The long and vengeful campaign of Oberlin College against a small family-owned grocery has come to an end at the cost of a breathtaking $36 million for defamation. The Ohio Supreme Court had rejected what should be Oberlin College’s final appeal of a verdict in favor of Gibson’s Bakery. The bakery has been the target of an unrelenting attack by the school after it had the temerity to fight a false charge of racism in a shoplifting case involving Oberlin students who later pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar and the Board burned through millions in litigation costs above the damages rather than admit that the college was wrong in the targeting of this grocery. That money could have been used for scholarships and other worthy purposes. Instead, Amber and the Board will simply ask alumni to foot the bill for a legal effort that seems to become little more than a revenge fetish.
Starting in 2017, I have written a long line of columns on the lawsuit against Oberlin College in this case where the college not only joined the mob but helped lead the mob against Gibson’s Bakery. Even after a massive award by the jury, Ambar continued to refuse to apologize for the shameful and costly conduct of her administration. (Ambar became president in 2017 shortly after the incident).
This controversy began with a shoplifting case. In 2016, 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 and has been closely tied to the college for over a century. When the grandson of the owner tried to stop Aladin, a fight ensued and police were called. Aladin and two other students, Cecilia Whettstone and Endia Lawrence, were arrested. Students, professors, and administrators held protests, charging that the bakery was racist and profiled the three students.
Oberlin maintained in court filings that the son and grandson of the owners of Gibson’s Bakery “violently and unreasonably attacked” an unarmed student, but that is not how the police viewed it. Aladin was charged with robbery, which is a second degree felony, and Whettstone and Lawrence were charged with first degree misdemeanor assault. Police rejected claims of a racial motive and noted that, over a period of five years, 40 adults were arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s Bakery, but only six were African American. It also is not how the court viewed it. When prosecutors cut a plea deal to reduce the charge to attempted theft, a local judge refused. He said the plea deal appeared to be the result of a permanent “economic sanction”by the college in which the victim had little choice but to relent. Ultimately, all three students pleaded guilty.
The merits of the case did not seem to bother Oberlin officials or student protesters. Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo reportedly joined the massive protests and even handed out a flier denouncing the bakery as a racist business. When some people contacted Oberlin to object that the students admitted guilt, special assistant to the president for community and government relations Tita Reed wrote that it did not change a “damn thing” for her. Reed also reportedly participated in the campus protests.
Other faculty members encouraged students who denounced the bakery. The chairman of Africana studies posted, “Very proud of our students!” Oberlin barred purchases from the bakery, pending its investigation into whether this was “a pattern and not an isolated incident.” Raimondo also pressured Bon Appetit, a major contractor with the college, to cease business with the bakery. Reed even suggested that “once charges are dropped, orders will resume” and added that she was “baffled by their combined audacity and arrogance to assume the position of victim.”
The jury in June 2019 awarded the Gibsons $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages. A judge later reduced the award to $25 million. That was upheld and the appellate court also upheld an award of $6.2 million payment in attorney fees. Now interest has pushed the reduced award back up to roughly $36 million but you then have to add the attorney fees and the college’s own towering legal costs. That is likely to put the total back to near the original $44 million award.
It takes considerable work to burn over $40 million on such a case. Yet, time and again President Ambar and the college threw more money into a losing hand like a bad gambler at Vegas while refusing to apologize for the college’s reprehensible record in the case.
As the grocery recently warned that it might have to shutdown due to the lack of funds and drain of litigation, the college fought to pay the damages.
The Ohio Supreme Court finally ended this farce by refusing to hear a new appeal on jurisdictional grounds. It voted 4-3 to end further litigation.
In a statement, Oberlin College expressed disappointment but not an apology:
“Oberlin is disappointed that the Ohio Supreme Court has chosen not to hear our appeal of the Gibson’s Bakery judgment against the college. The issues raised by this case have been challenging, not only for the parties involved, but for the entire Oberlin community. We remain committed to strengthening the partnership between the College, the City of Oberlin and its residents, and the downtown business community. We will continue in that important work while remaining focused on our core educational mission.”
While the college could always try a federal appeal, it would just add more litigation costs while little hope for a change in the case or the verdict beyond further accruing interest.
The handling of this matter by Oberlin is nothing short of reprehensible in not only the treatment of this grocery (which was founded in the 1800s) but in the wasting of the assets and reputation of the college. Yet, not a single official appears to have been disciplined for this costly campaign. With tuition at $30,000 a year, the ultimate cost of this litigation would cover free tuition for a year for half of the college. (The total enrollment is only 2,600 students).
Yet, over $40 million somehow became little more than the price of vanity of a college to refuse to admit its original error and to apologize for its conduct. It was a complete failure of leadership by the president, the board, and the college. No one seemed willing to take the responsibility to say “enough” and stop the burning of added costs year after year. So the college continued to gush money as it racked up losses in court.
They have frittered away the assets and reputation of a school with a wonderful history and stellar academic reputation . . . all to pursue a small grocery like Captain Ahab and his whale. Indeed, the final filing should just quote Melville to capture the blind rage needed to sustain this ill-conceived effort: “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”