How Oberlin’s Bias and Bloat Fueled a $33 Million Blunder
Big dollar signs make for memorable headlines. In June, when an Ohio jury ordered Oberlin College to pay $33 million in damages to a small bakery that had been the target of a protest orchestrated by employees of the college, the figure shocked many observers. Could Oberlin officials have really been so dastardly as to merit such a mammoth legal thumping?
In a lengthy essay in Commentary magazine, former Oberlin professor Abraham Socher gave a thorough account of the events that led up to the $33 million verdict. The story, in case you don’t already know it, goes something like this: An underage student, Jonathan Aladin, was caught shoplifting wine at Gibson’s bakery, trying to make off with two bottles under his shirt. Allyn Gibson, a member of the family that owns the bakery, chased Aladin across the street. Next, Aladin and two fellow Oberlin students turned on Gibson and began to beat him.
The Gibson family pressed charges against Aladin but the college demanded that the family drop the case. Aladin and the two students ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges. Alleged racism became a central element of the story—Aladin is African American and Gibson white. However, the students read a statement in court acknowledging their wrongdoing and affirming that Gibson’s actions had not been racially motivated. Meanwhile, on Oberlin’s campus, an entirely different narrative had taken hold. There, the story line, unsupported by any facts, was that the shoplifters had been singled out due to their race and that they were victims of a racist attack by Gibson. In reality, as Socher explains, shoplifting was a common problem at Gibson’s and in fact two white shoplifters had been arrested there earlier that same week.
Officials at the college, led by Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, helped organize a boycott of the bakery, punctuated by two days of protests outside the business. Members of the family received threatening phone calls; employees had their tires slashed. During the protest, flyers were distributed to students, calling Gibson’s bakery “a Racist establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT [sic] of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” Dean Raimondo personally handed out the libelous flyer at a rally outside the store, and addressed the crowd with a bullhorn. It was a mob not merely encouraged, but also coordinated, by the professional administrators of the college.
The Gibson family was greatly distressed by the accusations of racism. They not only lost business due to the boycott, but they also suffered harm to their personal reputations. Gibson’s bakery had been a fixture near the Oberlin campus for more than 50 years without a whisper of racial animus ascribed to it. Now, senior college administrators seemed bent on destroying the owners’ reputation and livelihood.
The allegations of racism were shown to be, quite simply, made up. During the six-week civil trial, African Americans who knew the Gibson family well, including customers, friends, and one longtime employee, all publicly defended them. The jury in the case found that Oberlin officials deliberately smeared the Gibsons as racists, doing them great emotional harm and damaging their business.
Raimondo wasn’t the only administrator leading the charge. Socher documents how several members of the faculty publicly defended the Gibson family, only to be shushed and ignored by Raimundo and other administrators who worked in concert to vilify the bakery owners and inflame the mob. The ringleaders included an assistant dean, the vice president of communications for the college, the director of the college’s multicultural resource center, a special assistant for community relations, and also the president of the college.
The role of administrators in this instance is not unique.
In October of 2018, Sam Abrams, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, asserting that “the ever-growing ranks of administrators have the biggest influence on students and campus life across the country.” The op-ed, headlined “Think Professors Are Liberal? Try School Administrators,” included Abrams’ research on the political affiliation of college administrators.
Teaching faculty across the U.S. are known to have a leftward tilt relative to the general population. Abrams reported that liberal professors outnumber conservative ones by a 6-1 margin. But among administrative staff that ratio skyrockets to 12-1. In New England, Abrams found it to be as high as 25-1. Students themselves, by way of contrast, identify as liberal rather than conservative by a more modest 2-1 ratio. As Abrams put it, “It appears that a fairly liberal student body is being taught by a very liberal professoriate—and socialized by an incredibly liberal group of administrators.”
It might seem that professors, who are actually doing the teaching, would have the most influence over students’ intellectual development. But Abrams explains that, at his university, more and more of the formation of students’ lives and viewpoints is taking place outside the classroom at events organized by student life coordinators, diversity deans, and student affairs officers. He cites events with such names as “Stay Healthy, Stay Woke,” “Microaggressions” and “Understanding White Privilege.” The problem, Abrams says, is not that these events advance a liberal-progressive point of view, but that that they seldom, if ever, give voice to any alternative views. What students receive is strict left-wing, identity politics indoctrination.
It is the lack of viewpoint diversity among administrative staffs, Abrams asserts, that should concern students and parents who worry that college is more about narrow-minded ideological indoctrination than broad-minded education. One might read the $33 million disaster at Oberlin as an object lesson in what can go wrong when a group of politically motivated professional administrators runs around a college campus unchecked, with no alternative voice or perspective among them to second guess the decisions the group is making.
In addition, universities are devoting ever-increasing amounts of their budget to non-teaching staff. Education schools are producing admissions officers, diversity officers, student life officials, many of whom are paid significantly more than teaching faculty. Administrative bloat is evident across the board. While presidential pay is skyrocketing into the seven-figure range, as of 2011 adjunct and part-time faculty made up 70% of all college instructors, and these adjuncts often earn no more than $20,000 to $25,000 per year.
Over the last four decades the share of teaching faculty across the U.S. who hold full-time, tenure-track positions has fallen by 50%. Meanwhile, administrative positions drove a 28% increase in the higher-ed workforce between 2000 and 2012. Not unrelatedly, the cost of college has increased 440% over the past quarter-century. The greater investment in bureaucracy corresponds to a greater emphasis on residential and extracurricular life on campus. And this trend seems to back up Abrams’ claim that it is increasingly the professional administrator, not the professor, who shapes the life and mind of the student. With their deans and provosts out rallying with students at Oberlin, shouting into a bullhorn, and distributing defamatory flyers, who could argue with the notion that the administrative staff played the leading role in inciting Oberlin students to politicize, racialize, and overreact to an otherwise run-of-the-mill case of shoplifting?
If Abrams is right to say that administrators now exert the greatest influence over students, one doubts that such an ideologically one-sided situation is healthy for the intellectual life of any college. And one wonders if a little more viewpoint diversity among the senior administrative ranks of Oberlin college might have saved the college $33 million.