You’ve heard the saying: when in a hole, the first step is to stop digging.
So why is Oberlin College breaking out the shovels?
In case you missed it, a jury in Ohio hit Oberlin with a $44 million judgment* as a result of actions by the college’s administration to smear a small local bakery as racist. In a nutshell, the facts are these:
- In November 2016, three black Oberlin students were suspected of stealing from Gibson’s Bakery by Allyn Gibson, who chased down the students onto college property (across the street from the bakery).
- The three students were arrested and later pleaded guilty to charges of attempted theft and aggravated trespassing, and each signed a statement saying the incident wasn’t based on race.
- However, by the day after the incident students had organized a protest in which more than 100 people demonstrated outside the bakery.
- The jury ultimately found that Oberlin administrators encouraged students to protest the store as well as helped organize the demonstration. The senior administrative staff led by Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo orchestrated student fervor against Gibson’s, such as printing flyers, providing protesters space to organize and even purchasing food for the students during the turmoil.
For full coverage of this trial, go to the excellent Legal Insurrection blog, which had their staffer present for every day of the seven-week trial. The blog did the kind of reporting national media used to do. Cornell law professor William Jacobson and all at LI should win a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Gibson’s suit against Oberlin College. It’s solid journalism.
Town vs. Gown
Having lived in several college towns over the years, the existence of town/gown tension is palatable. Usually, universities are sensitive to the power dynamic, meaning as the town’s major employer the school recognizes they are the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Hence they tread carefully with the local business community and try not to throw their weight around.
This is what makes Oberlin’s behavior in this case so self-defeating.
Gibson’s has a 110-year history in the town. The 90-year-old patriarch of the family is a much-loved businessman as evidenced by the groundswell of community support from local residents in response to the Oberlin protests. Groups of people even drove over from nearby Cleveland in order to show support and patronize Gibsons.
And the critiques of Oberlin’s actions were not just external. A longtime Oberlin resident, Emily Crawford, who also worked in the school’s communications department, sent out an email to her bosses and then it was forwarded to senior members of the college’s administration. The email read:
“I have talked to 15 townie friends who are POC (persons of color) and they are disgusted and embarrassed by the protest. In their view, the kid was breaking the law, period (even if he wasn’t shoplifting, he was underage). To them this is not a race issue at all and they do not believe the Gibsons are racist. They believe the students have picked the wrong target … “I find this misdirected rage very disturbing, and it’s only going to widen the gap (between) town and gown.”
Robert Piron, a professor of economics at Oberlin had this to say:
“I reached a conclusion that if you say a college had a mind, it was certainly out of its mind by now. It was the dumbest thing I have seen in years.
The thing that saddens me is that there are groups at Oberlin College now who are counseling prospective students about this affair. And as far as I am concerned, they are scandalously hurting the Gibson’s continually. It’s astoundingly cruel and dumb of the college. And I don’t think I will ever forgive them … I am furious, absolutely furious.
They have taken wrong step after wrong step. And the level of sheer incompetence is beyond imagination now. “
At this point, any leader seeing the community rally and hearing pointed criticism from within their own staff would have paused to consider a way out. Any leader with a modicum of understanding the larger picture would have immediately sought to de-escalate the situation and work for a compromise. Certainly, the college’s Trustees should have been asking some tough questions of then President Marvin Krislov about his strategy. It is unclear if these types of discussions took place and what direction the Board gave Krislov.
But Oberlin didn’t pursue a behind-closed-doors resolution with the Gibsons. Instead, the college dug in its heels. The Gibsons sued for defamation and Oberlin College wound up with 44 million lessons.
One would believe Oberlin would kinda graciously accept the verdict then privately negotiate a final settlement. Put it behind them. Move on. Start the process of healing and rebuild trust with the surrounding community.
Instead, it looks like Oberlin College is going to double down.
New College President Carmen Twillie Ambar, who is African-American, released a statement shortly after the jury verdict. The wording and tone are astonishing in its denial of the deep hole the college has dug for themselves.
Dear Members of the Oberlin Community,
By now many of you will have heard about the latest development in the Gibson’s Bakery lawsuit, a jury’s declaration of punitive damages against Oberlin. Let me be absolutely clear: This is not the final outcome. This is, in fact, just one step along the way of what may turn out to be a lengthy and complex legal process….
Oberlin, like many other small liberal arts colleges, has been hemorrhaging enrollment and money. Noted economist Clayton Christensen (The Innovators Dilemma) asserts that more than half of these colleges will be shuttered by 2030. Much the same as the newspaper industry the past quarter century, Oberlin is desperately looking for a new business model and a plan for salvation in the midst of disruptive change. The task is daunting.
Generating this type of negative national attention is not helping the big strategic rethink necessary to stay in business. Recent social justice turmoil at places such as the University of Missouri and Evergreen State College resulted in declining enrollment, staff layoffs, and retrenchment. The reckless behavior of senior administration officials at Oberlin did deep damage to town/gown relations as well as made student recruitment in a competitive environment even harder.
Every day Oberlin College allows this drama to continue just adds to the monumental task of finding a pathway to solvency. Oberlin College lost in Lorain County Court and in the court of public opinion. They are positioning themselves to lose the entire College.
And here are the two lessons for all of us leaders in organizations: 1) pick the right battles and 2) if you pick the wrong one, take your defeat and move on.
Oh….and stop digging the hole you’re in.
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