Below is my column in the Hill on the recent controversy at Oberlin College where students are alarmed by the appearance of a risk manager on campus to address the costly lawsuits draining the school.
Here is the column:
Over its almost 200 years of existence, Oberlin College has faced a civil war, an economic depression and pandemics. But until this year, it had never faced the likes of Kalinda Watson. Student editors on The Oberlin Review have risen up against the addition of Watson to the college ranks as an existential threat.
No, Watson is not a conservative or a Republican — groups that haven’t been welcome on campus for many years. Oberlin is ranked in the top three most liberal colleges in the country, and finding a conservative professor is about as likely as finding a licensed, practicing wizard.
No, Watson is far, far worse. She is a risk management expert.
The panic over the arrival of a risk management expert in this small college is that she may be working … wait for it … to lower the risk of lawsuits at the college. Oberlin, it appears, attracts lawsuits as much as liberals.
The students fear that she will create “risk aversion” that could chill future protests.
Indeed, some of us have written about Oberlin for years as a case study of why higher education is declining in America. The college has yielded to the mob in past controversies that have cost the school a fortune.
The most obvious example is the college’s disgraceful history in a campaign targeting Gibson’s, a small family store and bakery that has been part of this small community since 1885. Despite that long association, the store became the focus of a campaign of destruction led by college officials after three African American students were arrested for shoplifting in 2016.
The arrests sparked an immediate campaign calling the store racist. Undeterred, the police found clear evidence of shoplifting 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.
Nevertheless, the local prosecutors appeared to cave to the pressure and cut a plea deal to reduce the charge to attempted theft. But a local judge refused to accept the deal and said that the plea was the result of a punishing series of protests and a “permanent economic sanction.” Ultimately, all three students pleaded guilty.
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 pointed out that the students admitted they were guilty, special assistant to the president for community and government relations Tita Reed (who also reportedly participated in the protests) wrote that it did not change a “damn thing.”
The jury in June 2019 awarded the Gibsons $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages. A judge later reduced the award to $25 million. But the college continued to drag out the appeal in what seemed like a revenge litigation against a store that refused to give up simply because it was innocent.
So that brings us back to the student panic over the hiring of a campus risk manager. Rather than look at its own conduct and the lack of responsibility and leadership exercised by Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar and the Board of Trustees, the college is hiring someone to study what is abundantly clear: that the college is burning through a lot of money in what is little more than woke performance art. One wonders how many students could have been given free rides to the college with the amount of money Oberlin has paid in litigation and insurance.
For the student editors, they do not even want “risk” to be raised because “it seems unlikely that a college living in fear of litigation . . . will behave favorably toward activist efforts in the years to come.”
Oberlin is, of course, not alone in its lack of courage in holding students accountable. Recently, many people were appalled when students shut down a federal appellate judge from speaking at Stanford Law School. Associate Dean Tirien Steinbach even joined in condemning conservative appellate judge Stuart Duncan for causing trauma by sharing his views. While Stanford Law School Dean Jenny Martinez denounced the canceling of the speech as a denial of free speech, she refused to hold the students accountable.
At Northwestern University, students took over a class and forced it to end because the professor invited an immigration officer to discuss issues with students. Those students then gave public interviews celebrating their success, but the university refused to punish them.
In other cases, professors have actively participated in canceling speakers and even committing violent acts. Feminist studies associate professor Mireille Miller-Young was sentenced for criminally assaulting pro-life advocates on campus at the University of California – Santa Barbara. She was not fired. Instead, she was supported by faculty and even honored by other schools as a role model.
Most recently, at the State University of New York at Albany, sociology professor Renee Overdyke unplugged a pro-life display and then allegedly resisted arrest. Even though the school passed out flyers reminding students that they cannot stop others from speaking, Overdyke allegedly did precisely that. The videotaped arrest showed students screaming “She’s a [expletive] professor!”
And that’s precisely the point. A professor violated the school’s policies and then resisted arrest. The question is whether Albany will penalize or lionize her for obstructing free speech.
The angst of the Oberlin students reflects a fear that the college might not subsidize campaigns that harm other people, including innocent individuals like the owners of Gibson’s Bakery.
Oberlin’s administrators have made such campaigns part of the identity of their students. After all, this is a college where students are honed into such a hair-triggered state that they even protested the serving of sushi in the cafeteria as “cultural appropriation.” Litigation costs are now treated as an entitlement, like entertainment budgets.
They can rest assured. That the college had to bring in a “risk expert” clearly shows it will do little to change its culture or resist future mob actions. If President Ambar and the Board were serious, they would not need an expert. Even after a massive award by the jury, Ambar continued to refuse to apologize.
In their editorial, the students declared “student activism in Oberlin integral to the culture. Without it, what do we stand for?” Putting aside responsible activism, there are always those other values such as higher education and due process that might appeal to them — if nothing else at least as something of a novelty at Oberlin College.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.