarcated than in Oberlin College houses. Co-ops also provided relief from the strict dress code (and the strict house mothers who enforced them!) still in place in College dining halls, where men had to wear jackets and ties and women had to wear skirts. The open snacking policy was another advantage. The meals themselves were not usually culinary delights, but the food was varied: parsnips, artichokes, rabbit, and pizza graced one Pyle menu.
The following Spring (1951), Grey Gables was chosen as the second co-op, providing room and board for 35 women and board for 35 men. That same Spring, six students formed an Inter-Cooperative Council which would administer the two co-ops the subsequent year.
Each co-op quickly developed distinctive personalities and reputations: Pyle Inn was thought to be sedate, responsible, and political; Grey Gables was reputedly loose and bohemian (it attracted folk music enthusiasts). And the nooks and crannies at Grey Gables afforded comfortable spots for lovers seeking to avoid the “necking ban” across the street at Pyle.
No milk bottles on the dinner table, please!
Starting in 1952, the co-ops sponsored an annual all-campus Creative Arts Festival. 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 all-campus festival took place in 1962.)
Despite enthusiastic student support, the Faculty Council refused to approve a third co-op in Spring 1952. Students were puzzled and frustrated over the refusal since many students had not been able to get assignments in the two existing co-ops. The charges leveled against co-ops included: members 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 at Oberlin College, and that the atmosphere was more conducive to free intellectual exchange. Critics contended that the co-ops fostered rampant individuality, “forced non-conformity,” and tolerated “obnoxious” behavior which would normally be discouraged. Oberlin College took the latter position most of the time, as it continued to insist that there was no real need for a third co-op. The College's stated opposition was based on lack of student interest, but a key factor was financial feasibility, as Oberlin College would lose considerable income if all students who wanted to live and dine in co-ops were allowed to join.
1960s – The Great Expansion
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-ops 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 Oberlin 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 Review article was printed, the Faculty Council voted to approve a third co-op.
The Oberlin College Study
Yet, just when it seemed that a third co-op was definitely on its way, another group stepped into the battle. The Oberlin College Board of Trustees wanted more information on co-ops 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.” In an internal letter, Oberlin College President Robert K. Carr expressed worries, and requested clarification on several issues. Among the financial concerns included in the letter: whether financial need ought to play a larger role in the selection of co-op membership and whether co-op members were paying “their fair share” of the basic overhead of Oberlin 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 members “asked to give too much time an energy to the tasks of cooking and cleaning house?”
A Committee was commissioned to evaluate these and other questions posed by the Board of Trustees. The results of the years-long study proved beneficial to the co-op cause, having dispelled many doubts that still lingered in the Administration about the benefits of preserving and expanding the student co-op system. Financially, co-ops were found to have contributed adequately to paying the fixed costs of housing and dining at Oberlin College at-large, but there was indecision as to the question of whether financial need ought to be given more priority in co-op membership selection. 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 sometimes conflicted.
Most interesting, however, was the sociological study. It showed that co-op members 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-op members were more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities, but did not “monopolize” leadership positions; cooperative life gave members opportunities for democratic self-governance and responsibility which brought vigor to students’ sense of community that otherwise they might not have found at Oberlin College. After receiving these results, the Board of Trustees decided that co-ops should be viewed as an “integral” part of the College.
During the fight for expansion, co-op members made significant advances. In 1962, Pyle Inn merged with Grey Gables, and the Inter-Cooperative Council was replaced with the newly incorporated Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA). OSCA's Board of Trustees was an administrative body composed at that time of students, faculty members, and town residents. Along with OSCA came new administrative jobs which included President, Secretary, Treasurer, Representative-At-Large, and Board Representatives (often the House President) from each co-op. OSCA would provide a needed foundation for the student co-ops — the number of which would triple in the fifteen years after its incorporation.
Tank Hall & Keep Cottage
In the Sixties, the popularity of co-ops continued to grow. Tank Hall replaced Grey Gables upon that co-op's demolition in 1963 (visit the parking lot that shares its name and location). Keep Cottage, a senior women’s dorm, became the third co-op in October 1965 and opened the following Spring.
In 1967, there were 665 applicants for 237 co-op spots. Students rallied for a fourth co-op that Spring. 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 Council voted 86 to 22 in favor of the proposal. Following the approval of the Oberlin College Board of Trustees, Harkness Hall became a co-op the subsequent year.
1970s – A Golden Age
As co-ops grew, so did inter-co-op activities. Among these were the infamous co-op wars (similar to dorm raids). One fairly complicated war began when Tank captured the Harkness flag. Harkness retaliated by taking Tank’s mascot (a mounted moose head named “Mother”), two porch swings, and seventeen other items. Harkies went home and waited, armed with buckets of water, for their rivals to arrive, while Tankers tried to outwit them by barricading Harkness’s front door with bicycles. Finally the house presidents agreed to a peace treaty and Tankers agreed to help clean up the mess.
There were serious changes to the co-ops as well in this period. In the Spring 1971, students presented proposals for an ecology program in Pyle Inn. 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.
That same year, Harkness, Pyle, and Tank went co-ed, and were followed by Keep Cottage the following Spring.
Old Barrows & Baldwin Cottage
Old Barrows was established as an all-women’s residential co-op with co-ed dining in 1972, to replace Pyle Inn. With excitement about co-ops running high, OSCA pushed to get Baldwin Cottage as a board-only co-op, but the Administration was hesitant because Oberlin College would lose money if another co-op was created. Baldwin's kitchen would also have to be re-fit, and a poll of Baldwin Cottage residents on the subject of co-ops had been fairly inconclusive. Supporters of the proposal pointed to the large demand for co-ops, their educational value, and some of the favorable responses to the resident survey. Baldwin Cottage was finally approved by the Housing and Dining Committee as the fifth co-op in Spring 1973.
Good Food Co-op
By 1975, for the first time in OSCA's history all co-ops discontinued the use of professional cooks, and instead began relying on student meal-planners and elected student cooks. This decision was typical of the movement begun in this decade to rid OSCA of paid employees and make it entirely a student-run organization. In Summer 1975, OSCA suffered a setback when Pyle Inn, the genesis of OSCA, was torn down after three years in limbo as “temporary housing” due to the prohibitive costs of its renovation. The ecology and natural food program was moved to Harkness Hall, where it continued in the form of the Good Food Co-op.
Despite this change in atmosphere, interest in co-ops was still strong. In Fall 1976, both Talcott Hall and Fairchild House were under consideration as the sixth co-op. The major issue was, again, financial. Regular Oberlin College board bills would have to be raised $6 to $12 to cover the loss of income incurring when Oberlin College diners deserted to co-ops. In addition, a co-op would use only 120 of the 170 places in either dining hall, thereby displacing 50 students in College dining. Finally, the Housing and Dining Committee also questioned the need for another co-op.
Students expressed some reservations as well. Some pointed to the financial situation, maintaining that it was extortion to force regular Oberlin College diners to support a co-op, and that one small group would benefit at the expense of everyone else. Others worried that the decrease in the number of Oberlin College diners would take away jobs for financial aid students. Fewer diners might also mean fewer employees; Food Service Director Richard Armon assured them that there was no cause for alarm on those grounds.
The Housing and Dining Committee decided to approve a sixth co-op in Spring 1977. Fairchild House was the chosen site, and the new co-op was designated “all-natural” (the definition of which produced some debate) with a vegetarian alternative to be served at 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 with meat at some meals.
Reactions to the sixth co-op varied. In their April Fool’s issue, The Oberlin Review proposed a seventh co-op. The plan called for the diametric opposite of Fairchild House — an all-carnivorous co-op. Members would save money through the practice of cannibalism. For obvious reasons, there would be five Faculty Guest Nights instead of just one. As one member put it, if Harkness and Fairchild can live off the bottom of the food chain, why shouldn’t another co-op live off the top?
As early as 1973, OSCA President Andy Ferguson began a study to determine whether OSCA should buy an off-campus house (a purchase that OSCA would not make for another decade) as a part of a move to increase co-op autonomy from Oberlin College.
At the turn of the decade, OSCA began to look outward. It chose to join a national federation of student housing cooperatives, the North American Students of Cooperation (then called the North American Cooperative Society). Many OSCA members attended NASCO's Cooperative Management Training Institute in Ann Arbor the subsequent Fall to take courses, attend workshops, and listen to lectures from co-op activists from around the continent. In January 1978, OSCA also became a member of the Federation of Ohio River Cooperatives, a co-op food warehouse centered in Columbus, Ohio; this relationship would foster the consensus decision-making process with the OSCA Board, and would provide Membership with immensely popular (and salty) FORC tortilla chips.
1980s – Off-Campus... and A Few Stumbles
An effort to establish a seventh co-op came in Fall 1981, when OSCA submitted a request to the Housing and Dining Committee proposing that Talcott or Asia House be made into a board-only co-op for 110 students. A long wait list of over 350 students prompted OSCA to work towards securing this additional co-op. Increased tuition costs, decreased financial aid, a diminished number of campus jobs, and the financial savings that an additional co-op would offer to its members provided an equally strong incentive. The proposal, however, was defeated. Reasons for the defeat ranged from complications which would arise for the French table dining program and for Kosher co-op, to the recurrent fear that a seventh co-op would increase board bills for regular Oberlin College diners.
Tank Hall was closed as a living co-op at the end of Spring 1983. Johnson House, which had housed a farm co-op on its second floor for many years, was designated as a housing co-op to replace some of the residential spaces lost by the closure of Tank Hall. Johnson House members of the Tank Hall diaspora dined across the street at Old Barrows.
In 1985, in its first major move to disentangle itself from rent agreements with Oberlin College, OSCA decided to purchase Fuller House using the three-decades worth of accumulated cash in its Building Fund. Fuller House was named after an old Oberlin College President who served with distinctive faculty friction.
OSCA, unfortunately, began to stutter and trip in the middle of the Reagan decade. In 1987, OSCA was audited by the IRS who made the discovery that financial records from the previous two years were missing and that the organization was on the verge of bankruptcy. OSCA 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 OSCA President Hadley Boyd. But despite its near fiscal insolvency, OSCA also made the purchase of it’s second off-campus house, Langston-Bliss House, that same year.
Kosher Halal Co-op
That same year, Kosher Co-op came on board as OSCA’s seventh co-op, making OSCA a more accessible organization by offering Kosher food for Jewish students and those who chose to abide by the dietary laws of Kashrut, and Muslim students following Halacic dietary laws.
1990s – Resurgence
Third World Co-op
Accessibility came to the forefront of OSCA with inclusion of Kosher-Halal Co-op, and an all-OSCA vote was taken on whether to form a “special interest” co-op for people of color. In 1994, Third World Co-op opened in Baldwin, and provided a space that was more accessible for people of color, low-income students, and first generation college students, and thereby created a community for dialogue and coalition-building among all students.
Pyle Inn (Asia House)
Old Barrows’ dining hall was closed for renovation in 1993, with the College citing “structural and life-safety hazards,” (rumors that a toilet fell through the ceiling still live on). It was temporarily replaced by the Asia House kitchen, which was dubbed “Pyle Inn” after the OSCA’s first co-op. Even though Old B’s dining space was re-opened the next year (after some quibbling over the half-million dollar renovation costs and accusations from OSCA of rent-contract violation on the part of the College for closing Old B in the first place) a new campaign to keep Pyle Inn open as a co-op was begun. Despite the Asia House residents voting 25-2 to keep the dining space open and overwhelming support from the OSCA membership, Pyle Inn was closed for a year. But the ensuing depression was short-lived. Oberlin College agreed to open an eighth co-op in 1995 with meals starting the following spring. OSCA’s membership made permanent the name Pyle Inn three years later.
Under new management
Financial and administrative problems continued to fester and multiply within the OSCA body. Halfway through the 1990-91 academic year, all three corporate Officers resigned, leaving it to three volunteers to split the job of each Officer position. But there was light in this darkness: a financial consultant from NASCO was brought in to assess the situation who advised that OSCA hire a Financial Manager. Staffing and financial problems which originated in the early Seventies, and had plagued OSCA throughout the Eighties, began to be ameliorated.
In 1996, OSCA hired a Facilities Manager for three years to maintain its off-campus properties. 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 Fuller and Langston-Bliss Houses. The tax designation created a space for low-income housing and finally allowed OSCA to fulfill its long sought after goal (try nearly three decades) of offering scholarships to students with financial need. However, due to Oberlin College's subsequent requirement that its students live on-campus, the Oberlin housing rental market became glutted, and OSCA Properties could not fill its housing spaces. The Board voted to sell Fuller and Langston-Bliss Houses, while OSCA Properties changed its name to the OSCA Foundation. The OSCA Foundation continues to provide scholarships for Oberlin College and Lorain County Community College students.
In 1999, OSCA hired a part-time Office Assistant to relieve the Financial Manager of her enormous and increasing workload. OSCA also hired a Food Safety Advisor in 2004 to assist the co-ops, and a Business Coordinator in 2010 to take over non-financial administrative duties.