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Cornell’s New General Counsel Is Oberlin College In-House Lawyer Responsible For Gibson’s Bakery Case

Cornell’s New General Counsel Is Oberlin College In-House Lawyer Responsible For Gibson’s Bakery Case

Donica Thomas Varner became notorious for mishandling the Gibson’s Bakery case, including a bizarre email bashing the jury after the compensatory verdict but before the punitive phase.

Donica Thomas Varner, currently General Counsel at Oberlin College, has been appointed the General Counsel of Cornell University, it was just announced.

Varner is the General Counsel of Oberlin College and was responsible for overseeing the Gibson’s Bakery litigation.

Varner became infamous for an email she sent between the compensatory and punitive phases. We covered it in Oberlin College mass email criticizing Jurors could influence Punitive Damages Hearing in Gibson’s Bakery case:

The statement was contained in a mass email sent to alumni (and possibly others) criticizing the jury verdict and repeating the same stale defenses that failed at trial (emphasis added):

Dear Members of the Oberlin Community:

I am writing to update you on the lawsuit that Gibson Bros., Inc. filed against Oberlin College and Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo in the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas in November 2017.

Following a trial that spanned almost a full month, the jury found for the plaintiffs earlier today.

We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented.

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.

As we have stated, colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students. Institutions of higher education are obligated to protect freedom of speech on their campuses and respect their students’ decision to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. Oberlin College acted in accordance with these obligations.

While we are disappointed with the outcome, Oberlin College wishes to thank the members of the jury for their attention and dedication during this lengthy trial. They contributed a great deal of time and effort to this case, and we appreciate their commitment.

Our team will review the jury’s verdict and determine how to move forward.

Donica Thomas Varner
Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary

The email became an issue in court, and there was examination of Oberlin witnesses about it:

As far as the little bit of legal maneuvering, Judge John R. Miraldi had ruled yesterday that an email written by Donica Thomas Varner, Oberlin College’s Vice President and General Counsel, who has been in court since day one, was inadmissible. The email was sent to thousands of alums an hour or so after the jury came back with their $11.2 million verdict against the college, and was very much against the jury’s decision. The judge wouldn’t admit it because “this was a letter sent by the Oberlin general counsel after the verdict. We are talking about the actions of the defendants that demonstrated malice. What we will use is only what was litigated in court.”

Varner’s email said this in one part: “We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented.”

Plakas got around the judge’s ruling that the email was not admissible by calling Varner to the stand to discuss school policy. He referred to the email in vague terms, but was able to ask Varner a few questions without acknowledging the email itself to the jury. He even asked her about the quotation above, specifically if she still “regrets that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented.”

“Yes,” she answered, before Oberlin College attorneys objected.

As Oberlin College General Counsel, Varner was the key legal person overseeing the Gibson’s Bakery litigation. That is hardly a positive considering how the case was mishandled (regardless of what happens on the appeal.)

Yet Cornell in its announcement touts Verner’s Oberlin College experience:

“Donica’s many years of leadership in higher education, and her deep knowledge of the complex legal issues affecting academic institutions in the U.S. and internationally, make her a wonderful fit for Cornell,” said President Martha E. Pollack. “Her breadth of expertise in areas including student affairs, immigration, litigation and international engagement will serve her well as she oversees Cornell’s diverse legal landscape. She will be a tremendous asset to the university, and we look forward to having her join us.”

As university counsel, Varner will represent and advise all Cornell boards, senior officers and other officials and units. She will oversee offices in Ithaca and New York City, leading approximately 20 attorneys and other staff who provide in-house legal services, as well as selecting and overseeing all outside legal counsel retained to represent the university.

“Cornell’s extraordinary academics, combined with its vigorous commitment to supporting an open, diverse and inclusive community, have shaped an environment of so many exciting possibilities,” Varner said. “I’m deeply inspired by the vision and values of Cornell, and delighted to be joining its outstanding leadership team.”

Said Robert S. Harrison ’76, chairman of the Board of Trustees: “Donica is an impressive and immensely qualified choice for Cornell, and we will benefit from her expertise and guidance. Her years of experience at the University of Michigan and Oberlin College will greatly benefit our Ithaca and New York City campuses, and her advice, leadership and counsel will be appreciated by our many trustees, senior officers and university officials who typically have to navigate complex regulatory environments.”

Varner also would have overseen the litigations brought by male students against the college:

This is a strange appointment considering Varner’s controversial past.


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rabid wombat | April 9, 2021 at 11:11 am

Failing upward….

Should make some entertaining conversations for you 🙂

Has that bakery collected any of the jury award from Oberlin yet?

ThePrimordialOrderedPair | April 9, 2021 at 11:18 am

Affirmative Action gone wild!!

Professor Jacobson, I’m shocked. Why, it’s almost as if the chief reason for hiring Varner is to punish you and LI for your coverage of the Gibson’s matter!

    Another Voice in reply to Rab. | April 9, 2021 at 12:01 pm

    So much so as in “Don’t get Mad, Get Even”.

    As Prof. J. has posted, he and within his Dept., have been put on notice to either conform or be “de-platformed” . Going back to the onset of the coverage of Oberlin , it commenced here with Prof. J.. When the case began going national, it was a result of L. I. and Prof. J. who’s coverage began being picked up in the blogsphere and then by national media. Since then L.I. has grown extremely popular and Prof. J. has been given a seat at the conservative table of the national media. The hiring of the newest General Counsel of Cornell University was purposeful and the intent was to be bold and loud enough for both Prof. J., but also for those here at L.I. and the media that the message is it’s payback time at C.U..

      Voyager in reply to Another Voice. | April 9, 2021 at 12:07 pm

      I can see that, but she also lost the case, horribly. Is there any reason to expect her to perform better this time?

      It also seems like starting lawfare against a professor of law, who buys ink by the barrel, too, might not necessarily be the most wise of tactics?

        Another Voice in reply to Voyager. | April 9, 2021 at 12:23 pm

        Agree, it’s not the smartest action C.U. could pursue to fill this position though the intent of why they chose this particular ” loser” makes the statement in of itself.

        Another Voice in reply to Voyager. | April 9, 2021 at 12:40 pm

        As an add on by Prof. J.’s post yesterday of the lawsuit filed in State Court against SUNY Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse for a FOIL request for their material on the mandatory papers being used to guide the Center for their Critical Race Training Records. Originally filed on Dec. 20 it has been stonewalled and outwardly denied.

        As pointed out, Cornell U. is both an endowed and SUNY college. It isn’t as though they are using two different mandated programs for their Critical Race Training for staff and employees . What can’t be had from the endowed section of the college would have to be produced as a public record from the state.

        This is where it relates to why Cornell U. is using any tactics by any means to “legally” take out Prof. J.

        Think38 in reply to Voyager. | April 9, 2021 at 1:29 pm

        Public publicity battles are very different than lawsuits. Even law professors can be hammered by lawsuits (justified or not).

        That said, based on reporting of the Oberline matter, she does not appear to be very skilled at guiding institutions through these difficult claims.

      Thunderlizard in reply to Another Voice. | April 10, 2021 at 8:12 am

      Sounds right to me.

Professor, you are about to ‘live in interesting times’ even more than previously. Not that you didn’t know it. Buckle up.

Massinsanity | April 9, 2021 at 11:29 am

“This is a strange appointment considering Varner’s controversial past.”

I assume this was sarcasm Professor? Double box checker is all that matters these days.

I think Cornell should send this in their annual alumni donations letter;
it would certainly cause me to double mine (2×0=0).
This is no longer the Cornell from which I graduated last century.

I look at this woman’s photo above and I see three things: ignorant, crazy and vengeful.

    The Friendly Grizzly in reply to UJ. | April 9, 2021 at 12:55 pm

    And, slovenly. Look at that buzzard nest on her head. A hair-don’t.

    Thunderlizard in reply to UJ. | April 10, 2021 at 8:20 am

    I’m confused. Is the woman with the center-parted hair the same woman as the woman with the bangs and little bobbed coiffure? Sorry to be so dense but they look like different women.

Sure, why not. Diversity is normalized. Our President is a serial feeler. Our Vice President took a knee. The City at the Twilight Fringe. One step forward, two steps backward.

Alternative headline: Cornell U. hires insufferable, mendacious, vindictive racist as general counsel.


Comanche Voter | April 9, 2021 at 12:42 pm

Well she cleans up nice when you contrast the two pictures. In one she looks like she’s channeling her inner Hillary Clinton–in the other she’s more along the Condaleeza Rice approach. Never hire a two faced General Counsel is my advice–especially if she has a lousy track record where legal judgement is concerned.

The trustees who made this decision must have been smoking crack above the waters of Cayuga. I used to be impressed with Cornell–until I learned it produced Keith Olberman who is as much a dingbat as is their new General Counsel. .

The Friendly Grizzly | April 9, 2021 at 12:48 pm

Off topic: the stories circulating are right. The second Covid shot can slam you. I’m in bed and feel like I weigh 90,000 pounds.

Every day, in every way, Cornell is sliding into the abyss. As an alumna who graduated several decades ago, I am saddened and angered by the actions of the so-called leadership of a once-great academic institution.

LukeHandCool | April 9, 2021 at 1:08 pm

If I ever were to be bad at my job and fail, I sure hope I fail upwards like Ms. Varner.

Donica Thomas Varner: The living epitome of “failing upward.”

    MajorWood in reply to MarkJ. | April 10, 2021 at 12:09 am

    Varner definitely accomplished A LOT /s starting with likely very little, but I think that former Portland Po Po Chief Danielle Outlaw takes the cake for failing upward. She left the PPB in complete disarray during ANTIFA and was somehow selected to head the Philly PD. Even Public School Superintendents took notice of that achievement.

    Also of note, Varner came to Oberlin from Michigan, where she had worked with/under Starvin Marvin Krislov, who was the Oberlin president that started the whole Gibsons affair by dismissing David Gibson. I haven’t researched it, but would not be surprised if those two weren’t also knee deep in the University of Michigan affirmative action admissions problems.

henrybowman | April 9, 2021 at 1:17 pm

Well, there goes the neighborhood.

Isn’t this where you and a bunch of friends are supposed to pick up a crayon and write to the administration that this woman is “literally Hitler”, that her selection makes you all “feel physically threatened,” and you demand she be fired? it seems to work for everybody else.

Like Beto…. Failure on the Left is a positive for a CV. No the two pics of here…. The super woke BLM and the upscale unwoke professional one. We shall see which shows up at first interaction with Prof. J. She may be confused if “Prof J” is used….

retiredcantbefired | April 9, 2021 at 2:08 pm

My first thought about this story: You can’t make this stuff up.

Makes as much sense as hiring Kevorkian to be your pediatrician.


That’s all I got.

I should sue Cornell for some perceived injustice. With this loser at the helm I could be rich quickly.

healthguyfsu | April 9, 2021 at 5:38 pm

Failing upward, an affirmative action feature

I refuse to judge a person by her gender or race. There are a number of challenging legal situations before Cornell at this time: 1) how to protect academic freedom, 2) how to promote due process in conduct cases, 3) whether to implement mandatory faculty re-education for “anti-racism”, and 4) how to comply with various federal mandates. It takes an extremely talented person to navigate those mine fields. If she survives a year, I will give her credit. If she is shown the door like her predecessor, I will not be surprised. There are many talented lawyers on the Cornell Board of Trustees, and the University Counsel is from the Trustee perspective the second most visible person in the Administration.

    Geologist in reply to lawgrad. | April 9, 2021 at 6:36 pm

    Lawgrad: “I refuse to judge a person by her gender or race.”

    How about judging a person based on her hairdo? This woman has Medusa’s snakes growing out of her head. Better to shave it off!

the Gibson’s Bakery should send here a box of treats on the news of her new job.
Hopefully John Doe 1 and 2 aren’t Cornell students

    goomicoo in reply to buck61. | April 10, 2021 at 12:28 pm

    That’s an excellent idea. Even better if Gibson’s baked goods showed up anonymously in order to give the bakery some cover.

This can’t be random coincidence.

Standard promotion for those down with the cause.

TennesseeConservative | April 9, 2021 at 10:21 pm

Talk about “failing upwards!” I’d say this was an example of the “Peter Principle,” but I’m sure that’s considered “cisgendered white male racist supremacy/sexual harrsssment.” Accordingly, HELL YES, that’s my answer!!

I am re-watching the Sopanos with my son and it occurred to me that Varner represents “Uncle Junior,” the face of the organization who takes the heat but has no real power in the overall scheme. She provides excellent cover, much like Obummer, when all criticism of actions is easily dismissed as simple racism by the left. Someone at Cornell must be planning something that might backfire on a colossal scale. But if it doesn’t, then they are stuck with her for the duration.

The Friendly Grizzly | April 10, 2021 at 6:24 am

That, and huge man-glasses.

In a fair world everything is run by blacks. It’s just a matter of getting juries to go along.

I’d say that she’s more of an outhouse counsel than an in-house counsel.

I’d like to remind the Cornell trustees of an old adage: Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

Five months since oral argument in the Oberlin appeal. No decision yet. We could see a decision any day now. That would be an interesting backdrop to this incredibly ironic appointment.

    PostLiberal in reply to Publius_2020. | April 18, 2021 at 10:41 pm

    I recently looked for news of the results of the appeal. This is the first notice I have found. Five months to decide after oral arguments? That’s a bit out of the ordinary, isn’t it?

lord–cornell’s standards must have become subterranean