Commentary: The $36 Million Question College Presidents Won’t Answer

by Stanley K. Ridgley


“Where’s the racism?”

This is the question that college presidents nationwide—and most everyone in their administrations—refuse to answer.

If you want to see a college president tap-dance to avoid accountability, go ahead and ask: “Who are the racist people, and what are the racist policies, programs, and procedures on your campus you claim is ‘rampant’ with ‘racism?’”

Enjoy the public relations messaging, but don’t expect a real answer. They can’t answer, because finding actual racism on a college campus is as likely as sighting Bigfoot. And just about as credible.

Now, college leaders are even more likely to circle the wagons against accountability, largely due to fears of litigation. Thanks to the resolution of a legal case in Ohio last week, this has become a $36 million question. Oberlin College paid up on a $36.6 million judgment to a local family bakery for libeling their business as “racist.”

The sad and completely unnecessary case of Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College is likely to reshape the conversation about so-called antiracism efforts on university campuses in coming months and years, even as colleges fund expensive bureaucracies, commission task forces, and hire well-heeled bureaucrats to solve a problem that is almost nonexistent at their institutions.

To Catch a Thief

The incident that led to the judgment occurred in November 2016, when a black Oberlin student shoplifted a bottle of wine from the bakery, was chased and caught by one of the owners, all of which resulted in a scuffle. The thief and his two accomplices, who intervened for their friend to pummel the clerk protecting his business, were all arrested.

Within 24 hours, Oberlin moved swiftly into action. Not to upbraid the students, nor to apologize to the bakery and to the owner’s son, Allyn D. Gibson, whom the trio attacked.

Rather than assist in the prosecution of the student, Oberlin shifted into high umbrage mode and supported a coalition of students, faculty, and administrators to attack the bakery publicly for “racism.” The college stopped doing business with the bakery.

Then Oberlin broke out the tired script we’ve seen so often in the past several years and fueled a very public hate hoax. Oberlin’s Dean of Students and Vice President Meredith Raimondo was on the protest front lines armed with a bullhorn and leaflets, which constituted much of Oberlin’s culpability in the defamation of the Gibson family business.

The college-endorsed furor of demonstrations and vitriol—none of their accusations true—led to the near-collapse of the bakery’s business and to a lawsuit against the college, which dragged on for several years, even as the students involved in the theft and assault pleaded guilty and asserted that race played no part in the incident.

Oberlin’s Gaslighting Narrative

In an exercise of bold fakery, Oberlin strove mightily to convince people that its narrative of “racism” was true. Its bureaucrats certainly behaved as if it were true, because that’s what their ideology instructs them to do.

In fact, the lawyers for the college continued their gaslighting and argued that what actually happened that day did not matter. The victim of the crime was actually at fault, said the college, even as the three students pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in August 2017, “acknowledging in court that Allyn D. Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions were not racially motivated.”

Undeterred by the facts of that November day, however, Oberlin pushed on with its contrived narrative. It flogged the stale “root causes” trope and an alleged “history” of racial profiling by the bakery, as if this were another example of one of the many “racisms” concocted by the diversity industry and propagated on the Oberlin campus. Said lawyers for Oberlin: “Gibson bakery’s archaic chase-and-detain policy regarding suspected shoplifters was the catalyst for the protests. . . . The guilt or innocence of the students is irrelevant to both the root cause of the protests and this litigation.”

Oberlin’s fake narrative was quickly shredded.

Despite Oberlin’s best efforts to gaslight the entire community, people saw what they saw—a crime by a student thief. The jury in the trial learned of an actual history of Oberlin students shoplifting in the town. Said the New York Times: “[T]he college and the police had no record of prior complaints about racial profiling . . . . Rather, local merchants suffered from students shoplifting, according to court papers, and a college publication had written about how shoplifting was a rite of passage.”

The college’s narrative was not simply false. It was grossly and libelously false. As a bonus, it featured some of the worst optics in public relations history—well-heeled faculty, coiffed administrators, and privileged students bullying a small, fifth-generation family business, all while imposing a fake racialist narrative onto an inconvenient reality.

Meanwhile, the victims of defamation in this case suffered for more than half a decade before justice was served. That suffering was chronicled by Lorna Gibson, the current owner, whose husband and father-in-law died awaiting the payment. She remembers how Oberlin refused to retract its baseless claims: “Oberlin would not even consider issuing a statement and allowed the public to believe that we were in fact ‘racist.’”

Oberlin’s efforts are part of a disturbing trend in higher education as entire colleges have fallen under the sway of an ideology that contrives a fake reality of a larger American society riven with racism, oppression, and social injustice. They have bought into this caricature and demand buy-in from others as well. In popular vernacular, this attempt to manipulate reality and get people to believe a lie instead of what they see and know to be true is called “gaslighting.”

Gaslighting: A Postmodern Phenomenon

Whole societies can and have been gaslighted, in which entire populations are forced to “live a lie,” as Vaclav Havel contends in his famous essay the “Power of the Powerless.” Propaganda suffuses such societies, repeating the official messages that compel citizens to speak, act, and believe in ways contrary to what they experience and know to be true. Pretense becomes the norm.

Communities are manipulated to distrust their own cognitive reasoning about the world they inhabit. An old Soviet joke captures this elevation of fakery to policy regarding the dysfunctional Soviet economy: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Institutions can be instruments of gaslighting, and sometimes they create entire bureaucracies to further the fraud. Bureaucratic gaslighting is the process of convincing people to doubt their own experiences—what they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

In the case of colleges captured by ideology, it’s a process to convince them that their perception of their world is untrue and should be replaced with the propaganda and false narrative of ideology contrived by a tiny minority of radicals and enforced by the bureaucrat equivalent of doctrinal camp guards.

The Oberlin case shows what happens when “gaslighting” becomes higher education policy, when a college is colonized and captured by ideology. In this case, the critical racialist ideology created a false narrative to supplant reality and was accompanied by the college’s expectations for its community members to behave according to its Soviet-style script: “We’ll pretend that Gibson’s Bakery is racist, you can pretend to be outraged, and everyone else will just go along.”

But normal people would have none of it.

The college discovered that its gaslighting not only would not be tolerated in the small town of Oberlin—outside the intellectual provincialism of the college—but that even as the college argued futilely in court for years, it would pay a fabulous price for its self-righteous bullying and defamation.

And thus it was that something wondrous and magical happened in 2022: The good guys won.

It took six years and much court wrangling, but justice was served. The story ended happily with the judgment and actual payment of many millions in damages.

The result was bittersweet, however, as the owner and his son have already passed away and thus did not witness their vindication against an out-of-control and ideologically driven college, a bully by any definition.

Triumph of Justice . . . Indictment of Fakery

None of this need have happened.

Oberlin could have acted with integrity and maintained its reputation by quickly and clearly acknowledging its mistake, by disciplining the students, by firing the administrators whose bad judgment dragged the college into the predicament, and by offering to pay voluntary restitution to Gibson’s, which most certainly would not have been a multi-million-dollar affair.

But we saw nary a glimmer of common sense, of self-awareness, or even of decency from Oberlin.

Even now, we detect no contrition from the college; in fact, the college administration’s insistence on its version of events continues as a surreal exercise. The president bizarrely appealed to “free speech” arguments in criticizing the decision, as if the principle of free speech constitutes a license for her college to lie about, to libel, and to defame anyone it chooses, its personnel leading defamatory protests with a bullhorn and reimbursing students for office supplies to print defamatory flyers.

As we might expect, a trade and advocacy group for university presidents played down the case (as much as this embarrassing travesty can be downplayed). Peter McDonough is a lawyer for the American Council on Education: “This is a fact-specific case,” said McDonough, without a trace of irony about a case in which the college tried to render facts irrelevant. He told the Times: “It is premature to draw conclusions about broader ramifications for other campuses and all of higher education.”

What else could McDonough say, given his role as a partisan for higher education bureaucracies and those who lead them?

But in fact, the dangers for ideologically driven college presidents are clear—for them, their senior bureaucracies, and their institutions, and especially for those who impose doctrines on their communities that excuse and even encourage illegal behavior.

A Case Rich in Ramifications

The case is monumental and encouraging. It establishes important precedents that can positively transform higher education.

  • “Racism” is now part of the lexicon of so-called campus “hate speech.”
  • Baseless accusations of so-called “racism” can no longer be delivered with impunity.
  • Colleges and universities are liable for the irresponsible actions of their bureaucrats, who huddle under the rubric of “social justice.”
  • Colleges and universities that embrace ideological positions and act cavalierly in ways that are contrary to the U.S. Constitution, to U.S. civil rights laws, and to OHRP regulations that protect vulnerable persons from psychological manipulation are on notice that their carte blanche has ended.

The story raises serious questions about out-of-control campus bureaucracies, which now face grave consequences for many instances of ideologically motivated and officially sanctioned hate speech. These questions are obvious and should give pause to those in the saddle of higher education:

  • What reasoning led Oberlin to participate in the attack on the bakery in the absence of any evidence to substantiate the “racism” charges?
  • Why did Oberlin collude in the fraud even with ample evidence that the students were guilty, one of shoplifting and the other two for attacking the bakery owner?
  • Why did Oberlin believe itself exempt from the laws of the state and nation that protect the weak against the powerful?
  • Where was Oberlin’s legal department in all of this?
  • Who were the people who decided the disastrous course of action, and why are many of them still employed at the college?

These are questions that cut to the heart of Oberlin’s decision-making process.

But there is a deeper problem with Oberlin and with many other institutions of higher education. It’s no secret that colleges and universities lean precipitously to port, in both the faculty and—most egregiously—in the bureaucracies. It is this bureaucrat problem that has grown in such magnitude that the smug and insular world of ideological belief in critical racialism dominates administration decision-making with disastrous real-world results.

At Oberlin, the college’s own administrators actually believed in the fake world they have created, apparently still do, and expect others to participate. Certainly, Oberlin’s belligerent dean of students, Meredith Raimondo, was caught up in the fantasy, bullhorn in hand. College administrators carried their ideological baggage with them into the actual world, where Oberlin’s fakery carried little to no weight.

As a result, Oberlin College was slapped into reality.

The good news is that Oberlin had its $36 million comeuppance, a welcome development. The bad news is that the people who contrived the scenario to defame and bully a small family business are still in business at Oberlin.

To this day, the college refuses to admit wrongdoing or to apologize to the Gibsons. This suggests that the college would do it all over again, given the opportunity. Let’s hope that it does, and for as many times as it takes to drain Oberlin’s $1 billion endowment or for its board of trustees to rescue the college from the incompetent bureaucrats making these decisions and to restore the college to its former stature.

Oberlin Reveals the “Root Cause”

This is the real “root cause” that plagues all of higher education to a greater or lesser degree—the people who pursue mindless ideology and who wheedle others to do the same. Unless this personnel problem is addressed by principled faculty, parents, boards of trustees, alumni, and donors, colleges and universities will continue their decline into isolated islands of ideological irrelevance, if not into bankruptcy.

The broader ramifications of the Oberlin scandal are indeed clear to anyone with open eyes, chief among them the legal system’s recognition of false charges of “racism” as hate speech that violates libel and slander laws and which are actionable in court.

Defaming someone as a “racist” now has a hefty price tag, even when it’s a powerful and wealthy institution trying to crush a small business. This is a welcome development.

As the Gibsons’ lawyer Brandon McHugh declared after the payment: “Truth still matters, and David has overcome Goliath.”

– – –

Stanley K. Ridgley, Ph.D., IMBA is clinical full professor at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business and author of Brutal Minds: The Dark World of Left-Wing Brainwashing in Our Universities (Humanix Books, 2023). He is a former military intelligence officer and has taught in Russia, China, India, Spain, and Colombia.
Photo “Carmen Twillie Ambar” by Oberlin College. Background Photo “Oberlin College” by Oberlin College.




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