A school losing its identity found student, faculty and administrative social justice warfare a seemingly easy way out. Until it met a Lorain County jury.
Sometimes it is the simplest explanations that explain best what some see as very complex.
As a journalist who has following the Gibson Bakery racial accusation case for more than two years now – and who was able to cover it from a courtroom seat for the last month or so for Legal Insurrection – I see things from a perspective that is both factually based and less emotional politically. What it is, not what I wish it were.
As you all know, last Friday the jury awarded $11.2 million in compensatory damages. The punitive daamages phase of the trial will be done Tuesday. Ohio law caps punitive civil case monetary awards at double what the compensatory damages were. That means the jury can award in this final phase be between zero and $22 million more to Gibson’s Bakery & Market and family, in addition to the $11 million they have already awarded.
There are two things about this case that are very important, of which some of the commenters and tweets I read are missing.
The first is that Oberlin College, in the minds of the jury, wasn’t guilty only of what they did, but also what they didn’t do. They had opportunities early on to see the bullshit flying in their faces — thrown by the social justice warrior students – and didn’t have the good sense to see a basic problem and recognize the simplest of solutions.
What happened here is that Oberlin College and many universities have lost the understanding of their identity and basic purpose, and when that happens with most of us, when we don’t know who we are, we tend to do stupid things. That’s what happened here.
A few years ago, they had students saying they wanted finals cancelled because they were protesting minority men being shot by police in nearby Cleveland; in Dec. of 2015, the school’s black student union published 14 pages of racial accusations against the school with 58 demands to fix them; and the school had students thinking that the sushi in their cafeteria was “cultural appropriation” and unfit for eating because of that.
Instead of the school telling their students, “You are all crazy, and get back to studying,” they took on the “these poor snowflakes need our support” attitude.
It was the tail wagging the dog in the end, and ended up how most things like that do.
The second point I’ll write about here is where it happened and why, and the timing of that. The town of Oberlin is a tiny spec on the map of Lorain County, Ohio, where this case was tried. Based on the jury questioning prior to the start of this trial, none of the eight selected were from Oberlin or graduates of the school. So, it is not like the university overlords were being sacked by the peasants, as some who do not live in Northeast Ohio have speculated.
This county has been a former union worker Democratic stronghold, but one that has seen in the last 40 years its manufacturing base ripped out and its housing value plummet, and still most home prices are still in the Rust Belt dumpster from the Great Recession. That was a big part of why this happened where it did.
It’s Not What You Do, It’s What You Don’t
From the beginning of this mess that Oberlin College found itself in, it was what they did not do which was the most egregious. Their students were looking for some venting possibilities in the days after the Nov. 2016 presidential election, and the shoplifting case at Gibson’s was grabbed by the students as their symbolic protest expression of how they hated the world because of who was now president.
Instead of realizing that college students often do emotional and stupid things – especially when politics are involved – the Oberlin College administration added fuel to the fire. This is what the school president, Marvin Krislov, and dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, sent to students while the protests were still going on.
“This has been a difficult few days for our community, not simply because of the events at Gibson’s Bakery, but because of the fears and concerns that many are feeling in response to the outcome of the presidential election. We write foremost to acknowledge the pain and sadness that many of you are experiencing. We want you to know that the administration, faculty, and staff are here to support you as we work through this moment together.”
If that letter was not dumb enough, as the jury expertly could see, the school didn’t listen to the smart ones among them. There were plenty of the Oberlin College and community elders who were telling them that how they were handling this student protest was “dumb” and making them “furious.”
This is perhaps the most important. A university, which is supposed to value intelligence and experience and those who pay attention to the bigger picture, did not listen to those folks at all. From my perspective — after hearing this stuff non-stop since April in court — this was the average-Joe, real common-sense rejection idiocy that the jury found Oberlin College was guilty of.
In depositions taken last year, but were not seen by the jury, several professors and community leaders expressed their outrage at what happened.
Deposition from Robert Piron, retired professor of economics 1961 – 2007.
“I reached a conclusion that if you say a college had a mind, it was certainly out of its mind by now. It was the dumbest thing I have seen in years.
The thing that saddens me is that there are groups at Oberlin College now who are counseling prospective students about this affair. And as far as I am concerned, they are scandalously hurting the Gibson’s continually. It’s astoundingly cruel and dumb of the college. And I don’t think I will ever forgive them … I am furious, absolutely furious.
“They have taken wrong step after wrong step. And the level of sheer incompetence is beyond imagination now. And I know a lot of people who give money to this college are not going to do it [any more].
Deposition from Roy Usoku Ebihara, an optometrist in Oberlin since 1963, and given the “Distinguished Service Award for Community Service” by the school in 2017. He and his Japanese family were interred by the U.S. government during WWII.
“The college has no right to accuse people of being racist when the students are stealing things from our community merchants … We came to Oberlin because we saw a diversity in the community and wanted our kids to grow up in that type of environment.”
Having lived here for many years, we’ve had a good relationship with the administration … and we’ve been able to communicate, but I feel in recent years that’s been missing. They’re making decisions in our community in ways that are negative and I’m not happy with that.”
From Eric Gaines, longtime Oberlin resident, former air traffic controller and current Oberlin planning commission member.
“It was just like throwing gasoline on a fire … It’s out of the realm of rational thought.
So, the college thinks that the [shoplifting] kids should get a pass? … I can’t imagine a scenario in an institution of higher learning that would suggest we do that, because in a larger sense, that leads to anarchy, right?”
Roger Copeland, Oberlin College Professor of Theater and Dance for about 40 years, wrote a letter “Protest Suggests Misplaced Outrage” that was published in the school newspaper a week after the protests. He was mocked by the administration in their texts and emails for his views.
“I’ve known the Gibson family for many years and find it very difficult to believe that any of them would engage in the odious practice of racial profiling. I also know that their family-owned business has been hit hard by shoplifters in recent months, and based on newspaper accounts of the Oberlin Police Department’s investigation of this incident, I see no reason to suspect that Allyn Gibson is guilty of anything other than forcefully confronting a shoplifter. Furthermore, the timing of the protest (which began within 48 hours of Tuesday night’s disastrous election returns) suggests a classic case of misplaced outrage. As in: “The realization that Donald J. Trump will become our next President makes me so angry that I need to express my outrage immediately.”
A longtime Oberlin resident, Emily Crawford, who also worked in the school’s communications department, sent out an email to her bosses and then it was forwarded to senior members of the college’s administration. The email read:
“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.”
Tita Reed, special assistant to the president for community and government relations, wrote back: “Doesn’t change a damn thing for me.”
Many are throwing out the “Woke and Broke” designation on this case – and though some may see this as a larger issue of the conservatives winning over liberals — that wasn’t really what was going on here. The judge kept politics out of this case, and the jury was actually deciding not so much on what the college did do, but what it did not do.
One of things they did not do is listen to the people who have been in Oberlin awhile and understand things like this. So, it’s not “Woke and Broke,” so much as “Dumb and Dumber.”
So Why in Lorain County OH, in 2019
Oberlin College has never been much a part of the county in which it resides. I live less than an hour away, so I’m familiar with the area.
One has to understand the history of these little liberal arts colleges in Ohio to understand that.
Many smaller higher education schools were founded in the 1800s in Ohio like Oberlin. Kenyon College, the College of Wooster, Denison University, what is now Case Western Reserve University and many others were part of that western push of higher education. They started out as religious bastions, but over time, they became good second-choice fallback schools for the east coast elites who could not get junior into Harvard or Yale or MIT.
And part of that attraction was the selling point that Oberlin College was not a part of where it was. Their branding message was often, “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere.” Meaning the school had little to do with the local yokels their students would drive by on their way to Oberlin. People don’t think they were selling a product back then, but they really were.
In recent decades that product market has changed. Social media made it less isolated. The blue-collar suburbs of Cleveland had grown west to make them closer to Oberlin. The big public colleges had gotten much better, and they were competing with those economic elite students. And lastly, why should a student from Trenton, NJ – one who had an active interest in civil rights – go to Oberlin College these days?
In other words, the leftist activists from 1960s and 1970s would have found many reasons to spend four years in a place like Oberlin College. But now, not so much. That’s why their enrollment and applications were slightly down in recent years.
And that’s why the school was so adamant about coming to the support on this rather obsequious protest. Oberlin College didn’t know what it was anymore, and maybe thought it should become what it once was. But really screwed that up in how it did it.
Which leads us to how all this affected the jury. Lorain County was once a Democratic stronghold, and voted for former president Barack Obama with about 58% of the vote in 2008 and 2012. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton won by about 100 votes, with her and President Donald Trump basically tied with both having 47% of the vote.
The town of Oberlin, by contrast, voted for Clinton by about 4600 to 450 in 2016. And to see how dominated Oberlin is by the college, the city has a population of 8,000, with 3,000 of those students and about 1,000 school employees. It is liberal Democratic bubble of sorts in a part of the country that is more Republican than it ever really used to be.
The county is also is not the “local yokel” types as some would think. The Lake Erie big money, boating crowd has a big presence here, and marinas and some very big mansions line the Great Lakes shores on this county’s northern end. The Cleveland suburbs, populated by many who wanted to get out of the inner-city problems, have inched their way west over the years into this county. The cities of Elyria and Lorain have bigger populations of minorities, but Oberlin College has never made much of an effort to hook up with them.
So you have a county that is getting older, turning more Republican, has never had much to do with Oberlin College in all these years anyway, and has poor minorities who have not been helped much by these higher education elites. With all those factors, it is easy to see why this jury that had little attachment to the defendants on trial.
One more point to show this difference. As part of that, the political affiliations of the private liberal arts colleges faculty seem to have gotten extremely out of whack with the general public’s political affiliations. In April of 2018, Mitchell Langbert, an associate professor of business at Brooklyn College, published a study for the National Association of Scholars about the political voting registrations of the faculty at 51 of the top-ranked, liberal arts colleges. Oberlin College was included.
He found, not surprisingly, that most of the liberal arts college professors were far more Democratic than Republican. He examined 196 professors at Oberlin College, with 109 registered as Democrats and 7 as Republicans (45 were not registered to vote, and 35 were registered, but with no party designation).
When I talked to some Oberlin College alums last year about this topic, one was a former administration official who is no longer with the school. Off the record, he told me this was the problem at Oberlin College and many like it. He was very prescient on this about a year ago, and it ran in a story I wrote on the Gibson case for the Weekly Standard last October.
“Yes, the liberal bent at schools like Oberlin has them thinking a certain way, and not with the public generally, but it has sort of always been that way,” he said. “The difference now is that they don’t encourage discussion and disagreement, they want everyone to be on the same side and that is disheartening. It is about marketing because their enrollment is down.“
“What has happened in the Gibson case is that the school doesn’t know what to do with its minority students,” the former administrator continued. “A freshman from an east coast big city might come to Oberlin and find there is little for a social justice warrior to do in a small town like this, so they get frustrated. And make issues like this shoplifting thing bigger than it should be, and the school follows along.”
“All schools like Oberlin are going through this, because there are too many schools and not enough enrollment for them, and high tuition prices to deal with. Learning becomes secondary at times to keeping the students happy. This is the dangerous line they are straddling now, and the political climate is adding to it way too much. “
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1
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