The successful lawsuit recently brought by a small local bakery against Oberlin College in Ohio has generated worldwide interest. What occurred is instructive and a shocking commentary on the current state of academic life in the United States. It has obvious implications for academic life here, and indicates the depths to which the academic Left has sunk in recent years.
Oberlin College is a well-known tertiary institution in a small town about 100 kilometres from Cleveland. It is a college, to use the American terminology, not a university, meaning that it has no postgraduate or professional schools attached to it, although it does have a well-known musical conservatory. There are really no Australian tertiary institutions similar to these American colleges, only very large universities which offer postgraduate degrees. In America, however, there are many distinguished undergraduate-only colleges, such as Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore and Vassar. Oberlin is an entirely private body, not a public institution chartered by the state—again, this has few parallels here—and, like all private colleges in America, is phenomenally expensive, costing $60,000 or more per year for four (not three) years. Although scholarship aid is widely available, most students amass enormous debts by the time they receive their diplomas. Most scholarship aid to students comes from the institution’s endowment, the amount of money, often incredibly vast, which it has in the bank, the product of gifts and legacies from alumni. Harvard has an endowment of $38 billion, while Oberlin is far down the list with an endowment of only $900 million or so.
This report appears in September’s Quadrant.
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Throughout its history, Oberlin has had a reputation for political radicalism. Black students graduated from Oberlin as early as 1844, and the college functioned as a stop on the “underground railway” of runaway slaves seeking freedom. It was also the first coeducational college in America, admitting women in 1837, four years after it was founded. During the Vietnam War, Oberlin was a centre of student radicalism. Owing to this reputation, many already radicalised students apply there for admission, and few conservatives. In recent years it has moved even further to the left, with—as will be seen—even its administration associated with radical causes. In terms of its academic reputation, Oberlin is very good, but not quite at the top. For instance, only 5 to 15 per cent of high school seniors who apply to super-elite universities like Harvard or Princeton are admitted to them, while for Oberlin the figure is 28 per cent.
In June, Oberlin spectacularly achieved international prominence for the least desirable of reasons. A patisserie and grocery (of all things), Gibson’s Food Mart and Bakery, a small shop directly across the street from Oberlin’s main entrance, successfully sued the college for defamation and harassment, and was awarded, by a local jury, the extraordinary sum of $11 million in compensatory damages for libel, tortious interference with business relationships and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and an additional $33 million in punitive damages.
In November 2016 an under-age Oberlin student stole a bottle of wine from the shop. When the shop’s store clerk and co-owner, Allyn Gibson, noticed this theft, he chased the thief in the street, and was then hit and knocked to the ground, punched and kicked by this student and two of his student friends, all of whom were black. The next day, hundreds of Oberlin students gathered for a mass protest, across the street from the shop, aided by its Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo, and other college officials. Raimondo and others passed out flyers (at right) claiming of Gibson’s, “This is a racist establishment with a long account [sic] of racial profiling and discrimination”, and urging a boycott of the shop. The next day, the Oberlin College Senate voted to boycott the shop. The college also urged the shop not to punish first-time shoplifters. This affair occurred the day after Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected president, an event specifically deplored in a memo by Dean Raimondo.
Gibson’s shop has existed for five generations, owned by the same family for 134 years, and has no history of “racial profiling”. Between 2011 and 2016, forty persons were arrested for shoplifting there, of whom thirty-two were white and thirty-three were Oberlin students. The three students involved in the assault themselves claimed that Gibson’s actions were not racially motivated. Shoplifting is a problem costing tens of thousands of dollars a year to Gibson’s and other small businesses in the town. Many, perhaps most, shoplifters are Oberlin students, a large number of whom come from affluent homes.
The college, it was alleged by Gibson’s in court, then engaged in a deliberate and concerted attempt to boycott the shop and bankrupt it, leading to a loss of many thousands of dollars and requiring the shop to lay off most of its staff. In other words, a college with 2850 students, 327 academic staff, and $900 million in the bank, attempted to put a small local shop out of business for mendacious reasons stemming from its prevalent left-wing ideology, an egregious example of bullying and intimidation.
Totally exasperated, unable to reach an accommodation with the college, and facing the real prospect of bankruptcy after 134 years, the bakery sued Oberlin, and, in a jury verdict, was awarded the remarkable sums mentioned above. Under Ohio law, these will almost certainly be decreased on appeal—Oberlin says it intends to appeal—but the college will presumably also have to pay the legal costs of the lawsuit, as well as bear all the negative consequences of a mountain of unprecedented bad publicity.
Oberlin’s descent into ideological lunacy has deep roots in the current structure and personnel of the college. According to reports from those in the know, much of the impetus comes from its Department of Comparative American Studies (CAS), of which Dr Raimondo was a faculty member before she became dean. The name of this department seems innocuous enough, and does not suggest anything but academic objectivity. During the Second World War, Churchill and Roosevelt often referred to the “tube alloys project”, their code name for building the first atom bomb, and this department’s nature and objectivity have been disguised in a similarly disingenuous way by its title. According to its online listing, this department’s aim is the following:
Through interdisciplinary study, students will study and explore social, political, economic, and cultural processes relating to the way power and inequality are created and contested … CAS courses investigate power, inequality, and agency through the analysis of intersecting structures of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and citizenship … Comparative American Studies faculty approach the study of the United States with expertise drawn from many interdisciplinary fields, including American studies, ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, LGBTQ studies, Asian American studies, Latinx [sic] studies, and media studies.
In other words, Comparative American Studies at Oberlin is not an academic department in the normal sense at all, but a giant left-wing propaganda machine whose deliberate aim is to imbue the unfortunate students who take its courses with a hatred of the United States. It is just as objective and balanced as a Department of Economics whose set textbooks consist of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, together with a long list of contemporary Marxists, and nothing else.
Anyone who is familiar with the field of “American Studies” at colleges and universities in the United States will be aware that the field has been hijacked by left-wing extremists who are not objective scholars in the normal sense but propagandists. Their primary national vehicle is the American Studies Association (ASA), whose quarterly journal and annual conferences are simply staging posts for tendentious propaganda, with no dissenting voices, let alone conservative or patriotic writers or presenters. Never very far from the current agenda of this body is left-wing anti-Semitism, and, sure enough, in 2013 the ASA called for a boycott of all Israeli educational institutions, a move called “Orwellian antisemitism” by the American Anti-Defamation League. The ASA’s boycott resolution was specifically rejected and condemned by senior administrators at over 200 American colleges and universities, as well as by the Association of American Universities, the American Association of University Professors and the American Council on Education.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Meredith Raimondo (left), the Dean of Students at Oberlin who, according to many reports, was chiefly responsible for the bakery boycott, emerged from this cesspool. According to a story on April 8, 2016, in Tower Magazine, a monthly Jewish, pro-Israeli journal published in Washington DC:
Meredith Raimondo, who joined Oberlin’s Department of Comparative American Studies in 2003, was appointed special assistant to the president [of Oberlin] for diversity, equity, and inclusion in 2013 … However, some members of the Oberlin community have expressed deep misgivings about Raimondo’s suitability to address concerns about discrimination against Jews and Israel, pointing to materials she used in her own courses.
According to several online syllabi, Raimondo’s classes feature readings from Joseph Massad, Lisa Duggan, Judith Butler, and Jasbir Puar … all of whom have previously been accused of espousing views that are intolerant of Israel and Jews.
Massad, for instance, has previously written of the “anti-Semitic basis of Zionism”, the “pro-Zionist policies of the Nazis,” and Israel’s “hopes to kill more Arabs and Muslims” … Puar has recently come under fire for allegedly claiming in a lecture that Israel conducts medical experiments on Palestinians, and harvests their organs. Puar, who requested that the lecture remain off-the-record, threatened to take legal action against anyone who leaked an audio recording of her remarks.
The syllabus in Raimondo’s 2013 seminar on “Transnational Sexualities” included a paper by Puar titled “Citation and Censorship: The Politics of Talking about the Sexual Politics of Israel” [which] calls Israel “not only a racist but also an apartheid state”.
A group of over 300 Oberlin students, alumni, faculty, and parents charged in an open letter in January  that anti-Israel student groups at Oberlin “intimidate, threaten, and coerce Jewish students”.
Raimondo has also been the center of controversy for her bold stance on using trigger warnings in classrooms, a contentious practice designed to alert students to the presence of potentially upsetting material in their coursework.
As co-chairman of a task force charged with revamping Oberlin’s Sexual Offense Resource Guide, Raimondo helped draft an extensive, non-mandatory policy in 2014 that called on faculty to use trigger warnings in their lessons. “Anything could be trigger—a smell, song, scene, phrase, place, person, and so on,” the guide read. “Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [sic], ableism [sic], and other issues of privilege and oppression.”
Shoplifting from small businesses was not included in her list, it would seem.
Apart from this egregious department and its radical ideology, its administration—unsurprisingly in view of the Resource Guide quoted above—has created what can best be described as an atmosphere of left-wing paranoia at Oberlin. In 2013, the college’s president at the time, Marvin Krislov, cancelled classes in a show of solidarity against “hate”, calling the FBI in to investigate. Two students at Oberlin claimed to have seen a man dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes on the campus. (That’s one way not to be noticed at an ultra-left-wing college, of course.) The fiery-cross burner turned out to be a student covering herself in a blanket during a rainstorm. In 2015 the Oberlin Review, the student newspaper, printed an article, apparently meant seriously and not a hoax, condemning the college cafeteria’s serving of sushi as part of a “culturally appropriative sustenance system … If people not from a heritage take food, modify it, and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative … the undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish is disrespectful.”
What will now happen to Oberlin College? This lawsuit can do it no good whatever, entirely apart from the damages it will have to pay to Gibson’s Bakery. Fewer students are likely to apply and, crucially, fewer wealthy alumni and others will be likely to donate large sums of money to the college or leave it substantial legacies. Indeed, it is quite possible that the college will, within a few years, have to close down entirely through bankruptcy. Several commentators have said that Oberlin has gotten its “comeuppance”, and one can only hope that these lessons will be learned by the many other ultra-left colleges and universities in the United States—and elsewhere—and that other victims of left-wing political correctness will show the same nerve and backbone as a family bakery in a small American town.
William D. Rubinstein held chairs of history at Deakin University and at the University of Wales. He wrote on Edward Said in the July-August issue