I went back to Oberlin on a Friday in June for the first time in a year or so. Even retired professors like me have to return books to the library (eventually). Driving off the Ohio-10 freeway, down East Lorain Street, past the organic George Jones Farm—named for a beloved botany professor, not the great country-and-western singer—I saw the first of several yard signs supporting Gibson’s Bakery in its lawsuit against Oberlin College and its dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, who is also vice president of the college. The previous day, a Lorain County jury had awarded Gibson’s an astounding $33 million in punitive damages in addition to the $11.2 million it had already assigned to the family business for compensatory damages.
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.
At least neither Dean Raimondo nor anyone in the Oberlin administration was found to have harmed the Gibson family dog. But someone did slash the tires of their employees’ cars; there were anonymous threats; and someone harassed the 90-year-old paterfamilias, Allyn W. Gibson, in the middle of the night, causing him to slip and crack three vertebrae. All because on November 9, 2016, his grandson and namesake, Allyn Gibson, who is white, had caught an underage African-American student named Jonathan Aladin first trying to buy and then trying to steal wine from the store with two college friends. When Gibson tried first to call the police and then to take a picture of Aladin with two bottles of wine under his shirt, Aladin slapped the phone out of his hands and ran out of the store. Gibson chased him across the street, tried to stop him, and was beaten up by Aladin and his friends. “I’m going to kill you,” Gibson reported Aladin saying. Aladin and his friends, Endia Lawrence and Cecelia Whettstone, were arrested. The Gibsons pressed charges against the students despite the college’s repeated demands that they drop them.
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.
In August 2017, nine months after his arrest, Jonathan Aladin pled guilty to misdemeanor charges of attempted theft, aggravated trespassing, and underage purchase of alcohol. His friends pled guilty to the first two charges. All three students read statements to the court acknowledging that Allyn Gibson had been within his rights to detain them and that his actions had not been racially motivated. 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.
The fact that the students’ guilty plea was the result of a plea deal, as most criminal convictions are, and that the students’ allocution was compelled by the court (a feature of criminal justice with deep roots in common law) encouraged many students and faculty to believe that somehow this had still been a racist incident. How, exactly, was never made clear. What should Allyn Gibson have done with an underage customer who had just shown him a clearly fake I.D. and now had two bottles of wine under his shirt? Perhaps if Gibson had said something like “Come let us reason together: I can’t sell you wine, but I can share a nice cold Snapple with you while we discuss my family’s exceedingly thin profit margins and how we are both oppressed under neoliberalism,” things would have been different. They might even have found out that they had something in common, since Jonathan Aladin was the student treasurer at Oberlin, which also has thin margins.
In the fall of 2017, Roger Copeland, a distinguished professor of the history of theater, wrote in to the student paper. 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.
Copeland knew something about unleashed students and summary social justice on campus. Three years earlier, he had had a sharp exchange with a student during the rehearsal of a play and ended up being investigated for “a possible violation of Title IX,” the civil-rights law that prohibits discrimination in education based on sex. He was directed to sign a document acknowledging the complaint, though he was not allowed to know his accuser or the details of the complaint. In what is perhaps the best-known line of a widely read New Yorker article about radical politics at Oberlin, Copeland told author Nathan Heller that he had thought “I’m cast in one of my least favorite plays of all time, ‘The Crucible,’ by Arthur Miller!” Raimondo was in charge of Title IX enforcement at the time. When Copeland got a lawyer, the complaint evaporated. (After reading the crude texts about him, the Gibsons, and others from erstwhile colleagues, one wonders if Copeland now thinks Oberlin might be closer to Mamet than Miller. Call it “Ideological Perversity in Ohio.”)
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 how, exactly, did a famously liberal liberal-arts college end up looking and acting like the arrogant, small-minded, vindictive corporation in a second-rate John Grisham novel?
Turning from East Lorain onto College Street with its spreading old elm and maple trees, I put that question out of my mind and thought instead of the quirky, talented, sometimes brilliant students I had taught at Oberlin for 18 years, from 2000 to my retirement in 2018. There was the scholarship kid from Indianapolis who ended up clerking on the D.C. Circuit, the violinist who became obsessed with how Maimonides cited scripture, the girl from rural Minnesota who understood Spinoza better than anybody else, the neo-Hasidic defensive lineman, the kid from Cameroon who compared the Talmudic law of lost objects to the oral traditions his mother had memorized . . .
Oberlin students were rarely as disciplined as the intimidating academic thoroughbreds I had briefly taught at Stanford, but they were often more interesting. They had come to Oberlin, literally, out of curiosity.
So to reframe the question: How does an institution take kids like that, and, by precept and example, teach them to rush to judgment, ignore evidence, disdain the legal system, and demonize neighbors who are different? On that last point—that of difference, as we say in the academy—Dean Raimondo went to Brown and Emory, President Krislov had been a Rhodes scholar, Jonathan Aladin had come to Oberlin from Phillips Andover.
Allyn Gibson? He’s a fifth-generation townie.
Oberlin doesn’t run summer sessions, so there weren’t many students in town when I drove in, but there were a lot of middle-aged folks on College Street with nametags and shopping bags. It looked like an alumni event, but it turned out to be the annual conference of the Socialist Workers Party—the Trotskyite group that broke with the Communist Party during the 1930s Stalinist show trials. When I walked into Gibson’s, there was an unusually large stack of the local newspaper, the Chronicle Telegram, with the headline “Gibson’s Total Award: $44M.” Along with Gibson’s chocolates and locally famous whole-wheat donuts, the Socialist Workers were buying up souvenir copies of the newspaper and congratulating the cashier on the victory. They seemed not to have gotten Oberlin’s progressive memo about Gibson’s—or rather to have rejected it. “This was always bullshit,” a demure woman with an SWP nametag said. “I’ve been coming to Gibson’s for years, they’re good people.”
I’ve also been coming to Gibson’s for years. When I interviewed for a job here two decades ago, one of my faculty hosts, who, like many professors, was himself an Oberlin graduate, took me by the store, rhapsodized about those whole-wheat donuts, and bought me one of the Gibson’s postcards they still have up by the cash register. It’s an undated picture of the storefront in the twilight after a light snow and looks as if it could have been taken anytime since the 1930s (in fact, the store was founded in 1885 and has been at its current location since 1905). Allyn W. Gibson, who must have been about 70 at the time, rung up the sale. Walking around the store now, I was struck by how sparsely the shelves were stocked, and wondered if it was a result of the student boycott. I bought three postcards, a Snapple, and a copy of the paper.
The Chronicle Telegram has followed the Gibson’s case from the outset, with detailed reporting from reporters Scott Mahoney, Dave O’Brien, and Jodi Weinberger. Cornell Law School professor William Jacobson has also discussed it from the beginning on his Legal Insurrection blog, along with local freelance reporter Daniel McGraw, who covered every day of the trial in great detail for Legal Insurrection. While following the case as a former Oberlin professor was depressing, reading all of these excellent, unpretentious journalists as they chronicled the conduct of local police officers, attorneys, and judges calmly ascertaining facts and administering justice was a bit restorative.
The Gibson’s v. Oberlin College story is about campus politics. As such, it is frequently ridiculous. But insofar as it shows in stark, petty detail the ideologically driven failures of deliberation and judgment, the craven political calculations, and the cynical abuses of power in an institution ostensibly devoted to higher learning, it is instructive. Robert Caro famously wrote that “if you really want to show power in its larger aspects, you need to show the effects on the powerless, for good or ill.” Oberlin College has more than $1 billion in assets, about 3,000 students, and several hundred faculty and staff. Gibson’s is a small family grocery that has depended on the college in direct and indirect ways for its business for over a century.
Whether the extraordinary verdict against Oberlin will force a cultural reckoning of some kind remains an open question. Oberlin’s reputation has certainly suffered, as Professor Peek predicted, and the college has signaled that it will appeal. Immediately after the verdict, current college president Carmen Twillie Ambar wrote to faculty and alumni, stating: “This is, in fact, just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process. I want to assure you that none of this will sway us from our core values.” Even if the college were to win its appeal on, say, narrow technical grounds, it wouldn’t show that the assault on Gibson’s was somehow about anyone’s “core values,” even Oberlin’s.
Here is what happened.
Although Jonathan Aladin, his friends, and Allyn Gibson are all formally on the record as agreeing on the events in Gibson’s on the afternoon of November 9, third-party accounts begin with the Oberlin police arriving a few minutes after the initial contretemps. When Officer Victor Ortiz got there, he later testified, “We saw two young ladies standing over [Gibson] and throwing haymakers…The two women would stand over him and kick him, and then crouch down and throw punches. As we got closer, we could see [Gibson] on his back, with the male [Aladin] on top of him and punching him.”
The next day, between 200 and 300 Oberlin students mounted a protest against Gibson’s. They chanted “wake up, stay woke” as they held up hand-lettered signs, some of which had familiar slogans (“No Justice, No Peace,” “Black Lives Matter”) and others of which specifically called out Allyn Gibson and his family as racists who should be boycotted.
A confident representative of the black student organization, ABUSUA, led chants and danced a little as she read a statement to kick things off:
We are here today because yesterday three students from the Africana community were assaulted and arrested as a result of a history of racial profiling and racial discrimination by Gibson’s Bakery. There is a need for justice to be served to hold Gibson’s accountable for its injustices and patterns of unlawful behavior.
She made no mention of shoplifting. Neither did the protest flyers, which had an old-school agitprop aesthetic and read, in part, “This is a Racist establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT [sic] of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION. Today we urge you to shop elsewhere in light of a particularly heinous event involving the owners of this establishment and local law enforcement. PLEASE STAND WITH US.” Above these words was a starburst with “DON’T BUY” at its center. It also had the following description of the event at Gibson’s:
A member of our community was assaulted by the owner of this establishment yesterday. A nineteen y/o young man was apprehended and choked by Allyn Gibson…. The young man, who was accompanied by 2 friends was choked until the 2 forced Allyn to let go. After The young man was free, Allyn chased him. . . tackled him and restrained him again until Oberlin police arrived. The 3 were racially profiled on the scene. They were arrested without being questioned, asked their names, or read their rights.
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.
And what of the “particularly heinous event” perpetrated by Gibson and the police as described in the flyer? Well, Allyn Gibson’s actions in chasing down a shoplifter may have been overzealous or foolhardy (given the beating he took), but they were certainly not heinous. Moreover, police bodycam footage depicted officers calmly going about their business, acting firmly but avoiding confrontation and collecting evidence, trying to understand what happened. The footage shows Aladin asking the officer why he is being arrested and not Gibson, and the officer responds, “Well, when we got here, you all were on top of him whaling on him.” Every statement—every statement—on the protest flyer was false and defamatory.
The protest did not take place on campus, but Dean Raimondo was on hand. Indeed, emails show her calling a staff meeting to prepare for it early that morning. Raimondo and the college maintain that she was merely there to “support” the students in the value-neutral sense of that word. However, accounts of her actions at the rally by several witnesses do not paint the picture of a neutral bureaucrat-observer. Although she at first denied doing so, Dean Raimondo gave a copy of the defamatory flyer to at least one person at the protest—who, unfortunately for her and the college, turned out to be Jason Hawk, editor of the Oberlin News-Tribune. She also tried to prevent him from taking pictures. (“Very challenging interaction with guy who says he’s a photographer for the Tribune,” she texted Director of Communications Scott Wargo.) Hawk testified that he saw her addressing the crowd with a bullhorn to tell them there was free pizza and soda for them provided by the college in the Music Conservatory building across the street. According to a FAQ sheet Oberlin sent to professors and staff after the verdict, Raimondo handled the bullhorn for no more than two minutes, but Rick McDaniel, a former Oberlin College director of security, thought she was on the bullhorn for more than 20 minutes. McDaniel also testified to being harassed by a college employee when he tried to take pictures.
Trey James, an African-American employee of Gibson’s who was working during the protests, testified that he saw Raimondo “standing directly in front of the store with a megaphone,” as Legal Insurrection reported. “It appeared she was the voice of authority. She was telling the kids what to do, where to go. Where to get water, use the restrooms, where to make copies.” As for those flyers, James testified that “she had a stack of them and while she was talking on the bullhorn, she handed out half of them to a student who then went and passed them out.” James, a thoughtful, witty man with whom I’ve chitchatted over the years, has also forcefully and repeatedly asserted that the Gibsons are not racists, as have other African-American friends and neighbors. During the protests, a shaken Lorna Gibson, Allyn Gibson’s mother, was comforted by Vicky Gaines, an African-American nurse who grew up in Oberlin and works for the college. Later she told the jury, “I’ve known them for about 40 years, our kids played together, we go to their sporting event, eat at each other’s homes, no, never even heard of the thought of them as being racist.”
Although the mood of the students ranged from boisterous to a kind of glum self-righteousness, there seemed to be very little sense that the Gibsons themselves might be suffering. Student Kameron Dunbar, who was perhaps the most widely quoted of the protesters, instead emphasized, in an interview with the Blade, how hard the protest was on him.
“Nobody wants to protest. Students don’t get joy from waking up in the morning and asking, ‘What are we gonna protest next?’” he said. “[These] were some of the most emotionally exhausting days of my life. … I think it’s easy to essentialize this moment into another ‘college kids gone crazy’. … For the Oberlin community, this is so serious, and I just wish the broader community was afforded the opportunity to gain the nuance that I have.”
Among the “nuances” Dunbar and his fellow protesters appeared not to get was the relevance of the facts of the case and the financial and emotional stress being inflicted upon an innocent family. A liberal-arts education is often said to teach students how to put themselves in the shoes of their fellow citizens. Suppose that Dunbar and his friends had thought about what it was like for the Gibsons and their employees to see hundreds of angry students marching out of their castle- and cathedral-like campus buildings and over the massive manicured lawn of Tappan Square to try to destroy their business because they had the temerity to try to stop a shoplifter. (Neither the New York Times, nor Rolling Stone, nor any of the other media outlets that quoted Dunbar noted that he worked alongside Jonathan Aladin in the Office of the Student Treasurer and was a paid blogger for Oberlin’s Office of Communications.)
When it got a little chilly in the evening of the first day of the protests, a student-organizer bought the remaining protesters gloves. Raimondo approved a reimbursement for the gloves the next day.
On the first day of the protest, less than 24 hours after the incident, the Oberlin Student Senate passed a resolution that began by saying that as a result of “conversations with students involved, statements from witnesses, and a thorough reading of the police report, we find it important to share a few key facts.” It went on:
A Black student was chased and assaulted at Gibson’s after being accused of stealing. Several other students, attempting to prevent the assaulted student from sustaining further injury, were arrested and held by the Oberlin Police Department. In the midst of all this Gibson’s employees were never detained, and were given preferential treatment by police officers.
Gibson’s has a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of students and residents alike. Charged as representatives of the Associated Students of Oberlin College, we have passed the following resolution:
…WHEREAS, Gibson’s Food Market and Bakery has made their utter lack of respect for the community members of color strikingly visible, therefore be it
RESOLVED that the Students of Oberlin College immediately cease all support, financial and otherwise, of Gibson’s Food Market and Bakery; and be it further
RESOLVED that the students of Oberlin College call on President Marvin Krislov, Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, all other administrators and the general faculty to condemn by written promulgation the treatment of students of color by Gibson’s.
As with the protest flyer, virtually every statement here would prove to be misleading, demonstrably false, or aimed at directly harming Gibson’s. Indeed, although the student senators made a show of fact-finding, they plainly rejected the police report because it did not tell the story they wanted to hear, and the only witnesses they spoke to were the students hanging out across the street from Gibson’s in Tappan Square, not those who were in the store with Allyn Gibson and Jonathan Aladin.
Raimondo was the official adviser to the Student Senate. In that role, she might have advised the senators that it is impossible to discern facts that quickly or with that much certitude—as the study of, say, history, philosophy, politics, literature, and law make plain. She might also have noted that, after all, incidents of student shoplifting at Gibson’s were well-known all over town, so it would hardly be implausible that Aladin and his friends had tried to steal some wine and were now denying it. Indeed, as dean of students, Raimondo must have known that two (white) students had been arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s earlier that week.
Or she could have walked the senators from the Wilder Student Union over to the library next door and checked out Roland Baumann’s documentary history of black life and education at Oberlin from 1833 to 2007. Despite Oberlin’s genuinely admirable history of race relations, Baumann discusses several controversial incidents of discrimination by Oberlin businesses, including segregated barbershops in 1944 and the NAACP’s protest against racial discrimination at two lunch parlors after World War II. Gibson’s had been an institution in Oberlin for more than 50 years at that point—and its name is conspicuous by its absence from Baumann’s history.
Raimondo might also have checked out Charles Homer Haskins’s The Rise of the Universities, in which it turns out that town-gown conflicts have been about stealing, drinking, and brawling with townies, in particular local shopkeepers, since the Middle Ages. If students of every distinguished university since the founding of the University of Paris had been caught stealing from locals and responded with fists, maybe, just maybe, Raimondo and the student senators might have speculated, this could have been the case here as well. But this was not to be a “teachable moment” or, at any rate, that’s not the sort of teaching that was going on.
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!”
The following day, with the picketing of Gibson’s still ongoing, faculty and students received an email from President Krislov:
Regarding the incident at Gibson’s, we are deeply troubled because we have heard from students that there is more to the stor… We will commit every resource to determining the full and true narrative, including exploring whether this is a pattern and not an isolated incident.…Accordingly, we have taken the following steps: 1) Dean Meredith Raimondo and her team have worked to support students and families affected by these events, and will continue to do so. 2) Tita Reed, Special Assistant for Government and Community Relations, has reached out to Mr. Gibson to engage in dialogue that will ensure that our broader community can work and learn together in an environment of mutual respect free of discrimination.
The letter did not use the word “shoplifting,” which Krislov worried in an email to his staff might “trigger” student anger.
Meanwhile, Gibson’s supporters were getting a little angry themselves. By the evening of the first protest, people from Oberlin and all over Lorain County, many of whom had grown up going to Gibson’s, were coming to support the store and walking out with baked goods, ice-cream cones, and groceries. Bob Frantz, a conservative talk-show host in nearby Cleveland, came and urged his listeners to support Gibson’s, and a counter-protest “cash mob” of supportive customers was planned for the coming Saturday. Apparently concerned that the protests were backfiring, a worried Raimondo emailed the Oberlin Student Senate: “At this point, demonstrations are driving u[p] Gibson’s business.” The Saturday demonstrations were duly cancelled, a fact that suggests that Raimondo knew not only how to “unleash the students,” but how to re-leash them.
Shortly thereafter, 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. A professor of music theory who had been at Raimondo’s planning meeting for the student protest wrote of the Gibsons that “they own so much prime property in oberlin [sic] that boycotting doesnt [sic] hurt them that much. The smear on their brand does, and that’s been taken care of.” In fact, both the boycott and the smear hurt not only the Gibson family but the employees the bakery found itself forced to lay off.
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.
Emails, texts, and other evidence that came out in the trial don’t paint a picture of a billion-dollar institution full of intellectually accomplished people committing “every resource to determining the full and true narrative.” Ben Jones, the head of Oberlin PR who drafted that letter for Krislov, called the police report “bullshit” based on vague rumor and speculation. Ferdinand Protzman, Krislov’s chief of staff, was forced to answer that although neither he nor his colleagues believed the Gibsons to be racists, they also never considered publicly declaring that the Gibsons were not.
As for Raimondo and Tita Reed, who were named as the point persons in finding that “full and true narrative,” David Gibson testified that Raimondo warned him that she had sent people door-to-door to ask if the Gibsons were racists. Raimondo denied that in court—but in any event, no such witnesses were produced by Oberlin (truth is, of course, always an absolute defense against libel). While she was ostensibly working on finding the “full and true narrative,” Reed was forwarded an email from an Oberlin employee and resident of the town who wrote: “I have talked to 15 townie friends who are poc (persons of color) and they are disgusted and embarrassed by the protest. In their view, the kid was breaking the law, period (even if he wasn’t shoplifting, he was underage). To them this is not a race issue at all and they do not believe the Gibsons are racist. They believe the students have picked the wrong target. … I find this misdirected rage very disturbing, and it’s only going to widen the gap (between) town and gown.”
The college president’s special assistant for community relations responded: “Doesn’t change a damn thing for me.”
“Oberlin is peculiar in that which is good,” said John J. Shipherd, one of its 19th-century Christian utopian founders, riffing on Paul’s epistle to Titus, which, in turn, alludes to God’s choice of the people of Israel as his “peculiar treasure,” because of the willingness to obey His law. And Oberlin was peculiarly good, accepting and graduating students regardless of race or sex from the very beginning, including some of the most academically accomplished women and black Americans of the 19th century. It was also an important stop on the Underground Railroad when Charles Grandison Finney, a charismatic leader of the Second Great Awakening of evangelical Christianity, was president of the college.
More than a century after that, long after the biblical resonance of Shipherd’s statement was forgotten, there was a campus joke that Oberlin was, instead, “good in that which is peculiar.” But the Gibson’s episode wasn’t even peculiar, it was drearily predictable. In 2013, the administration fell for a racist hoax. A sudden spate of Nazi graffiti and racist flyers caused such hysteria on campus that a student reported seeing a hooded Klansman. Oberlin cancelled classes for a day and held a teach-in against racism in Finney Hall. I remember a first-year girl crying as she spoke, innocently asking, “Is this what it’s like here?” Well, yes and no. The local police later suggested that the Klansman was just a student with a blanket draped over her shoulders—or maybe nothing at all. Meanwhile, by the time the college administrators had called off classes, they already knew that the perpetrators were a couple of student trolls with murky, but seemingly liberal, politics, and they’d quietly removed them from campus. When President Krislov appeared on CNN to extoll the educational value of the day off, students could be heard behind him chanting “bullshit, bullshit!” Little did they know.
Two years later, students protested “cultural appropriation” in the dining hall: The banh mi sandwich was made with soggy ciabatta not a crispy baguette, General Tso’s chicken was steamed not fried, and so on. This too made the national media, where it was widely noted that banh mi is already a French-Vietnamese mashup, that General Tso’s chicken is an American invention, and that, well, dorm food is . . . dorm food. Later in the fall of 2015, the black student union, ABUSUA, presented the college with an extraordinary 14-page list of demands. These included the complete overhaul of the curriculum along prescribed ideological lines, stipends for black student leaders, the immediate or guaranteed promotion/tenuring of 19 favored professors and administrators, the summary dismissal of no fewer than seven other professors and administrators, designated “safe spaces” for black students, a bridge program for recently released prisoners—the compatibility of these last two demands was not addressed—and much, much more. Krislov summarily rejected the demands to significant national acclaim, but there was grumbling on campus among radical students and a few faculty members. It wasn’t that they actually expected the college to implement millennial Maoism, but they might have sensed that this act had depleted the presidential courage bank.
That spring, an article by David Gerstman at The Tower.org revealed that a young African-American assistant professor of rhetoric and composition named Joy Karega was pushing wild anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook, for instance that Israel and super rich “Rothschild-led banksters” were really behind 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and ISIS. As it happens, Karega was one of the professors singled out for guaranteed insta-tenure in the student demands. President Krislov first issued a terse defense of free speech while noting only that these posts “do not represent the views of Oberlin College.” When, as chair of Jewish Studies, I pointed out to him that no one thought that Oberlin held these views but that a representative of the college ought to be able to say precisely what kind of views they were, he demanded that I clear anything I wrote with his PR man, Ben Jones. I ignored him and began planning my retirement, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Krislov had already announced his retirement at the end of the year, and his administration continued to flounder wildly in its response to Karega until a frustrated board of trustees took the matter out of their hands and announced her dismissal.
How, after such public debacles costing millions of dollars in lost students, donors, and prestige, could Oberlin yet again condescend to its students, betray its finest traditions, and make itself a national laughingstock? Or as another Oberlin professor put it to me in a pithy email after the Gibson’s v. Oberlin verdict, “how idiotic can the college be always?”
If there is one thing that Oberlin’s critics and its administration have agreed on, it’s the significance of the fact that Jonathan Aladin was caught stealing wine on November 9, 2016—the day after President Trump was elected. Those were extraordinary times in traumatized liberal and left circles, and the college encouraged us to help our students work through their shock. Certainly this was part of what was going on in the Gibson’s protest. The small-town petit bourgeois shop owners were made to stand in for all that was wrong and bewildering in America. But does that really explain two-and-a-half years of systematic and unremitting hostility?
If campus politics are often ridiculous, they are always local, and the Gibson’s initial complaint suggested a set of local reasons for the trouble that were left largely unexplored in the trial and its coverage. Meredith Raimondo had been appointed vice president and dean of students in the midst of the Karega controversy with the specific mandate to “address campus climate, including . . . items identified as high priority by ABUSUA.” When the Gibson’s protests began, Karega’s fate was still officially undecided. But, as Raimondo must have known, and the students did not, the trustees were going to announce her dismissal in just a few days. There was thus something fortuitous in the distraction provided by this new crisis. Whatever the degree of calculation involved, it proved useful to the administration for activist students to have spent what one of them called “some of the most emotionally exhausting days of my life” in picketing Gibson’s little storefront with the solicitous support of college administrators—rather than picketing the graceful sandstone Mediterranean Romanesque Cox Administration Building just a couple of hundred yards away. Indeed, as it turned out, the response to Karega’s final dismissal the following week was surprisingly muted. Oberlin, one might conjecture, is Machiavellian in that which is politically correct.
And then there was the real estate. Oberlin is a company town. In fact, the college was founded before the town. Recall the music professor’s seemingly irrelevant remark that the Gibsons “own so much prime property.” That property includes a parking lot behind their store, abutting the Music Conservatory, that the Gibsons claimed was used by the college as spillover parking to the detriment of town businesses, including theirs. The Gibsons’ complaint seemed to imply that, like any ruthless monopolist, Oberlin College didn’t like competition and wouldn’t mind forcing its competitors into the position of having to sell cheap.
Such possible motives suggest that Oberlin College acted like a John Grisham villain because it was one. However, I think there are two other reasons that come closer to the heart of the current crisis over the mission of the university and the nature of a liberal-arts education. If Oberlin and Raimondo seem to have treated Oberlin’s activist students as a constituency to be manipulated, they also catered to them as customers. And the customer, unlike the student, is always right. When asked why the college could not send out a notice supportive of the Gibsons, Krislov’s chief of staff, Ferdinand Protzman, replied that “both the college and Gibson’s are dealing with the same customer base,” and there was no profit in irritating the most vocal members of that customer base. In short, the college participated in the “smearing of the Gibsons” because, like easy grades and better banh mi sandwiches, it’s what the customer wanted. But, of course, real education consists in helping students to see that the most desirable thing is knowledge.
The second and final reason I would suggest begins with an observation: At the height of the protests, no more than 10 percent of Oberlin’s students were standing in front of Gibson’s, even though there is not a lot to do on a weeknight in Oberlin, Ohio. Moreover, although an alarming number of administrators, and perhaps a handful of professors, were involved in the protests and ensuing conflict with Gibson’s, it was an even smaller percentage. There is a kind of modified 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. Of course, this is true of all organizations, but it seems to me that colleges are especially susceptible to this phenomenon precisely because liberal-arts education calls out for a unifying principle or goal, something that holds together this four-year experience of 130 credit hours in the history of this and the structure of that. Oberlin, like Cardinal Newman, used to have a theological answer to that question, one that underwrote one of the most principled stands on racial equality in the 19th century.
Over the last century, politics replaced theology. “Think one person can change the world? So do we,” has been Oberlin’s official motto for quite some time. It’s just advertising (I remember some campus graffiti from the early 2000s—“Oberlin: changing the world for $30,000/yr”—now it’s closer to $60,000). But the attitude expresses the self-image of many liberal arts colleges, and many more professors, and since only radicals “know” how to change the world, it cedes them the high ground. The upshot, at least here, has been the furthest thing from idealism possible. Instead of unleashing the potential of students, students were unleashed on an innocent family and business.
I thought that there might be a chance that I would never come back to Oberlin after I dropped by Gibson’s and returned my books to the college library, but I couldn’t resist browsing in the stacks (it really is an excellent library), and I ended up checking out a little book called The University of Utopia, by Robert Maynard Hutchins. Writing in 1953, Hutchins (a former Oberlin student and the son and grandson of Oberlin professors) imagined the PR men of the future as secular priests who would point out to their clients not what they could get away with saying but what they ought to do. Such “public duty men” wouldn’t be necessary for Utopia’s university, because that school’s trustees would inevitably hold the university and its professors to live up to their ideals. Hutchins had famously been the president of the University of Chicago, not a comedian at Second City, and his irony was a bit heavy-handed. But he wasn’t wrong. A university ought to remember that it is not merely a self-interested corporation but a community of scholars, concerned with truth and convinced that its pursuit is a genuine public good.
Public-spirited utopianism hasn’t been much in evidence in Oberlin’s spinning and messaging in the wake of the Gibson’s verdict. Before the amount of damages had even been determined by the jury, Oberlin’s counsel sent a letter to the faculty expressing disappointment that “the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented,” a statement that made her subsequently expressed gratitude for their service sound condescending and insincere. She went on to say that “colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students…[and] are obligated to protect freedom of speech on their campuses.” But, of course, what the jury found was that the college had not merely protected freedom of speech on its campus but had gone out of its way (and, incidentally, off campus) to defame private individuals, which has never been protected speech. And the First Amendment has certainly never protected the deliberate infliction of financial and emotional harm, which is what the jury decided Oberlin had done.
In the aftermath of the jury’s verdict, Krislov’s successor as president, Carmen Ambar, along with college proxies and sympathetic journalists, have implied that—guilty pleas, allocutions, and an exhaustive six-week civil trial notwithstanding—there really was, after all, something to the claim that Gibson’s had racially profiled Aladin and others. In interviews, Ambar has hit on a bit of bad philosophy to obfuscate this point. “You can have two different lived experiences, and both those things can be true,” she told the Wall Street Journal editorial board. One is tempted to say that the facile relativism of this—there is a Gibson truth and an Aladin truth; a townie truth and a college truth—reveals the sophistry behind Oberlin’s self-destructive approach, but actually it’s worse than that, if not philosophically at least morally. Nothing in the actions of Oberlin College or those of its dean and vice president suggests an understanding or empathy with the Gibson family’s experience.
When I go back to Oberlin to return Hutchins’s book, I think I’ll stop by Gibson’s on the way out of town to say goodbye.