Are Oberlin College officials serious when they say they were defending students’ free speech? That remains the college’s defense even after a jury found the college guilty of libel and interference with business in its dealings with Gibson’s Food Mart and Bakery.
Gibson’s Bakery felt defamed by Oberlin College’s involvement in a campaign accusing the bakery of racism. As everyone who pays attention to American higher education now knows, the civil case went to trial. On June 7, the jury awarded Gibson’s Bakery $11 million in compensatory damages. Several days later it granted the plaintiffs an additional $33 million as a punitive award. The judge quickly denied the College’s request that he declare a mistrial.
The case stems from an act of shoplifting. On November 9, 2016, immediately after the election of President Trump, an Oberlin student, Jonathan Aladin, attempted to shoplift several bottles of wine from Gibson’s. Allyn D. Gibson, the grandson of the store’s owner, was clerking. He noticed the attempted theft and ran after Aladin. An altercation ensued across the street which ended with Aladin and two companions, Cecilia Whettstone and Endia Lawrence, beating Gibson as he lay on the ground.
Police arrived and arrested the three assailants, all of whom pled guilty to various charges—Aladin to robbery and the other two to first-degree misdemeanor assault.
But immediately after the incident, word spread through the Oberlin College student community that Aladin, who is black, had been racially profiled. This soon escalated into a claim that the bakery had a history of racial profiling and disparate treatment of blacks. A campaign suddenly emerged accusing the bakery of racism. Protesters assembled outside the bakery and in some cases entered the bakery and harassed customers. The campaign escalated still further into a demand that Oberlin College ceases buying food from the bakery through one of the College’s contractors. The College complied with the demand.
Gibson’s Bakery, which has served the community since 1885, immediately suffered severe financial losses. When the Gibson family complained to Oberlin College about the treatment, it was brusquely turned away. The bakery filed suit and plainly prevailed.
Beyond the Basics
The suit would have amounted to very little if, in fact, Gibson’s Bakery had indeed engaged in racial profiling or any other form of racism. Those claims, however, were demonstrably false. Gibson’s Bakery in recent years had been victimized by a great deal of shoplifting, mostly by Oberlin students. We know this because police records show 40 instances of shoplifting in which the perpetrators were arrested from 2011 through 2016. More than four out of five of those arrested (82.5 percent) were Oberlin students. Thirty-two of those arrested (80 percent) were white, six were black, and two were Asian.
The College fought (unsuccessfully) to exclude this information from the trial. Plainly, Gibson’s Bakery had a problem with Oberlin students shoplifting, but it was a problem that had nothing to do with race. Students at Oberlin generally understood the situation. The student newspaper, the Oberlin Grape, reported in a December 2017 article about Oberlin College’s student “Culture of Theft.” The article reports the insouciance of students towards pilfering local businesses. As one student put it, describing her multiple thefts from Gibson’s: “It wasn’t expensive, and I felt like it…I just preferred not paying for it, but I could have.”
Stealing from local businesses is, in the eyes of many Oberlin students, a quasi-right or privilege. They don’t feel guilty about it. They feel cool, or to put in today’s language, entitled.
They also feel uninhibited about making up stories and flinging accusations without any need for evidence or any sense of simple fairness. How widely are attitudes like this spread among Oberlin’s 2,800-some students? Plainly there is no way of knowing. But perhaps it is a factor employers should consider when an Oberlin graduate applies for a job. Honesty isn’t high on the list of values that Oberlin cultivates in its students
Back to the Story
Oberlin College’s explanation throughout the Gibson affair was that it was simply assisting Oberlin students in their rightful exercise of free speech. Following the verdict, Oberlin doubled down with an email to the whole college community reiterating its position:
Neither Oberlin College nor Dean Meredith Raimondo defamed a local business or its owners, and they never endorsed statements made by others. Rather, the College and Dr. Raimondo worked to ensure that students’ freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful, and they attempted to help the plaintiffs repair any harm caused by the student protests.
It is hard to respond to this in any way other than with a hearty guffaw. Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo helped to organize the student protesters, orchestrated the protest, handed out the same flyers that the protesters distributed, contributed logistical help to the protesters, attempted to silence Gibson’s complaints, and responded vituperatively to those at Oberlin who objected to the College’s involvement in the anti-Gibson campaign. She stands out as Oberlin’s prime mover in the effort to demonize Gibson’s bakery as “racist.”
But she was far from alone. Oberlin’s attack on Gibson’s was fed by its former president, Marvin Krislov, by the director of its Multicultural Resource Center, Toni Myers, and by its vice president for communications, Ben Jones, among others. Jones added this lovely rejoinder to the College’s critics: “F***-em … they’ve made their own bed now.”
The key question is: Why stick with a story that has been so discredited?
The answer is that people such as former President Krislov and Dean Raimondo have nowhere else to go. They have defined themselves and their college by a commitment to a narrow set of progressive imperatives. Among these are the propositions that America is a racist nation; that the pursuit of “social justice” overrides petty concerns about specific details or mere factual accuracy; that expression of “opinion” is self-justifying; and that the progressively enlightened few need to maintain solidarity against the unenlightened many. Oberlin College is right to disdain Gibson’s Bakery and the rest of the ignorant and foolish people who have not yet recognized the deep insights into humanity embodied in Oberlin’s revealed truths.
In that sense, you can’t understand the Gibson’s Bakery story without understanding Oberlin College’s deeper and deeper descent into a kind of collective madness that overtook the college during Marvin Krislov’s decade as president, 2007-2017. Krislov himself—now president of Pace University—is a tell-tale figure. He is a lawyer who led the defense of the University of Michigan’s racial preferences in the Supreme Court case of Gratz v. Bollinger and had a well-established reputation before he was appointed Oberlin’s president as a fierce defender of affirmative action. Encouraging a spirit of racial grievance was close to the center of his life. And so it happened that Oberlin embarked on a decade of discovering racial grievances pretty much out of thin air.
In 2013, a student discerned a Ku Klux Klan member strolling the campus at night. It turned out to be an undergraduate hugging herself against the chill with a blanket. A racist graffiti campaign turned out to be the work of two progressive students engaged in a little Jessie Smollett. They were apprehended by the campus police, but Krislov hid that from the students to create a “teachable moment.” In 2015, Oberlin students made themselves a laughingstock by complaining that Asian food should be banned from their cafeterias because of “culinary cultural appropriation.” Dig into the student newspaper for more appetizing details of Oberlindia.
When a college administration signals that its highest values are taking umbrage at the unenlightened opinions of others and discovering racial animus lurking behind the most innocent-seeming circumstances of everyday life, it is a safe bet that students will get on board. Umbrage and suspicion will expand to fill the void left by the absence of serious educational purpose.
One might think that Oberlin’s board of trustees, if not its key administrators, would add up $11 million and $33 million and reach the sum that Oberlin has made some significant mistakes. But no, that’s not where this seems to be going. Oberlin’s new president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, could have laid the matter at her predecessor’s doorstep. She didn’t incite the protests or defame Gibson’s Bakery. But in the aftermath of the jury’s decision, President Ambar wrote to the Oberlin community expressing disappointment “in the jury’s decisions and the fragmentary and sometimes distorted public discussion of this case.” Ambar declared, “I want to assure you that none of this will sway us from our core values. It will not distract, deter, or materially harm our educational mission, for today’s students or for generations to come.”
If the “educational mission” in question is the same one that fostered a “culture of theft” and a hair-trigger willingness to launch a protest based on unsubstantiated (and false) rumor, Ambar’s reassurances are a sad testimony to how poorly Oberlin College has understood the jury’s message. Calling innocent people “racist” is not a form of free speech that a college should encourage and endorse. Joining a self-righteous mob bent on destroying a legitimate business is never a good idea, and doing so in the spirit of ratifying students’ arrogant assumptions of superiority is even worse.
We all know the case isn’t over. Oberlin College will file appeal after appeal. The financial judgment will eventually be reduced. Oberlin apparently will do all that it can to cement the public impression that it is a wildly irresponsible place that should never be entrusted with the character formation of college students.
One might think that Oberlin College would have at least embraced this simple rule: Don’t steal. Oberlin, however, came up with a different lesson. They wanted Gibson’s Bakery to adopt a different simple rule: Don’t report our students to the police. Just tell us. We’ll handle it. Gibson’s Bakery properly refused this deal. America should properly refuse it too. Oberlin must be held accountable for its wanton attack on Gibson’s Bakery and its no less wanton complicity in the corruption of its students.
Editor's note: this article was originally published by Minding the Campus on June 24, 2019