Official spokespersons for Oberlin College have embarked on a no-holds-barred exercise in damage control, a frantic –but thus far– unconvincing attempt to answer the question: how did the College manage to step in so much legal do-do that the cleaning bill may approach 25 million dollars (and that of course is the recently downsized figure: the original damage award to Gibson’s Bakery was (deep breath) 44 million dollars (Take THAT, Dr. Evil!) ) But the college’s current strategy of just throwing more and more mud at the wall, hoping that something will stick, can only make the eventual cleanup more difficult and more costly, both emotionally and economically. Over the past few weeks, I’ve listened, note pad in hand, to a carefully orchestrated series of conference calls , “webinars, “ FAQ’s and “Q and A’s” –all aimed at an audience of shell shocked faculty, staff and alumni. But neither the questions raised nor the answers given have addressed the root of the problem, which is:
When a jury knowingly, intentionally awards a plaintiff more than the law allows, you can bet your bottom dollar that they were doggedly determined (come hell, high water , or caps on punitive damages ) to teach the defendants a lesson. And when the jury is made up of citizens drawn from Lorain County in N.E. Ohio (the very heart, if not soul of the Midwestern Rustbelt– not to mention, the opioid crisis ) it’s safe to assume that the majority of them do not have the letters PhD emblazoned on their business cards. In fact, I would guess that very few of them have access to those little perks –let alone, the more valuable fringe benefits –that credentialed professionals simply take for granted.
And given the fact that the defendant in this case was an institution of higher learning, the irony of the role reversal adds insult to financial injury. The sixty-four thousand ( or should we make that “million”?) dollar question thus becomes: “Did Oberlin College learn the lesson the jury was so fiercely determined to “teach it”? I wish I could say “it’s too early to tell.” But based on the “talking points” around which the college has organized its Public Relations Initiative , the answer appears to be a resounding “no.” In fact, the new and unimproved narrative being peddled by President Ambar suggests that Oberlin hasn’t learned a damn thing, let alone the right thing.
And saddest of all : any lingering hope that the College might belatedly DO the right thing is draining away more quickly than its dwindling “pool” of potential applicants. Even the most loyal of Oberlin’s alums –those who continue to “believe in” the institution–will surely think twice before sending their own sons or daughters to their beloved alma mater (even if they themselves are the progeny of Oberlin alums.) As I look back, with the most mixed of feelings, on my forty one years of teaching at Oberlin, I can’t deny the very special pleasure that came from being able, on occasion , to teach the children of my “first generation” of Oberlin students. (A considerable number of those students I taught in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s have remained close friends over the years. )
Valuing What Matters
Now, as everyone knows, the cost of attending a small , “elite” liberal arts College like Oberlin is well….obscene and getting more so all the time. I can’t say for sure; but I have a theory (or at least a suspicion) about why the predominantly blue collar and/or lower middle class jurors in the Gibson case threw such a hard “punitive” punch –a swift right jab—into the public face of the College. It’s not just that the combined cost of tuition , room and board now exceeds $70,000 a year. It’s that the certified public accountant the College hired as its “expert” financial witness estimated the total worth of Gibson’s Bakery at (are you ready for this?) a mere $35,000. And you don’t need a degree in high finance to appreciate the stinging irony that Gibson’s Bakery was declared to be worth only half of what it costs to attend Oberlin for a year. Nearly everyone in the courtroom that day seemed to “get” it– with one exception: the college’s hired-gun-CPA, who seemed utterly oblivious to the irony of this disparity. (or better : “the hilarity of the disparity.”)
I attended nearly every minute of the month long trial; and there were many memorable –indeed, unforgettable — moments (many of which I hope to write about in subsequent postings.) But if I had to pick a favorite (one that left me visibly –and audibly—choking back tears) it would probably be the moment when –during cross examination—one of the Gibsons’ lawyers asked that cocky young corporate accountant what value he would place on the fact that Gibson’s Bakery has been in business, uninterruptedly, since 1885 . And throughout that stretch of 134 years, the store has been owned and operated by five generations of the same Gibson family. This history was illustrated for the jurors by a vintage photograph of Dave Gibson’s Great, Great, Great Great Grandfather selling roasted peanuts out of a horse -drawn pushcart . Great indeed; and even greater when you learn that the father of the ancestral Gibson in this photo was married by no less of an Oberlin luminary than Charles Grandison Finney, one of the founding fathers of the College. Finney Chapel, arguably the most beautiful building on campus, was—as you’ve probably guessed– named after that influential theologian, tent revivalist, abolitionist, and second President of the College –a poignant reminder that for most of their co-extensive histories , Gibson’s Bakery and Oberlin College were allies rather than antagonists.
But the college’s financial expert had factored none of this history or tradition into the “asset based valuation” he used to arrive at that gasp inducing $35,000 figure . “You see,” the green -eye -shade- guy explained to the (surprisingly attentive) jurors , “I diligently follow the guidelines and formulas laid out in state of -the- art – economic text books. I’m a “by -the- book- kind -of- guy.” He went on to make it abundantly clear that he would never allow mere sentiment to cloud his clear-eyed evaluations of “worth.” That was it. The Frank Capra moment. Who do you think the jury found more sympathetic : Jimmy Stewart as the valiant, self-sacrificing George Bailey or Lionel Barrymore as the curmudgeonly and predatory Mr. Potter? Game over.
In fact, if– at that very moment– this expert witness had dropped his trousers and mooned the jurors , he could not have done more damage to the College’s case or the College’s “cause.” It was another quintessential example of the College’s apparent ignorance of the very things you’re supposed to learn at a liberal arts institution. (Just for starters: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”) In a highly accessible, jargon-free style, Owen Rarric–the Gibson lawyer who conducted that canny cross-examination– was, in effect, offering his audience a masterful master class on what anthropologists and economists mean when they distinguish between market economies and “gift” economies. (If you don’t know a book called The Gift (by my friend, Lewis Hyde) you should. Or, if you’re willing to settle for a more aphoristic version of the same argument, consider the way Oscar Wilde defines the cynic in his play , Lady Windemere’s Fan. The cynic, according to Wilde’s character Lord Darlington, is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Back On Track
Well…. a financial digression is surely better than a financial indiscretion… But digressions (no matter how rewarding in and of themselves) are still departures from the main line of argument. So we had best return to today’s assigned topic : an analysis of what we can learn by examining recent comments by –and communiques from– Oberlin’s current thought-leaders and spokespersons.
Almost immediately after the verdict was announced, the President (aided and abetted by the College’s legal team, members of the Board of Trustees and employees of its Office of Communications) , mass e-mailed a PDF document titled “ FAQS AND BACKGROUND ABOUT THE LAWSUIT FILED BY GIBSON’S BAKERY AGAINST OBERLIN COLLEGE.” It purported to provide the community with “a shared set of facts.”
Now, I may be “hopeful” by temperament ; but I’m not completely naïve. So let me be clear about my not -so -great -expectations for this document. I never expected representatives of the college to say “Our bad. Sorry guys. We really fucked up. “ Outright admissions of guilt or acts of contrition would have been…well… just too much to ask. No. What I anticipated were answers of a –shall we say—“lawyerly” sort : narrowly constructed , evasive, and cunningly incomplete in ways that (just barely! ) manage to avoid being obviously “untruthful.” For further examples of such sophistry, read the Mueller Report.
But I was shocked (not in a faux “Casablanca” sort of way ) but really and truly shocked, by the sheer audacity of the lies. As recently as last Thursday night , in the context of a nationwide conference call for alumni , President Ambar was still equivocating about what precisely Jonathan Aladin, the Oberlin student who got into an “altercation” with Allyn D. Gibson was charged with (and what he eventually pleaded guilty to ). She had the reckless temerity to suggest that there is still uncertainty about whether or not Aladin’s transgression was merely to have attempted an underage purchase of alcohol with a fake ID or whether he also attempted to steal two bottles of wine. (As if the two were somehow mutually exclusive.) As Seth and Amy used to ask on SNL–ever so archly- “Really?”
Please… President Ambar, I beg you… please leave it to that other “President” (the illegitimate one) to throw sand in the our eyes , thereby attempting to create confusion about things that are easily verifiable. President Ambar was similarly disingenuous when discussing Meredith Raimondo’s profanity-laden attack on a faculty member who had dared to defend the Gibsons and criticize the college in the pages of the campus newspaper. As the faculty member in question, I’ll refrain from taking personal “umbrage”—at least here in this written, blog post . (But if you visit the “video diary” on this website, you’ll find my more unabashedly “personal “ response to both Ambar and Raimondo..)
I wish that the many problems with the FAQ were confined solely to the “answers” it offers. Unfortunately, the (mostly) softball “questions” are no less problematic. I suspect this will come as a surprise to no one. But the questions the college poses to itself, the questions it identifies as “most frequently asked” , just happen (surely this is a coincidence !) to be the only questions that members of the College’s crisis-management team were able ( if not eager) to “answer” without breaking into a cold sweat or cringing with embarrassment. Here’s the document’s concluding question : “How should alumni respond to the many classmates, friends, and colleagues who are asking about this situation? “ And the college’s official answer to that “frequently asked question” is “They can use these FAQs as a resource.” Hail the new consensus!
If –after reading this blog post — you still believe that to be good advice , I have an overvalued liberal arts college in N.E. Ohio I’d like to sell you. Now, to be sure (and to be fair) , you can’t really blame the college for trying its level best (everything within reason) to avoid having to pay the piper. (And as we learned from the great -but sadly underrated– Lesley Gore in 1963 “ You would cry too if it happened to you. “ ) Still, there’s a world of difference between doing your level best and doubling down on the very lies that got you into hot water (sorry, I mean deep do-do) in the first place. This being a blog by a former academic, I promise to be more careful in the future not to mix my metaphors.
Also, I’ll try to keep my inner schoolmarm in check. I’d rather not have to make the condescendingly obvious point that lying is unethical and bad for the soul (regardless of whether you believe in heaven, hell, and that sort of thing. ) “Moralizing” –for better or for worse– has fallen out of fashion. But it’s difficult not to conclude that our fear of being “unfashionable” makes us reluctant to straightforwardly confront and condemn illegal activities such as shoplifting. In this regard, we do our students a distinct disservice.
During the trial, the jury was shown excerpts from private e-mails between then President Marvin Krislov and members of his staff , some of whom were urging him to not only acknowledge , but to denounce –in no uncertain terms– the growing epidemic of shoplifting by Oberlin students. But Krislov punted on the issue by expressing his
“Worry that mention of shoplifting will trigger reactions. How about softening?”
Ah, the old softening trick. Bring out the Downy and the meat tenderizer. Heaven forbid we might “trigger” the little darlings in ways that might make them feel “unsafe.” (More, much more in subsequent postings about the connections between the Gibson Affair and the College’s never ending quest to become the academic world’s “safest space.”) And what is it that we seem so determined to keep our students safe “from” ? Just about everything that was once considered essential to the sort of liberal arts education that was intended to prepare students for citizenship in a liberal democracy.
But in the hope of bringing things full circle (back to our master topic for the day ), here’s the question I’d like to ask those who are empowered to speak on behalf of Oberlin College (and I have every intention of asking it as “frequently” as necessary ).
It’s basically the same old question I started with: Have you learned nothing, even after having been caught red handed with your fingers in the cookie jar? Are you completely unacquainted with a best selling book from yesteryear called All I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten ? And if the institution’s moral bankruptcy leads it to the brink of economic bankruptcy, perhaps someone enrolled in one of the College’s new entrepreneurship programs can write a bestselling children’s book based on their experiences at Oberlin. A surefire title would be “The Sad, Sad, Story of the College that (Just) Wouldn’t Learn.”
But for those who are allergic to old-fashioned , Finney -style moralizing, let me hasten to add that there are other –more purely pragmatic–ways to “teach” people that lying is wrong. From a purely “operational” and transactional point of view, if you tell the truth, you have less to remember ; and it’s just plain easier to keep your story straight. You won’t have to resort to defensive truisms such as (to paraphrase Collin Raye) “That’s my narrative and I’m sticking to it. “
Then again, when it comes to embellishing and/or revising its ever evolving version of the Gibson saga, you have to give the college some credit (pun intended) for not just repeating the same old lies in the same old ways. Spoiler alert: in my next blog posting, I’ll begin to trace the innumerable ways in which the college’s “story” has evolved between November of 2016 and now.
Which is not to say that there aren’t also a slew of issues about which the college has consistently lied or —at the very least– consistently “shaded the truth.” Just for starters, I’d list: the question of whether or not the Gibson family has routinely practiced various forms of racial discrimination and the equally basic question of whether or not Oberlin’s Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo , actively participated in the protests against the bakery on Nov. 10 and 11, 2016.
Ambar in China
Finally, at least for today, a word about missed opportunities . In September of 2017, just as President Ambar was beginning her first semester in office , I published an (already alluded to ) opinion piece in The Oberlin Review, practically begging the College to issue a long overdue public apology to the Bakery. It read, in part, as follows
“The facts of this case are no longer in question. And yet, a counter-narrative has taken hold, one that refuses to allow mere “facts” to get in the way. It’s embarrassing when one has to ask Oberlin students the same question one asks climate-change deniers: At what point do you accept the empirical evidence, even if that means having to embrace an “inconvenient” truth? Alas, even those who concede that the defendants violated the law, continue—stubbornly—to insist that there is “plenty of blame to go around” and that “both sides” are at fault. Really? Isn’t that what Donald Trump said about Charlottesville? The time has come for the Dean of Students, on behalf of the College, to apologize to the Gibson family for damaging not only their livelihood but something more precious and difficult to restore—their reputation and good standing in the community.”
What I didn’t mention was my motive for submitting that particular opinion piece at that particular point in time: I had reason to believe that the Gibson family might be on the verge of filing a lawsuit against the College. I believed then–and still believe now –that this hideously divisive legal nightmare might have been averted if only the College’s new president had displayed a modicum of leadership. After all, the initial incident didn’t occur on her watch.
I’m not suggesting that she should have high handedly pointed a finger at her predecessor and blamed the entire mess on him. But, at the very least, she could have made a virtue of the objectivity that comes with being a newcomer to Oberlin. She could have explained to the community at large that she arrived on campus without any preconceptions about the controversy . And she could have then called the community’s attention to readily available , easily verifiable “facts” that weren’t part of the recipe for the cool aid that everyone else seemed to be drinking .
Finally (but crucially) she had the built -in advantage of being Oberlin’s first African- American President. That simple fact might have permitted her to address Oberlin’s black community with less…. trepidation… or at least with “less to lose” than would have been the case for any imaginable white counterpart.
Now, I have a confession to make : Perhaps because I’m white and male, those last two sentences weren’t easy to write. In fact, they were very, very difficult to write . Before committing those words to the page (or screen) I had to take a deep breath and summon up the sort of willpower one exercises when voluntarily entering a hospital for an unpleasant medical procedure. I’ll spare you the details of my prostate biopsy, performed –for reasons that elude me—without anesthetic. My point is not to congratulate myself on my willpower or courage. My point is that we need to make it less difficult for educated, progressive white people to talk about race in a candid –rather than fearful, self-censoring and euphemistic –way. Let us be forthright , rather than sheepish , about the role that race would have played in the missed -opportunity- scenario I’ve just described . At the risk of sounding hyperbolic , I believe that this could have been a “Nixon-in-China” opportunity for President Ambar. I’m not suggesting that it would have been easy ( no mere walk in the park , not even a leisurely stroll through Tappan Square. ) But it might well have prevented the existential crisis the college now faces. And no less important , it would have been the right thing to do.