Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

A Talent for Listening

In 23 tough years as a leader at Oberlin College and as a longtime trustee at Elmhurst, George Langeler ’49 has earned the enduring trust of students and faculty alike, largely through the force of human decency.

You might be surprised to hear it, but what George Langeler wants you to know about his students at Oberlin College is how respectful and decorous they could be. What makes this surprising is that Langeler’s long tenure as dean of students at the highly selective college and conservatory in Ohio included the student protest era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a charged time known more for impassioned challenges to authority than for courtly manners.

Moreover, as the dean, Langeler stood near the head of the line of campus authorities to be challenged; and Oberlin was hardly removed from the restless spirit of the times. Founded in 1833 by a Presbyterian minister and a missionary, Oberlin already was famous for its historic commitment to social justice. It was the first college to grant bachelor’s degrees to both men and women, and was an early leader in offering higher education to African Americans. In Langeler’s heyday, when hundreds of institutions were roiling with discontent over the war in Vietnam and various social issues, Oberlin still managed to establish a conspicuous national reputation for student activism and unconventionality. To a reporter from Life magazine, another Oberlin administrator of the period complained that people “expect the Oberlin campus to be full of bomb-throwers, perverts and free-lovers.” He felt compelled to clarify: “It’s not.”

Maybe not, but protests on the campus, 35 miles southwest of Cleveland, sometimes did get nasty. In 1969, students angry over the presence of military recruiters on campus marched on the office of Oberlin’s president, Robert Carr, chanting, “Work! Study! Get ahead! Kill!” The campus radio station then recorded an incensed President Carr arguing with the students outside his office. On another occasion, antiwar undergraduates surrounded a car driven by a Navy recruiter on the Town of Oberlin’s Main Street; the police were summoned to disperse them.

In this overheated environment, it was Dean Langeler who managed to maintain the trust of Oberlin’s students, faculty and administrators alike. He did it, his colleagues remember, largely through the force of common decency. Those who knew Langeler at the time recall that he never raised his voice in anger. He seemed to have a talent for defusing ugly situations by simply listening. At a time when college administrators around the country were coming to grief because of their inability to maintain the campus calm, Langeler’s skills were easy to appreciate. They also had a decisive impact on his campus. The historian Clayton Koppes, a former dean and acting president of Oberlin, says simply, “He helped hold this institution together.”

Langeler knew that some saw student protesters as “a bunch of radical bums.” But he noticed other qualities. One day Langeler arrived at Peters Hall, home to some of Oberlin’s administrative offices, to find that student protesters had packed the corridors and stairways, and were not budging. A student leader met Langeler in front of the building. An ugly confrontation seemed possible.

 “He said, ‘Good morning, Dean Langeler, we just want to let you know that there are so many students in the building that it’s hard to get in and out,’” Langeler recalls. ‘But we’ll cut a path through for you.’” The dean thanked the student for his thoughtfulness and asked if he wouldn’t extend the same courtesy to the rest of the faculty and staff. The student agreed. Soon people were coming and going freely through the building. The takeover ended.

 “George was able to bring that takeover to an end,” says Professor Koppes, “and if everyone didn’t quite walk out singing “Kumbaya,” at least everyone felt they had been heard. He encouraged us to listen. He helped us all—faculty, students, everyone—to adapt in a time of tremendous change.”

Throughout his Oberlin tenure, Langeler deftly performed a balancing act. As dean, he alternated between advocating for students and allaying the concerns of faculty and trustees that the campus was careening toward chaos. He was often caught between what seemed like opposing camps, an unenviable position for anyone. Langeler responded by making himself a bridge between two sides.

It is a role he has played with consummate skill throughout nearly half a century in higher education. Langeler spent 34 years at Oberlin—as a biology professor, in a series of administrative posts, and finally and most famously as dean. He not only helped steer Oberlin through the kind of unrest that undid other campuses, but also helped institute innovations in campus life that would be widely imitated across the country. He introduced one of the nation’s first coed residence halls, in 1969. When drug abuse began to spread across campus in the early 1970s, he creatively enlisted students to counsel and confront their peers. He started a dispute-resolution program, one of the first on any campus. He adroitly managed the galaxy of student identity groups that began to spring up in the 1970s and 1980s.

Such changes inevitably come with controversy, even on a forward-looking campus like Oberlin’s. But instead of being caught in a crossfire between constituencies, Langeler thrived by pulling opposing sides together. “I’ve tried to be a mediator, not a side-taker,” he says. “My goal has always been to keep people talking to one another.”

On a steamy summer day, George Langeler is at his alma mater, making a circuit of the Founders Lounge in the Frick Center. In his ninth decade, he is trim and smartly dressed. As a concession to the heat, he has for the moment folded his blue sportcoat neatly over an arm bent at the elbow. His shirt seems impossibly unwrinkled.

Langeler is in search of a quiet corner for a conversation, but all the best spots have been taken by solitary students communing with iPhones or laptops. A sofa in the room’s far reaches looks promising until it turns out to be occupied by a sleeping figure. Undeterred, Langeler commandeers a pair of lounge chairs and wrestles them into new positions so that they face each other, an impromptu talk-show set.

Setting the stage for useful conversation has long been one of his notable talents. Langeler is at Elmhurst College for a meeting of the Board of Trustees, on which he has served for 36 years. Ask colleagues about his work on the board and the responses you hear echo what you have heard from Oberlin people about his years as dean there: George is a mediator, a negotiator, a unifier, a catalyst.  

As the longtime chair of the board’s faculty and curriculum committee, Langeler says he tried to be a go-between, helping professors and trustees understand one another. Again, he made himself a bridge. George Thoma, a distinguished professor emeritus of economics, remembers that when the Elmhurst faculty was revising the general education curriculum back early in the 1990s, the board seemed to grow impatient with the pace of deliberations. It is a common conflict: board members from the corporate world, accustomed to efficiency and hierarchies, do not always appreciate the shared governance of academia, with its need for negotiation and consensus. Faculty, accustomed to the measured pace of committees and meetings, do not always buy the need for speed. Thoma says Langeler was able to persuade the board to give the professors time to get the curriculum right, while also prodding the faculty to move the process along. “He was an even-handed mediator, and he created a great deal of trust,” says Thoma, thus defusing “tensions between the board and the faculty. He was a very valuable guy.”

 Langeler has been devoted to Elmhurst since his first days at the College, as a student in the fall of 1945. He had grown up a mile or so from campus, but admits that he enrolled somewhat reluctantly and when he arrived he “knew very little about the place.” His ambition had been to study agriculture at what is now Iowa State University. But he reasoned that since he was likely to be drafted into the armed forces at any moment, it made more sense to study close to home.  

He took to the College immediately. Painfully shy as a high schooler, he hit it oΩ with his classmates and professors. He built sets for the student theatre group, joined the Future Teachers of America, and made more friends than he ever had before. He was elected president of his class, a position he still holds after more than 60 years. (He is routinely renominated and reelected whenever the class meets for reunions. “I’ve tried to propose term limits, but I’m always voted down.”)

At Elmhurst, Langeler discovered an interest in biology, sparked largely by the enthusiasm of one of his professors, Harvey DeBruine. Watching DeBruine and his colleagues, Langeler came to realize that the best teachers offer more than academic expertise. “My professors at Elmhurst were not just competent but also caring,” he says. “That was important to me at the time, and it was something I remembered when I began my own career.”

He decided at Elmhurst to become a science teacher, and went on to complete a master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Then came a call from his old school, inviting him to return to Elmhurst to teach introductory biology. “It scared me,” says Langeler. “I’d only been away one year. It occurred to me that I could end up teaching students who had recently been in class with me. I was so determined to be prepared. I got through that first year, but I never worked so hard in my life.”

He spent the next five years on the Elmhurst campus, teaching zoology, ornithology and other courses. He also became the faculty head resident in Irion Hall, at the time a dormitory for men. It was his introduction to what would become a storied career in student aΩairs.

After earning his doctorate at the University of Michigan, Langeler arrived at Oberlin College in 1959. He continued to teach, but also took on a series of trouble-shooting posts in administration during a time when the institution was reorganizing itself. He got the job as dean of students in 1966.

The new dean stepped into the role just as colleges and universities were making the transition away from the old-style in loco parentis policies—early curfews, moral codes, fierce control over student organizations—that had ruled for decades in American higher education. The new style gave students a role in governing campus life and expanded their individual autonomy. Thus empowered, Oberlin’s students quickly took to questioning college policies, and their questions—some trivial, some personal, some momentous—often ended up on Langeler’s desk. Why do we have to wear shoes in class? What’s up with mandatory physical education? Why doesn’t the college offer gynecological services? Why are we hosting military recruiters? Where can I come down from an acid trip?

Langeler’s approach to such questions was a simple one. Talk it out. Listen carefully. Search for agreement. The result was something of a revolution in Oberlin’s student life, but one arrived at not by confrontation but by consensus. In 1969, when Oberlin became one of the first colleges in the country to provide joint housing for men and women—“coed dorms”—it earned a big, splashy cover story in Life. (What seems strange now about Life’s photographs of male and female students mingling together in the residence halls is the near ubiquity of beaded bell-bottom jeans.)

Langeler knew that plenty of people at Oberlin were not ready for the idea of coed dorms. He worried about what the alumni would say. Just a few years earlier, Oberlin’s rules limited dorm visits between the sexes to a few hours on Sunday; women had to observe curfews. Men were housed on the north end of campus, women on the south. As late as the 1930s, men and women were not even allowed to sit next to each other in chapel. Yet when change came to the residence halls, it came mostly because “we couldn’t see any reason not to do it.” A year earlier, Crawford Hall had been turned into an experiment in kibbutzstyle living during the month-long winter term, with men on the first floor and women on the second. The experiment had gone well. Once the college decided to expand mixed housing across the campus, “it became a model for what was to follow” at other colleges.

The dean’s knack for building bridges should not be mistaken for an unhealthy aversion to conflict or controversy. He worked with student-identity groups and special program houses, both of which inspired arguments on campus and beyond. He supported a study of the issues faced by gay and lesbian students long before such a thing was fashionable or even acceptable on many campuses. The very length of his tenure as dean of students at a cutting-edge college—23 years—speaks to his talent for weathering turbulent seas.

 “I don’t know how he stood it for so long,” Koppes, his former colleague, says. “Dean of students is one of the most difficult jobs on any campus, and particularly at Oberlin, where students have such strong political motivations and such a strong desire to challenge authority. He somehow managed to navigate all that. He is genial and good-natured, but also very skillful.”

If all those disputatious students sometimes made his job complicated, they also made it worthwhile. “He clearly liked mentoring students,” says Dennis Rosenbaum, an Oberlin alumnus who as a student worked with Langeler on independent study projects in the early 1980s. “He asked a lot of questions, and he helped you find your own way. He had such a calmness about him that you can understand how he was able to work with such disparate groups over the years.”

Langeler says the first thing he noticed about his students was how engaged they were, how much they wanted to grapple with the world. Far from scaring him off, that quality made Langeler feel he had found a home.

It was a little like his reaction to Elmhurst College when he arrived as a freshman. In most of his classes, he found veterans recently returned from service overseas. They had a worldliness about them unlike anything he and his sheltered peers from high school had known. “These veterans asked questions,” Langeler says. “They were curious about the world. I found people I was in sync with.”

Now, in retirement, Langeler keeps busy satisfying his own expansive curiosity about the world. For the last 20 years or so, he has spent most of each winter traveling in Asia. It all started in 1982, when Langeler visited China a few years after it had opened itself to Westerners. He later taught at or consulted with colleges in India, Japan and Indonesia, and served on the board of an Asian-American educational exchange program.

He spends his summers in New Hampshire. Knee trouble has forced him to cut back on his beloved long hikes in the White Mountains, but he still canoes the local lakes and ponds. “He’s an energetic guy, and he seems to get more energetic every year,” Professor Thoma says.  “He’s not someone who is drifting into idleness.”

Back in the Frick Center, Langeler checks his schedule. The demands of his energetic retirement are bringing the meeting to an early close. But like the mediator he has always been, he wants to keep the conversation going. He would like to talk about Elmhurst College, about how he’s encouraged by the institution’s direction. And he would like to talk some more about students. He is thinking back to the lessons he absorbed from Professor Harvey DeBruine and his Elmhurst colleagues more than half a century ago.

 “Students have to feel they’re important,” George Langeler says, almost in summation. “It’s one of the critical elements of education. They have to know they matter.”

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