Reader Stephen sent me a link this article from Commentary, which is about the best summary I’ve seen of the fracas between Oberlin College in Ohio and a local business, Gibson’s Food Mart and Bakery (click on screenshot to read). I’ve posted a lot about this case in the last few months, and you can find a collection of the posts here. The Commentary piece is by Abraham Socher, who taught Jewish studies at Oberlin for 18 years as a professor.
In brief, a student and two friends were caught shoplifting alcohol by Allyn Gibson, one of the family that owns the long-time institution in Oberlin. (This is after the student tried to buy booze but was refused because he was underaged.) Gibson chased the students out of the store, whereupon the three got Gibson on the ground and started punching and kicking him. The cops showed up and arrested the students, who later pleaded guilty to attempted theft, aggravated trespassing, and underage purchase of alcohol (the ones who didn’t steal faced only the last two charges.) In their guilty pleas, the students acknowledged to the court that Gibson had acted lawfully and that he was not “racially motivated.”
The racial aspect is crucial here: the students were African-American and Gibson was white. This caused a huge bout of demonstrations and rioting against Gibson’s, with both the College and the students accusing Gibson’s of racism and urging an economic boycott of the family-owned business. The College even suspended purchases from Gibson’s for its dining hall—twice. Gibson’s tried to get the College to settle the case and stop denigrating the business and its owners, but Oberlin refused.
Faced with that, the Gibsons took Oberlin to court, and won. As Commentary says,
The jury found that Oberlin College and its dean of students had maliciously libeled the Gibson family as racists and deliberately damaged their business by suspending and later cancelling its century-long business relationship with the bakery—all while unofficially encouraging a student boycott. And the jury found that the college had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the Gibsons themselves.
Oberlin’s fine, originally $44 million including both punitive and compensatory damages, was later reduced to $31.5 million, with $25 in damages and $6.5 million paid to the Gibsons’ attorneys. While the case is under appeal, the judge forced Oberlin to post bond for that amount. Oberlin has vowed to fight on, has never admitted it did anything wrong, and has never repudiated either the charges of racism or the actions of its students. By digging in its heels this way, the College has damaged its reputation, especially for an institution that avows to seek truth and change the world in positive ways.
What I’d like to discuss here is how Oberlin College itself was complicit in defaming and damaging the Gibsons. If it were only the students who acted on their own, with neither support nor resources nor encouragement provided by Oberlin, the College could not have been sued. But Oberlin intervened in many ways, all of which added up to the guilty verdict and the huge fine. Here’s what Oberlin did to incite and support the students and their charges (quotes from the article are indented):
A.) College administrators impugned the Gibsons as well as members of their own faculty who urged the College to back off. Prominent in these activities was Meredith Raimondo, Dean of Students and Vice President of the College (“she/her/hers”).
In court, Raimondo and other key players in the Oberlin administration were shown to have actively supported two days of student protests against Gibson’s after the arrests, cursed and derided the Gibson family and its supporters in emails and texts—“idiots” was among the milder epithets—and ignored those within the college who urged deliberation, compromise, and restraint. Oberlin President Marvin Krislov and others rejected the Gibson family’s repeated pleas to renounce the charge that they were racists, even when presented with strong statistical and anecdotal evidence that this was not the case.
. . . On the sidelines of the court, the director of Oberlin’s Multicultural Resource Center and interim assistant dean of students, Antoinette Myers, texted her supervisor, Dean Raimondo. “After a year”—that is, after the students were eligible to have their criminal records expunged—“I hope we rain fire and brimstone on that store,” Myers wrote.
Clearly the administrators had a deep animus against Gibson’s. Why? Because the students, both black and white, were enraged at the bakery because of its supposed racism (which didn’t exist; see below), and College administrators must cater to their students, students who are, in America, becoming entitled and demanding customers. And the customer is always right.
Look at this backlash against a professor who urged Oberlin to stop the defamation:
In the fall of 2017, Roger Copeland, a distinguished professor of the history of theater, wrote in to the student paper [letter at link just above]. The college’s stance toward Gibson’s, he said, had been “evocative of the topsy-turvy value system in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, wherein the Red Queen declares, ‘Sentence first—verdict afterward.’” Now that an actual legal verdict was in, he urged the students, faculty, and administration to accept it:
The facts of this case are no longer in question. And yet, a counter-narrative has taken hold, one that refuses to allow mere “facts” to get in the way. . . . At what point do you accept the empirical evidence, even if that means having to embrace an “inconvenient” truth? . . . The time has come for the Dean of Students, on behalf of the College, to apologize to the Gibson family for damaging not only their livelihood but something more precious and difficult to restore—their reputation and good standing in the community.
Copeland’s letter was headlined “Gibson’s Boycott Denies Due Process.” He wasn’t wrong about the boycott. As the student editor of another campus publication wrote that fall, addressing new students, “the social implications of being seen at Gibson’s are much worse than any freshman faux pas I can imagine.”
But it was Copeland’s letter that upset administrators. Upon reading it, Oberlin’s Vice President of Communications Ben Jones texted Meredith Raimondo the following: “FUCK ROGER COPELAND!” To which Raimondo responded, “Fuck him. I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.” Which is to say, if prudence hadn’t suggested otherwise at that moment, Oberlin’s dean of students thought it would be a good idea to incite students against a professor for urging a respect for facts, law, and the welfare of one’s neighbors.
What Raminodo and Jones said is shameful. Really, those people should be let go!
But wait! There were more professors (one in Africana Studies) telling Oberlin to cool it. And the administration denigrated those professors as well:
Copeland wasn’t the only professor urging reconciliation now that the Gibson’s version of events had been unambiguously vindicated. Booker Peek, a longtime professor of education and Africana studies who heads a program in which Oberlin students tutor students in the local school, lamented the rift between the town and the college, and urged an out-of-court settlement, noting that Gibson’s had, “to its credit, [done] all that it could to keep the matter from ever going to trial in the first place.” Appealing to history, he reminded his readers that the Gibson family had come to Oberlin in the 19th century because of their opposition to slavery. Moreover, “a bare-knuckled, nasty, public fight will leave ugly scars and a putrid smell with no true winner.” Meanwhile, Kirk Ormand, a professor of classics, urged the administration to address the problem of student shoplifting more seriously. “I’m so sick of Kirk,” Dean Raimondo wrote to her colleagues.
So far we have Dean Raimondo, the director of the Multicultural Resource Center, and the Vice President of Communications all working together to destroy Gibson’s and those who defended it. Can you imagine a College Dean and Vice President saying that he should use the students as a weapon against a business—”unleashing” them?
B.) The College not only refused Gibson’s entreaties to settle the issue and stop going after them, but also contributed materially to the demonstrations and boycott. This was a deadly mistake on Oberlin’s part. For example, flyers were handed out at the student demonstration against Gibson’s:
The flyers were apparently run off for free on an Oberlin College copier in the nearby Conservatory of Music. Students were told that if they ran out of flyers, they could go back and copy more. The administrative assistant at the Conservatory who helped them was also fairly certain that an assistant dean who worked for Meredith Raimondo had himself run some off during the protest, though he denied it on the witness stand.
One of the principal requirements for proving libel is to show that the defendant has in some sense published the defamatory claims—for instance, by printing hundreds of copies and handing them out at a rally. In his jury instructions, trial judge John R. Miraldi explained that, if the flyer’s statements were determined to have been false, that would suggest the flyers were “libelous per se, meaning that they are of such a nature that it is presumed that they tend to degrade or disgrace plaintiffs, or hold plaintiffs up to public hatred, contempt, or scorn [and] … injure plaintiffs in their trade or profession.” Using Oberlin equipment to make copies of the flyers was a ruinous decision—since no history of racial profiling and discrimination by Gibson’s, long or short, was demonstrated in the court or, for that matter, outside it. Indeed, Oberlin’s legal defense implicitly acknowledged this by arguing not that such claims were true but that it had had no part in making them. It was just the students.
It wasn’t just the students, but also the administration. Raimondo showed up at the demonstration (supposedly as a neutral party), but in fact gave flyers out herself—some, unfortunately, to the editor of the local newspaper. College officials tried to stop the press from photographing the demonstration. At the demonstration Raimondo was yelling through a bullhorn, apparently supporting the demonstrators and informing them that there was free pizza and soda (bought by Oberlin) in the nearby Music Conservatory.
And when the chilly protestors were given gloves by a student organizer, Dean Raimondo reimbursed the student for the gloves.
C.) Oberlin allowed false and defamatory literature about Gibson’s to be posted in College buildings. Again, a serious mistake! The student Senate passed a resolution calling Gibson’s a racist institution and urging the students and college to cease all support of the bakery. This was made public. Likewise, the Department of Africana Studies, part of Oberlin, publicly accused Gibson’s of racism:
The defamatory Student Senate resolution was posted in the Student Union building for more than a year. That is to say that it, too, was, in the legally relevant sense of the word, published. This was also the case for the Department of Africana Studies message on its public Facebook wall, which read: “Very Very proud of our students! Gibson’s has been bad for decades, their dislike of Black people is palpable. Their food is rotten and they profile Black students. NO MORE!”
D.) Oberlin cut financial ties with Gibson’s, telling them they would be severed so long as Gibson’s continued to press charges against the students. They did this twice. That was action designed to injure the business.
Oberlin’s food services cancelled its weekly bakery order from Gibson’s, under orders from Dean Raimondo. When owner David Gibson (Allyn Gibson’s father and the elder Allyn W. Gibson’s son) met with representatives of the college, he was told that the order would not be resumed as long as Gibson continued to press charges against the students. The following semester the orders were resumed, though the crippling informal student boycott continued; when Gibson’s later filed suit, the orders were cancelled again. Emails revealed at the trial showed several members of the Oberlin administration discussing the financial hit Gibson’s was taking and speculating on the leverage it gave the college in the dispute.
E.) Oberlin fought against admitting evidence that Gibson’s had no history of racism. To me, this is one of the most unconscionable things that Oberlin did. They were fighting against revealing the truth, simply because that truth made the College and students look bad:
David Gibson brought statistics from the Oberlin Police Department to the college showing that of the 40 people arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s over the previous five years, 33 were students of the college, 32 were white, six were African American and two were Asian, which almost perfectly matched the racial makeup of the city. Despite its stated determination to explore “whether this is a pattern and not an isolated incident,” Krislov’s administration was unmoved. At trial, the college’s lawyers tried and failed to have the statistics quashed as evidence.
At the end of his piece, Socher speculates about why Oberlin behaved as it did rather than doing the right thing. One is that the College was conditioned to treat its students as customers, as I mentioned above. In fact, one of President Krislov’s aides said that “both the college and Gibson’s were dealing with the same customer base”, and because of that the school couldn’t send out a notice supporting Gibson’s.
Socher’s other suggestion is that, as in many colleges, “There is a kind of Pareto principle working at schools like Oberlin in which the radicalized 5 or 10 percent of the population establishes the tone for the entire institution,” and that colleges are particularly susceptible to this kind of leverage because the college was dedicated to changing the world (its motto is “Think one person can change the world? So do we.”). As the radical students examplified this drive for change, they gained enormous symbolic power. Sadly, they were poorly motivated.
There are surely other reasons why Oberlin screwed up big time, but I won’t go into my own speculations here. I just want to underscore the fact that there are real consequences to a college’s catering to misguided claims of ideologically motivated students: consequences to its reputation, legal consequences, and, of course financial consequences, which are substantial in this case.
Other schools that act like Oberlin—and we’ll see this happening the next academic year—should pay careful attention to the Oberlin vs. Gibson’s case. If administrators themselves aren’t committed to doing the right thing, at least they can avoid doing the wrong thing to avoid suffering Oberlin’s fate.
If Oberlin had any desire to make amends—which it doesn’t—it could start by firing Raimondo.