It appears that not even a record defamation award against Oberlin College will induce any sense of accountability by the school. After the award was (as expected) reduced from $44 million to $25 million, Oberlin officials said that they could pay the damages without much problem, according to The Chronicle-Telegram. President Carmen Twillie Ambar then issued statements that infuriated many by dismissing any responsibility by her college staff or the college as a whole. Indeed, she refused to apologize because she said it might irritate some students. As I previously discussed, Oberlin has shown how many academics have surrendered control of their institutions and no longer possess the courage to take responsibility for abuses occurring on our campuses.
I will not repeat the facts of the controversy, which were detailed in a prior column. Suffice it to say that a jury and a court found that Oberlin defamed a small, family-owned grocery after an African American student named Jonathan Aladin was caught trying to steal a bottle of wine from Gibson’s Bakery, which was established in 1885. Aladin and two other students, Cecilia Whettstone and Endia Lawrence, were arrested and later pleaded guilty to shoplifting and related crimes. Dean of students Meredith Raimondo reportedly joined the massive protests and fueled protests calling the grocery racist. She led efforts to bar any business with the grocery and another contractor was told that it could not do business with the grocery and still maintain a contract with Oberlin.
With $25 million in damages as well as huge litigation costs, Oberlin still did not fire Raimondo or, more importantly, apologize to the grocery (and its donors for wasting millions). To the contrary, President Carmen Twillie Ambar seemed to not only dismiss responsibility but deny reality. According to news reports, Ambar said the entire incident was “very complicated” and “mischaracterized” but notably failed to explain why or how. Instead, she described the controversy in a way that directly contradicted the facts. She claimed that this was a matter involving “shoplifting or a fake ID, there’s an issue about what happened there.” However, the record was clear that the Oberlin student shoplifted the wine and then engaged in assault. She also dismissed complaints over the conduct of her Dean of Students who sent an email containing profanity about a professor who dared to observe that there was no evidence of racism by the grocery in the incident. Ambar also dismissed her role in the protests, repeating the rejected claim that she was merely there as a “liaison.”
The most disturbing statement by Ambar was that the college would not apologize for its actions because it might inflame the same students who led the protests leading to huge damages against the college. She simply said that this whole controversy “goes to the issue of race.” She observed that members of the college community have had “a variety of experiences with Gibson’s — ranging from “wonderful” to “not wonderful.” Admitting that these accounts conflict, but said “The college didn’t issue an apology because it was hearing these different perspectives and didn’t think it should apologize for issues it didn’t create.” What? How about apologizing for the college’s conduct? Moreover, the whole idea of following principle is that you do the right thing regardless of the consequences or how popular it would be. Either an apology is warranted or it is not. Instead, Ambar said that the college would not apologize because it would create “issues.” That is precisely the logic that led to the abuse of this grocery and the massive damages by the jury. The College simply yielded to students and then officials like Raimondo fueled the protests.
Notably, Chief of Staff Ferdinand Protzman said that effort to lift the boycott of the grocery were delayed because they officials did not want to trigger students and that they did not want to upset Raimondo.
Many of us were hoping for a more self-reflective response from Oberlin but Ambar has offered little more than a shrug. The school will pay out millions that could have gone to scholarships and research. It is just a cost of doing business as a student-run institution.