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O Oberlin, My Oberlin (commentarymagazine.com)
162 points by jseliger 35 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

> Interim assistant dean of students: "I hope we rain fire and brimstone on that store"

> "Fuck him. I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us."

Oh wow. That's a very interesting and scary quote. They think the students are their little minions to brainwash and "unleash" on someone.

Are these people still employed there? Because it would seem they have severely damaged the reputation of the school for years to come. I wonder also how the students who participated in the protests feel. Did they realize they were manipulated, do they regret showing up or even graduating from the school altogether.

> “Think one person can change the world? So do we,” has been Oberlin’s official motto for quite some time.

Well these administrators did change the world, so the motto is true. The only problem is, it doesn't seem like they changed it for the better.

So far, Dean Raimondo is still there.


Edit: There's apparently no legal advantage to firing her:

> Despite being found guilty of libel, Meredith Raimondo won’t have to pay any of the $44 million settlement out of pocket. The state jury ordered the college to pay the entirety of the settlement. It’s unclear if Raimondo will remain on staff moving forward after the court decision on Thursday.

Wow, talk about a moral hazard - salaried employees can break laws that fine in the millions and there is no repercussions for the individual. Instead, endowments and tuition pay, despite the fact those paying or endowing don’t share those opinions, or at least not to the point they would break libel law.

> despite the fact those paying or endowing don’t share those opinions, or at least not to the point they would break libel law

She was found guilty of libel by supporting & being part of the student protests/boycotts/misinformation campaign. It's hard to say what students think that weren't immediately at the protests or printing flyers, but insofar that the only public statements of larger numbers of students were those protesting, it seems they did share those opinion, and might even go much further than that.

From what I've read, just about everyone at Oberlin seems supportive.

It’s uncanny, though also depressing, how similar this behavior is to Trump supporters who will not let the facts get in the way of their support. It’s like identification: this person signals everything that I hold sacred so I’m all-in.

I guess that it's a bug. We all have more or less access to information, more or less training and experience in assessing information, and more or less free time and/or psychic resources for dealing with it all.

So there's a tendency to take shortcuts. In a good way, makin g intuitive leaps. In a bad way, getting stuck with our preconceptions.

And then, as you say, there's the social aspect, identifying with our tribe, hunting pack, or whatever. Wanting acceptance and approval from our peers.

Isn't this the same for companies, government agencies, hospitals, churches, etc.? I'm not sure what would be different in any institution where someone is acting as an employee.

Sure, but "acting as an employee" isn't set in stone. All it takes is arguing that they broke some rule, and they were no longer "acting as an employee".

While IANAL, I suspect that, if there were no stipulation from the jury, Oberlin might just cut her loose. So the jury wanted to ensure that someone with adequate resources would be on the hook.

There's also the issue that she's hugely popular among students, graduates, and donors. And generally, among people who care about "social justice" (as they see it). So firing her would have some negative PR consequences. Maybe even financial consequences, albeit not as much as $44 million.

What a shame to see such a venerable institution taken over by such an antisocial group of people and ideology.

Did a bit of contract work there over the years, they were one of my favorite customers. The town is sleepy and the campus is quaint with some absolutely beautiful buildings. The staff there were always a joy to collaborate with, I was pretty surprised the first time I heard about this issue and just wanted to say that it definitely doesn't reflect my experience there or represent the folks I met.

Sadly, the very attitude that makes it such an attractive institution also makes it a vulnerable one. People don't like to ask what it takes to protect an institution from passive aggression, because they increasingly don't like the answer.

Can anyone point to a parallel article that makes Oberlin College look like the "good guy" here? This article does a pretty convincing job of making them look ridiculous, but I presume there's another version from a different point of view that makes them look more heroic.

>I presume there's another version from a different point of view that makes them look more heroic.

Comment is free, but facts are sacred. The facts of the case can only be interpreted to make Oberlin look heroic if the Gibsons were in fact racist; a jury found that they weren't. If we accept that the jury were correct in that judgement, then the actions of Oberlin are inexcusable - the college administration were actively complicit in libelling the Gibsons. I see no reason to doubt that the jury came to a conclusion that was justified by the evidence.

If we accept the facts of the case, what possible alternative explanation is there? That it's OK to try and ruin a business based on the mere suspicion that they might possibly be racist? That accusations of racism should be believed uncritically, regardless of the evidence? That the law of libel is an unjust restriction of speech and that anyone should be able to make false accusations with impunity?

I'm genuinely looking for a steelman argument, but I can't find one. The closest I could find to a defence of Oberlin are the articles below, which argue that a) Oberlin should not be culpable for merely failing to rein in the actions of students and faculty and b) accusing someone of being racist is merely an opinion, so cannot by definition be libellous. On the first point, I think the evidence is clear that senior administrators acting in an official capacity were far more than passive bystanders. On the second point, while an accusation of racism in the general case may possibly be mere opinion, an accusation that the Gibsons engaged in racial profiling is actionable.



[I'm removing this because I don't think this is a productive discussion, and I shouldn't have commented to begin with]

> I wouldn't take the jury's decision here as a 'fact' about racism. 1) the legal definition of racism is a small subset of the colloquial definition and the academic definition.

I would be very surprised if the legal definition of racism in this context is anything but the colloquial one. In English or Commonwealth law that would be the “reasonable man” test. The attempt to elide the difference between the sociological concept of structural racism and a person being racist as a description has not had enough success to be able to pass the reasonable man test.

> the legal definition of racism is a small subset of the colloquial definition and the academic definition

There is no legal definition of racism. There are legal definitions of unlawful discrimination

> I wouldn't take the jury's decision here as a 'fact'

You don't have to agree with the jury, but the very purpose of juries is to decide "facts". If a jury decides that something is true, then legally, it is true, even if you personally disagree. Giving such weighty authority to a collection of people from society is not a bug of the system, it's a feature.

Anecdotal sources, so take that as you will. I didn't go to Oberlin but have a fair amount of friends that did and they have talked about this case extensively. They all agree that Gibsons frequently racially profiled students but that the students and university overstepped here and made the matter much worse by organizing protests to support students that were very obviously in the wrong. This case aside, it's not an outlandish claim that a store in an isolated semi rural area would have issues like this, and I don't doubt that it happened.

In addition to whatever racial undercurrents are present there's a strong students vs townies tension in the town of Oberlin and the store, again not surprising with a very activist liberal school in the middle of nowhere. Car ownership is actively discouraged and most students don't have other options for shopping so despite there being no love lost neither party really had other options. Students needed the store and the store needed business. General consensus among my friends is that the university's egregious missteps gave Gibsons an opportunity to cash out of a business they didn't particularly enjoy being in and they took it.

It's extraordinarily easy to look back after a big event like this and say "Oh yes, Gibson's has always been racially profiling." Your mind will even construct memories to justify that belief if you're not careful.

Unless someone can point to some pre-November 2016 documentation of Gibson's racially profiling I'm going to be extremely skeptical of that claim. The article even notes that Gibson's is conspicuously absent from a discussion of racial discrimination by Oberlin businesses during the civil rights era.

In contrast to the 2nd hand opinionated recollections of your friends, actual facts were presented in the article:

> David Gibson brought statistics from the Oberlin Police Department to the college showing that of the 40 people arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s over the previous five years, 33 were students of the college, 32 were white, six were African American and two were Asian, which almost perfectly matched the racial makeup of the city.

It's a useful statistic to consider as a baseline, but I'm not sure it's relevant to the accusation. "Racial profiling" usually means that people of a particular race are singled out for attention to a degree greater than appropriate. One definition of "appropriate" is matching the incidence rate. Showing evidence that the number of people arrested matches the racial profile of the town might imply that the a rational shopowner should be equally suspicious of all races. But it doesn't (so far as I can see) show that in actuality they treat all races equally. Would the statistics be in any way contradicted if the store was in fact unduly suspicious of black customers?

No, the statistics would not be different, because that sort of accusation — “your attitude varied by race” — is impossible to prove or disprove.

> They all agree that Gibsons frequently racially profiled students

There seems to be some legitimate dispute over that. And keep in mind that this was a libel case over fliers that claimed the Gibsons were racist. Truth is an absolute defense for libel, and racial profiling sounds like pretty strong evidence of racism.

So if it was easy to prove that the Gibsons had a history of racial profiling...well, why wasn't it done during the trial? :)

The environment which could produce that synopsis is covered in the article pretty thoroughly though. There was always going to have to be some face-saving historical reconstruction of what happened. If the Gibson’s were frequently racially profiling, then this was a case of the students being morally right, if strategically incorrect, even legally. They were outmatched and outwitted, but remember we fought the right fight etc.

It’s not the most unfair historical maneuvering ever, there is at least some culpability taken though. But for people outside of the distortion field...

What were the examples of racial profiling? Clearly they thought detaining someone who they thought was stealing but happened to be black was profiling.

People of color were reportedly followed and treated suspiciously in the store, an incredibly common experience in this country. No one I know thought the incident that set this off was an example of profiling, the students were pretty obviously shoplifting. My point isn't that the the university or the students were in the right here, no one I know to thinks that. Was just trying to provide context that this was a tipping point in a relationship that was strained to begin with, not a massive confrontation that came out of nowhere.

Is Gibson's going out of business? I had heard reports that the college had renewed the contracts to receive product from the bakery that they had previously broken off, and can't find anything that indicates the store is closing.

"They were only in it for the money" is another lazy way to demonize the Gibson family while justifying the actions of the school.

I don’t know about you but I don’t meet a lot of good guys walking around paying off $44M in libel suit damages.

I can’t in good consciousness link to any of the parallel viewpoints, but mostly they center on “chilling free speech effects” of the case, and the vast majority are college-associated interests posting. Apparently oberlin has trouble with the concept of objective reality, but I do not, this story has one bad actor.

This accounting, while pointed, aligns with most of the reporting and the facts of the case.

I spent some months at Oberlin years ago in close contact with student organizers there. Nothing about this case is too surprising. It's a boring town with arguably the nation's most progressive politics and many students looking for something, anything, to organize around.

here is a more sympathetic account, which crucially does not dispute the facts of the case:


i think you will have a hard time finding anything besides letters to alumni that make them sound like 'good guys', though

From the Toledo article you linked:


Kameron Dunbar, also a fresh Oberlin graduate, said he had “uncomfortable experiences” along racial lines in Gibson’s, including times where he was asked to take off his backpack in the store when other, white customers weren’t asked to do the same. He remembers feeling “watched in ways that may not manifest the same for a white audience.”

“I never wrote a review on Yelp, I didn’t write to Better Business Bureau — I just decided not to patronize there anymore,” Mr. Dunbar said.


This article and Mr. Dunbar’s potential bias are discussed in TFA, with the clincher:

“Neither the New York Times, nor Rolling Stone, nor any of the other media outlets that quoted Dunbar noted that he worked alongside Jonathan Aladin in the Office of the Student Treasurer and was a paid blogger for Oberlin’s Office of Communications.”

Not exactly star witness material, but precisely the kind of person who might subtly push an agenda in the media, facts be damned.

That dynamic reminds me of Scott Alexander’s toxoplasmosis of rage article[1]. That, even when there’s a legitimate grievance, activists make a cause out of the least sympathetic case, like Michael Brown for police brutality against black people.

Let’s assume the Gibson store does racially profile customers, and does it in a way that doesn’t quite bubble up to the arrest statistics. Even so, why would you make your “hill to die on” out of a case where their suspicions were majestically justified, where the customer was not only shoplifting, but willing to assault the shopkeeper and kick him while he’s down?

[1] https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/12/17/the-toxoplasma-of-rage...

I've read a few accounts about what happened and all of them seem to make it clear that the faculty and students involved were wrong. I'm a college professor who tries to be a good ally and while I would suspect that race had something to do with what happened, everything I've read makes this seem like a case of mob mentality running wild. That being said, as the article does state, it seems like only a small number of students and faculty were involved in the protests.

I am, however, suspicious that there have been so very many editorials about this when so many people in conservative circles love to talk about "far left academia" who are "stiffing free speech" and are taking the terrible actions of a small number of people as representative of all of academia.

I feel like blaming rogue actors in an institution or group is a common tactic in any polarizing situation, and happens in different degrees. High-level members at the Catholic Church may say the same for their pedophile priests, or price manipulators at Enron, or greedy scammers on wall street, or when politicians get embroiled in a scandal.

There is a certain extent at which one might say it's institutionalized, in which case the bad actors can no longer be excused as only a few bad actors, but part of a system that enabled it. In all those cases (and this one with Oberlin), many more people were aware of what was going on, but chose to turn the other way or even silently go along with it. So this seems "worse" than a case where an employee is acting on their own accord while hiding it from the institution.

If we take a position that academia is not at fault because of these more extreme bad actors, then I don't see how we can be upset at the Catholic Church, Enron executives, conservatives, etc.

> I am, however, suspicious that there have been so very many editorials about this when so many people in conservative circles love to talk about "far left academia" who are "stiffing free speech" and are taking the terrible actions of a small number of people as representative of all of academia.

I'm sure that's not what you meant, but this sounds like you're suggesting it shouldn't be reported on (in depth) because it gives critics ammunition.

I teach college as well, on First Amendment speech, press and assembly issues, and this case made it onto my syllabus this past semester as it touches on a number of these. The story and resulting legal case led to several discussions about the tone and temperament of debate on our campus. The overall response from my students was highly critical of the Oberlin students and faculty.

I've seen a couple, but they all rely very strongly on ignoring the testimony that came out in trial, the police reports, and especially the internal Oberlin emails, which were very damning.

I think the most pro-Oberlin spin you can get that doesn't completely ignore the factual record would be something like:

"The Gibsons did nothing wrong, Aladin and his friends were shoplifitng and did assault Allyn Gibson, and the resulting student protests were utterly groundless. However, Oberlin College itself was merely a hapless bystander. The internal emails, although they sounded terrible, were taken out of context; a small number of administrators may have mispoken, but phrases like "unleash the students" were utter hyperbole. The guilty verdict against the college hinged very strongly on the extent that Raimondo was directing the protests and, especially, to the extent that she was distributing the flyers, and there was a legitimate factual disputes about this. Yes, a jury determined that Raimondo had distributed the fliers, and her contention that someone had merely passed her a flyer which she had unwittingly passed on to someone else, perhaps without realising the content, and certainly without endorsing it was not deemed credible. Still, it's not implausible that the jury got it wrong, and Raimondo was right. In that case, Oberlin was merely guilty of incompetence and poor phrasing in internal emails, neither of which is strictly speaking a tort."

I don't entirely agree with that take, but it's plausible. A lot hinged on the actions of Raimondo during the protests. Had she simply avoided touching the pamphlets (and even better, not been there with a bull horn at all), presumably all the events would have still taken place (the boycotts, the harassment, the protests), but Oberlin wouldn't have been found liable.

I mean, that doesn't make them the "good guy", but maybe they're not the Machiavellian villians of the piece, but just idiots, and unfairly were hit by the guilty verdict. That's about as good as you can hope for I think. :)

Here is the perspective from the student newspaper:


Strikes me as pretty ironic that student groups which are most active in no-platforming efforts now make a free speech argument.

Your free speech is violence and their violence is free speech. That’s always how it is with these groups.

Will it hurt the college? I suppose it's too early for statistics to show any trends, but since there's a (seemingly) large "SJW customer base" this does appeal to, it's not obvious (to me at least) that their enrollment numbers will plummet. The same goes for donations: their main donors are likely not conservative but very liberal, and again, they aren't positioning themselves against them.

I guess privilege isn't about race after all, power too easily becomes abuse, and bullies always meet their match.

Never heard of this incident before, very interesting.

What I found the most interesting was the fact that the original arrests happen the day after the election of Trump. That actually explained a lot to me about why a young man who was the student treasurer of the college would do something like this and why the campus would react they way they did. (though college students tend to shoplift a lot more than you'd expect in my experience)

Unfortunately, people have a way of acting out their anger and fear about things that are to big or to far away for them to touch on their local communities. Sometimes twisting parts of them them into mistaken effigies of larger events or people they truefully have no connection to.

The fact that students from Oberlin shoplifted frequently at that shop, and more often than not those caught doing so were white, should have been enough to at least get cooler heads to prevail a few days later. But rather than the situation cooling down as time went on, the libelous rhetoric accelerated. When the school started doubling down, that was not the day after the election. So I don't really buy the election outcome hypothesis/excuse.

The article also pointed out that the university was also prepared in a few days after the protests to announce they had not renewed the contract of a minority faculty member who had made some wildly anti-Semitic statements, and that the protests may have been amplified to distract from that.

But one would hope that the college officials, who were fully adults and had years of experience dealing with the Gibson family, would try to temper passions rather than throwing fuel on the fire.

I hope Oberlin has to pay every penny the jury awarded, though I doubt it will.

And I hope in the future that we all do what Oberlin should of done here. To take a step back when the news makes us angry or sad, when we hear about someone far away violating principles we hold dear. By being angry in the here and now we inevitably hurt structures and people that have done nothing wrong and efforts to direct that energy back towards the violators often do the same to whatever distant place they live in.

I think it's important to note that the biases Oberlin showed are something we can all do if we're not careful.

> By being angry in the here and now we inevitably hurt structures and people that have done nothing wrong and efforts to direct that energy back towards the violators often do the same to whatever distant place they live in.

How do we hurt "structures and people" that have done nothing wrong by, for example, being angry at Oberlin's administrators in the here and now?

> I think it's important to note that the biases Oberlin showed are something we can all do if we're not careful.

We can all do any number of things, but to be this committed to knowingly being wrong out of tribalist ideology, that's not that common.

By "To take a step back when the news makes us angry or sad, when we hear about someone far away violating principles we hold dear", justaguyonline is referring to Trump. Presumably, were Trump a resident of Oberlin, justaguyonline would say that any number of acts against the bad person are justified because he's living locally, not far away.

> ...explained a lot to me about why a young man ... would do something like this

I see no facts presented in this article that align with your claims. This is pure speculation and ideological projection on your part.

This kind of overwrought rhetoric is exactly the problem with what went down at Oberlin. Start and stop with the facts: a man attempted to shoplift from a liquor store. When caught, he and his companions physically beat the clerk.

While I agree, that there is nothing in the article about it: The coincidence of this and the election (which I didn't know about before), at least provides one possible explanation as to how people robbing a store can paint the very owner of said store as racist, especially since they also assaulted him.

If I recall correctly, times were heated after the election and many people (especially on the left) were pretty outraged at the prospect of living in a more racist America for 4 years.

Other than that, you are right: Facts people, stick to the facts.

There is never an excuse to steal or hurt because you are sad or enraged.

the day after the election of Trump. That actually explained a lot to me about why a young man who was the student treasurer of the college would do something like this

Sorry, maybe I am being stupid today, but can you explain your reasoning here?

You seem to be saying there is a causal link between a particular candidate being elected and an underage minor shoplifting, stealing alcohol, and assaulting a shopkeeper? Further you assert the former justified the latter?

The statement posted by Dave Gibson is quite moving: https://www.gibsonsbakeryandcandy.com/

Hopefully, Oberlin ceases their dispute as soon as possible.

A school like Oberlin in a town like Oberlin needs to have multiple off-campus social justice trips per year so these students have perspective and real opportunity to try on their newly-educated energy.

Interesting idea. If you immersed them in a game where they could protest & fight injustices, would they be less prone to looking for things to protest irl? I mean, besides "not having time to protest because I'm playing this game".

IN a good future, Oberlin will erect a monument to the incident and be resolved to be a sensible institution devoted to real education.

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