Oberlin College case shows how universities are losing their way
For many who lament the shift from academics to activism across college campuses in the United States, Oberlin College in Ohio is the equivalent of the “China syndrome” during nuclear accidents, a point where chain reactions become impossible to stop or control. Oberlin students often find new issues to protest, even on one of the most liberal campuses in the world, like objections to serving sushi as cultural appropriation. As on other campuses across the country, these protests are encouraged by an array of faculty members and ever accommodating administrators.
This week, however, the bill came due for Oberlin when a jury awarded over $11 million in damages to a family bakery for being defamed as racist by its college students and officials. That motion was later followed by a whopping $33 million punitive award. It is only the latest example of how faculty members and officials are driving their institutions toward financial and intellectual bankruptcy, thanks to their advocacy or acquiescence.
The latest controversy began with a shoplifting case. In 2016, an African American student named Jonathan Aladin was caught trying to steal a bottle of wine from Gibson’s Bakery, which was established in 1885 and has been closely tied to the college for over a century. When the grandson of the owner tried to stop Aladin, a fight ensued and police were called. Aladin and two other students, Cecilia Whettstone and Endia Lawrence, were arrested. Students, professors, and administrators held protests, charging that the bakery was racist and profiled the three students.
Oberlin maintains in court filings that the son and grandson of the owners of Gibson’s Bakery “violently and unreasonably attacked” an unarmed student, but that is not how the police viewed it. Aladin was charged with robbery, which is a second degree felony, and Whettstone and Lawrence were charged with first degree misdemeanor assault. Police rejected claims of a racial motive and noted that, over a period of five years, 40 adults were arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s Bakery, but only six were African American. It also is not how the court viewed it. When prosecutors cut a plea deal to reduce the charge to attempted theft, a local judge refused. He said the plea deal appeared to be the result of a permanent “economic sanction” by the college in which the victim had little choice but to relent. Ultimately, all three students pleaded guilty.
The merits of the case did not seem to bother Oberlin officials or student protesters. Dean of students Meredith Raimondo reportedly joined the massive protests and even handed out a flier denouncing the bakery as a racist business. When some people contacted Oberlin to object that the students admitted guilt, special assistant to the president for community and government relations Tita Reed wrote that it did not change a “damn thing” for her. Reed also reportedly participated in the campus protests.
Other faculty members encouraged students who denounced the bakery. The chairman of Africana studies posted, “Very proud of our students!” Oberlin barred purchases from the bakery, pending its investigation into whether this was “a pattern and not an isolated incident.” Raimondo also pressured Bon Appetit, a major contractor with the college, to cease business with the bakery. Reed even suggested that “once charges are dropped, orders will resume” and added that she was “baffled by their combined audacity and arrogance to assume the position of victim.”
It would be a statement that came back to haunt the college, in seeking to avoid punitive damages by arguing that the financial loss was too great for a small school, a sentiment that escaped these officials in hammering a small bakery. Owner David Gibson had discussed the ruinous impact of the boycott with college president Marvin Krislov and Raimondo received little sympathy. He said the two officials demanded that the bakery not call police when students shoplifted for the first time. Gibson objected that his bakery loses a large amount of money to shoplifting and that the college was demanding the equivalent of a first time “shoplifter pass.”
Not all Oberlin faculty members were silent in opposition to the boycott and protests. Theater professor Roger Copeland spoke publicly against the treatment of the bakery, but a livid vice president for communications Ben Jones responded to colleagues in a text message with an expletive against Copeland. Raimondo replied saying she would “unleash the students” if she was not convinced “this needs to be put behind us.”
The Oberlin case creates a troubling precedent for other institutions in higher education. Students certainly have the right to protest, and their views of a business can be a matter of opinion. However, if colleges are subject to damages for protests, they could resume efforts to curtail free speech. But this case turned on the actions of key officials who were viewed by the jury as encouraging, if not leading, the attacks. The college will appeal and, at a minimum, the $33 million award will be reduced to a $22 million limit under state law. While this may have amounted to record punitive damages against a college for defamation, it is not that unique.
Across the country, academics have caused lasting damage to their institutions by failing to stand up to, or actively supporting, extreme demands for speech codes, limits on academic freedom, and tenure changes. In Washington, Evergreen State College faculty members supported students who mobbed biology professor Bret Weinstein in a disturbing confrontation outside his office. The result was a significant $500,000 settlement with Weinstein and a major decline in applications. The University of Missouri experienced a similar meltdown on campus after assistant professor Melissa Click led attacks on a student journalist during heated protests in 2015. The university sought to accommodate protesters as applications plummeted and entire dorms were closed.
Other colleges have been hit with damages from students denied basic due process rights after being accused of sexual assault or harassment. While such rulings are mounting across the country, officials continue to ignore them and refuse to allow minimal rights for accused students. An even greater cost of acquiescence can be seen in reduced academic quality. Students increasingly demand changes based solely on the race or gender of authors, like Yale University students objecting that a course on English classics only included white authors like William Shakespeare.
We are reaching a critical point in higher education in the United States where leaders are ceding control to a small group of activist students and faculty members. Too often, those challenges are met not with acts of conscience but with cowardice. Professors fear being labeled as either insensitive or racist for objecting to protests or changes on campus.
Meanwhile, the costs mount with no reflection from administrators. Even with $44 million in total damages, Raimondo remains dean of students, and the college remains unapologetic. Oberlin was founded in 1833 on the belief that it is “peculiar in that which is good.” What happened at Gibson’s Bakery was neither good for Oberlin nor for higher education.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.