OP-ED: Oberlin’s $36 million payment to bakery is 'just desserts' for its administration’s misconduct
I hope that with some time and self-reflection, President Ambar and her institution will start the hard work of rebuilding its trust within the Oberlin community.
Ken Tashjy served as General Counsel for the Massachusetts Community College System for over 21 years and currently serves as a higher education attorney and consultant. He has taught as an adjunct instructor at Suffolk University since 2008, and previously at Brandeis University as a Guberman Teaching Fellow. He received a B.A. in Psychology from Susquehanna University, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and his J.D. from Suffolk University Law School.
Earlier this summer, I wrote an op-ed concerning an Ohio Appeals Court’s decision to uphold a judgment against Oberlin College for defaming a bakery following a 2016 shoplifting incident involving three Black students. Now, with the Supreme Court of Ohio recently rejecting the College’s final appeal, Oberlin has initiated payment of the award to the family-run business, “Gibson’s Bakery,” now totaling over $36 million dollars.
Unfortunately, rather than focusing on the conduct and culpability of Oberlin, much of the reporting on these events has attempted to inflame division and craft a narrative of racial animus and bigotry.
Ultimately, the court was not distracted by the racial sideshow and found that the College and its Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo, had defamed Gibson’s by disseminating false, written statements of fact that caused the bakery significant harm.
The College’s egregious conduct included actively engaging in protests against the bakery, copying and handing out flyers that accused it of a long history of racial discrimination, blocking efforts to photograph student protestors, refusing to repudiate a Student Senate Resolution’s baseless racist claims, failing to remove the resolution from college property, and implicitly agreeing publicly with the Senate’s labeling of Gibson’s as a racist establishment and supporting a call for a boycott.
These actions by the College perpetuated a false racist narrative that had a direct and damaging effect on the bakery’s business and reputation.
Following the College’s decision to pay the damages, Oberlin’s President, Carmen Twillie Ambar, issued a statement to the Oberlin College community. What is startling about her statement is that she offers no apology, no expression of remorse or conciliation, no commitment to make amends or do better, no recognition of the institution’s gross mishandling of the matter, and no indication whatsoever that she acknowledges the heavy toll suffered by the Gibson family due to the false claims made against it and the resulting litigation.
What appears paramount to the President is to assure her community that “[w]hile this outcome is a disappointment, our financial plans for this possibility, which included insurance coverage, mean that this payment will not impact or diminish our academic or student life experience, or require us to draw down Oberlin’s endowment.”
It seems paying tens of millions of dollars for its role in almost destroying a 130-year-old family business is simply “business as usual” for President Ambar.
Since punitive damages are not intended to compensate an injured plaintiff, but rather to punish a defendant whose conduct is considered grossly negligent or intentional, a better response from President Ambar would have been to acknowledge her college’s responsibility and commit that the judgment leveled against it will impact its academic and student life experience.
For starters, she could have clearly and unambiguously repudiated the actions of Dean Raimondo, a key instigator in the defamation of Gibson’s.
Not only did Dean Raimondo actively engage in the protests and calls for a boycott against Gibson’s, she was prepared to use her students to take down anyone who criticized the College. Shamelessly, in response to a published letter from a retired Oberlin professor criticizing Oberlin’s handling of the situation, Raimondo texted a colleague stating, “F-him. I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.”
Second, President Ambar could have committed that in the future, before she or anyone in her administration accuses a local business of a history of discrimination and racial profiling, a reasonable investigation will be conducted to confirm or refute such claims. While one would think this is common sense, it does not appear that Oberlin engaged in any fact-checking before disseminating the false statements against Gibson’s or permitting the allegations to be posted on campus for over a year.
Third, one would think that upon receiving a City of Oberlin police report that detailed the arrest of a student for robbery, simple assault, and shoplifting, the College would have immediately initiated an investigation per its Student Conduct policy, particularly since there was a known history of predatory shoplifting practices by Oberlin students on local businesses.
However, there is no indication that an investigation was conducted or any disciplinary action was taken against any students caught shoplifting. Not only was Oberlin dismissive of its students’ conduct, but the institution also allegedly attempted to exclude at trial evidence that contradicted the racist narrative against Gibson’s.
Ambar missed an important opportunity to send a clear message to her students and local businesses that the College would no longer tolerate any disorder or criminal conduct by its students in the City of Oberlin.
Fourth, President Ambar and her institution should stop conflating its liability with the speech of its students. Claiming it was punished for the independent speech of its students grossly mischaracterizes the judgment against it and demonstrates Oberlin’s continued blind spot when it comes to its defamatory conduct.
To be clear, the College was not held responsible for the speech of its students. Indeed, to address this misconception, the court clarified that the students’ chants and verbal protests were protected speech and not actionable in the case. Oberlin was held accountable for its own actions and accepting responsibility is an important step in moving forward.
Finally, despite the jury verdict and the loss of Oberlin’s appeals, President Ambar has yet to acknowledge that Gibson’s does not have a history of racial discrimination against Oberlin’s minority students. Her resistance is dumbfounding, particularly since the student involved in the initial altercation admitted that the incident was not racially motivated when he pleaded guilty to attempted theft in 2017. Such an acknowledgment is long overdue.
Beverley Engel, author of The Power of Apology, says that “A meaningful apology is one that communicates three R’s: regret, responsibility, and remedy.”
I hope that with some time and self-reflection, President Ambar and her institution will start the hard work of rebuilding its trust within the Oberlin community and demonstrate to its students the importance of acknowledging its mistakes and offering a meaningful apology. This could be the most important lesson taught by Oberlin College.
Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.