Former Oberlin College President: “Pay the court’s judgment, don’t fight it; apologize to the Gibson family and to the community”
“do whatever is necessary to reaffirm the institution’s identity as a college, not a cause”
Reviewing the intense public relations campaign launched by Oberlin College after the $11 million compensatory and $33 million punitive damage verdicts (later reduced to $25 million under Ohio tort reform caps), I felt an “intervention” by someone who “truly cares” about Oberlin College was needed:
Oberlin College should be ashamed of its conduct, but it’s not. It’s emboldened, if anything, as witnessed by the post-verdict crisis management public relations campaign to spin Oberlin College as having been held liable for student speech. It’s just not true.
Oberlin College needs an intervention. Someone who truly cares about the college needs to tell the administration and its defenders to stop.
An intervention has been attempted by S. Frederick Starr, Oberlin College’s president from 1983-1994, through an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Oberlin College’s Legacy and the Need to Have Enemies.
The main point of Starr’s op-ed, as the title suggests, is commentary on Oberlin College’s culture as it has developed since its founding in 1833, manifested now in a dogmatic fanaticism:
In the middle of the Oberlin College campus stands a monument [image] to its namesake, the Alsatian pastor John Frederick Oberlin (1740-1826). It depicts a children’s game that consists of a piece of paper folded and decorated so that it looks like a bird from one side and a flower from the other. Oberlin used such a device for marriage counseling. He would sit Hans down on one side and Erika on the other and ask each what the folded paper depicted. When they came up with different answers, Oberlin would explain that spouses who see things differently can have happy and fulfilled lives by understanding and learning from each other.
The text on the monument—commissioned in the 1990s, when I was the college’s president—celebrates Oberlin’s “simple message—that people with diverse perspectives can live in friendship with one another,” which “lies at the heart of the aspirations of this college.”
Even when the monument was erected, it would have been hard to find evidence on campus that J.F. Oberlin’s values were thriving there. During my tenure as president (1983-94), I recall several incidents—usually involving phony hate crimes—that now seem precursors to the baseless attack on Gibson’s Food Mart and Bakery, which led to a $44 million jury award (which a judge reduced to $25 million) against the college. In my day there were administrators and faculty members who worked to get to the bottom of each case. Sometimes this even led to some reflection and learning.
The monument represents values sharply at odds with those the college exhibited in the recent fracas. Instead of engaging with, and learning from, the “other,” it condoned and abetted students who fixate on purported evils. The institution itself seems to have embraced the extremist doctrine that every “evil” thus identified must be destroyed so that society can enter an age of bliss….
Thus there exist two radically different Oberlins: the gloomy sectarian training ground inspired by [founder Charles Grandison] Finney and the one that affirms modern learning, thought, music and art.
The college community’s “crusade” against Gibson’s Bakery, Starr writes, was a manifestation of the intolerance of the current Oberlin College culture:
The crusade against Gibson’s bakery is incompatible with the college of Millikan, Sperry and Hall. But if only in some uncanny and unconscious way, the attacks on Gibson’s recall Finney’s squinty-eyed hounding of enemies. Few if any students, administrators or trustees know anything about Finney, and today’s zealots are militantly secular. Yet they concur with each other and with Finney on the need for enemies, even if the enemy du jour is a small family business that has happily thrived in Lorain County, Ohio, for 130 years. Could anything be more bluntly at odds with Johann Friedrich Oberlin, who devoted his life to serving humble parishioners?
A reclamation of Oberlin College’s culture is needed, Starr suggests, and owning up to what the college community did to Gibson’s Bakery is the place to start (emphasis added):
What can Oberlin do to reclaim its better self? That’s ultimately a question for the college’s trustees, faculty, alumni and students. But there is a common-sense answer that would probably seem obvious to most anyone in Lorain County or any of a thousand smaller communities around the country: Pay the court’s judgment, don’t fight it; apologize to the Gibson family and to the community and take steps to show you mean it; and then calmly think through all that has happened and do whatever is necessary to reaffirm the institution’s identity as a college, not a cause.
These are wise words, but likely to fall on deaf ears for two reasons.
First, Starr’s legacy already has been criticized as insufficiently progressive and “woke” (to use a current phrase). The Oberlin College official archive article (click on Administrative/Biographical History) about Starr notes “Starr’s efforts to mainstream the college’s social and academic environment further increased tensions as many perceived his actions as an attempt to strip Oberlin of its distinctive characteristics.”
Looking back on Starr’s tenure after he had left campus, the student-run Oberlin Review wrote, on May 1, 1998:
An internationally renowned scholar noted by those who met him for a stunning intellect, Starr’s primary emphasis as president was academic excellence. He was not interested in portraying Oberlin as a socially progressive institution, and embarked on a doomed mission to transform Oberlin into a prestigious eastern university. Students gradually became disenchanted with Starr’s maneuvers and frequently protested them….
“Fred made some really weird comments,” Chris Baymiller, assistant director of the Student Union, said. “There was no question he was trying to redesign Oberlin. He didn’t want the college photographer to take any pictures of people playing banjos or wearing bib overalls.” ….
According to Secretary of the College Bob Haslun, Oberlin has unwittingly erected a monument to Starr. It stands outside Wilder, successfully masquerading as a tribute to John Frederick Oberlin. “It’s really a tribute to Starr,” Haslun said. “He always wanted to get people to see things from another side.” The monument was Starr’s final contribution to Oberlin.
Note the reference in the Oberlin Review article to the statue mentioned in Starr’s Op-Ed — Starr “always wanted to get people to see things from another side,” and that apparently was viewed as a negative in Starr’s governance of Oberlin College. Given Starr’s history at Oberlin College, it’s likely that his opinion will be discounted by current campus culture.
The second reason Starr’s intervention is unlikely to shake Oberlin College out of its current trajectory, is that Oberlin College does not appear ready to reconsider its culture of seeking enemies to destroy.
Starr’s framing of the problem in that way is perceptive. As I look back on many years of Legal Insurrection coverage of Oberlin College social justice warfare controversies, the need to find and defeat enemies is a common, unifying theme. Whether it’s fury over the cultural appropriation of Asian foods in the dining hall, the vilification of Israel, the “triggering” protests against Christina Hoff Sommers, the 14-page list of student demands including explicit racial hiring quotas, or the exploitation of a known racism hoax to further advance social justice indoctrination, someone or something always seems to be the enemy. The day after Donald Trump’s election, Gibson’s Bakery became the latest enemy to be vanquished.
Looked at in Starr’s framework, the attempt to crush Gibson’s Bakery with false accusations of racial profiling fit a pattern and a culture.
There is no indication the current Oberlin College administration is ready to change the culture. The post-verdict public relations campaign continues falsely to portray Oberlin College as having done nothing other than attempt to protect student free speech, and as having been held liable for student speech in a result that is a threat to higher education. The jury verdict is just the latest in a long line of Oberlin College enemies to be slain.
Payment of the judgment and an apology to Gibson’s Bakery and the community, as former president Starr suggests, would be a good first step in Oberlin College affirming that it is a college, not a cause. Based on the post-verdict statements coming out of Oberlin College so far, that seems unlikely to happen.
[Featured Image: Then President-Designate S. Frederick Starr at the City Club of Cleveland, April 1983, via YouTube)DONATE
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