On Academia

The death of Queen Elizabeth II along with the much-publicized seizure by the FBI of classified documents in former President Trump’s Mar Lago Resort, have overshadowed a decision made by the Ohio Court of Appeals against Oberlin College.  The Ohio Supreme Court refused to take the case on further appeal that the Gibson Bakery had filed against the school on charges of defamation and tortious interference.  The final judgment, made by the Appeals Court, awarded the Gibson Bakery 36 ½ million dollars.  The Gibson Family, whose bakery is located across the street from Oberlin, has had a 137-year history in the town of Oberlin.

Oberlin College is by no means a rinky dink college.  Historically, it’s admissions’ policy has been stringent in accepting only students who can handle a rigorous academic schedule.  It is clearly one of the most touted and prestigious schools in the Midwest.  Nonetheless, shoplifting by Oberlin students has existed there for years.  However, the present case went beyond the typical adolescent pranks.  The troubles began on November 9, 2016, when Allyn Gibson, who is white and both son and grandson of the owners, caught Jonathan Aladin, a Black student at Oberlin, trying to buy a bottle of wine with a fake ID and holding two wine bottles under his shirt.  When Aladin fled the store, Gibson chased him outside whereupon two of the student’s friends assisted him in attacking Gibson.  Subsequently, the three students pled guilty to various charges.

End of story, not quite.  Meredith Raimondo, Dean of Students, along with other members of the Oberlin administration, rather than investigating the validity of student discontent, actively participated in their protest.  Fliers sent out by the students were further supported by the administration.  Moreover, the message about the Gibson Bakery, written in bold capital letters, said:  RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT OF RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.”  As Neil Hutchens, a professor of higher education at the University of Kentucky commented: “It wasn’t so much the students speaking; it’s the institution accepting that statement uncritically.  Sometimes you have to take a step back.”

Another twist in this case was the University was not fighting a big corporation, such as Walmart or Amazon, but rather a small family business that had long served the community and college.  However, this type of small business is not equipped to sustain the losses from such a protest.  Oberlin, whose tuition is around $62,000 per year, not including room, board and books that amount to at least another $20,000, is neither a school for the poor or those hurting in money.  The financial resources of Oberlin, as compared to the Gibson family, make the latter’s victory in court appear similar to that of David when he slew Goliath. 

There is a sense of youthful idealism and romanticism possessed by students of college age.  Many of us were there at one time in our lives.  Corporate America and its capitalistic proponents are forever being questioned along with the status quo by an age group given to challenge and rebellion.  Often both university and faculty give too much encouragement to the grievances and protests that adolescents may have against such institutions. Teaching students critical thinking in viewing the world with an open and curious mind is an asset of any  liberal education.  However, this goal can lead to very unhealthy consequences when racial categories, embodied in identity politics, presume guilt on the “other,” in this case, a young white male who was attempting to thwart a robbery at his store.