Oberlin College in Ohio recently lost what began as a US$44.2 million defamation lawsuit because of its involvement in student protests against alleged racial profiling at a local bakery.
The payment was later cut almost in half to $25 million but the case has still sent shock waves through American higher education. It also has implications for Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
The private legal status of Oberlin and elite American universities is an important part of the story. The conservative media and Trump trolls are framing this as an example of left-wing political correctness, but the major problem with American colleges is not far-leftism, but excessive private privilege.
The Oberlin incident happened just after Trump was elected president in 2016. Three African-American Oberlin students (a young man and two young women) were involved in a scuffle with Allyn Gibson Jr., grandson and son of Gibson’s Bakery and Food Market owners. Gibson detained the male student after he had tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift two bottles of wine.
The male student eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, a lesser charge than the extreme felony robbery charges placed on him.
Oberlin students organized mass protests against the bakery, claiming racial profiling. Oberlin College administrators got involved on the protestors’ side, a jury decided, and have been ordered to pay massive damages.
The Oberlin president is defending the university by acknowledging the shop-lifting but arguing that the university was not taking a side in the protests.
As a sociologist, I’m interested in this case because while sociologists have addressed how private wealth and inequality are impacting campus and intellectual life in the United States, they have ignored how the private elite colleges that dominate America’s unique higher educational system are feeding right-wing populism.
But I’m also a Canadian who did my undergraduate degree at Cleveland State University near Oberlin, and so as a student I had friends there. I admire its intellectual calibre and its faculty and students.
Is a $25 million judgment against a college going to chill free speech on campuses? Or is this a case of an excessively liberal college abusing their power and resources to coddle and protect their excessively privileged students making unfair charges of racism against hard working local business people?
Both uncritical Oberlin defenders and conservatives obsessed with the political correctness are missing larger issues.
The Oberlin College administration are using the banner of student free speech to defend themselves against a major public relations disaster and financial hit.
The protests against Gibson’s Bakery were unfair. None of this erases the reality and injustice of racial profiling or mass incarceration in America. Oberlin students were right to be outraged at initial felony charges, and surely it would have been better for all concerned if the incident had not been escalated. And students should not shoplift.
But Oberlin College argues that it is wrong that they are being penalized simply for protecting the free speech rights of their students. The details from the trial, however, particularly email evidence, do not reflect well on the senior administration, even when discounting the bias of conservative sources that are ramping up the rhetoric.
U.S. private colleges and subsidized privilege
The elephant in the room is the private non-profit status of Oberlin College. The most elite colleges in the U.S. are private, and, up until 2017 and 2018 changes in the law, have not paid federal taxes on their massive endowments. Nor do private nonprofit colleges contribute to the provision of collective social services of communities and states through property or sales taxes.
Even the most elite Canadian universities have endowments that hover around $1 billion to $2 billion, while Harvard’s endowment tops the U.S. college endowment list at $38 billion. Columbia and Yale’s endowments are respectively about $11 billion and $29 billion and these latter two colleges border communities of racialized poverty in Harlem and New Haven.
Oberlin has less than 3,000 students enrolled and an endowment of nearly $900 million; the research-intensive Canadian university where I teach, McMaster, has more than 30,000 students enrolled and in 2017 its endowment was about $704.7 million. The U.S. dollar is worth about C$1.30, so that means Oberlin’s endowment has more than USD$300 million than McMaster’s — at a school with 27,000 fewer students.
It is disproportionately (though not exclusively) at the elite private research universities like Yale, Columbia and Harvard, and the smaller liberal arts colleges like Oberlin, where debates about trigger warnings, cultural appropriation and the deplatforming of conservative speakers have made headlines and helped polarize American politics. The excessive educational privilege of American colleges create incidents like an earlier Oberlin controversy around cultural appropriation of international food which made national headines.
In this case, the excessive political interventions by Oberlin staff and the lack of political diversity on the faculty, as at many colleges give Donald Trump a target to scapegoat campus liberals.
Scapegoating helps hide the reality that it is the Republican Party that is the major defender of privilege and class inequality.
American liberalism’s commitment to equality in education, however, is compromised by an unwillingness to address the distorting effect of private universities. Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’s plans to clear off massive student debt do not confront the tuition inflation that is created in the private, not the public, sector of higher education.
Private system: Incubator of culture wars
Oberlin College must help their students learn how to combine the proud history of progressivism the college has been a home to since the days of the underground railway with a more disciplined concern with respect for different views. Taxing the wealthy private colleges could help pay for free public tuition, taking down the stakes in this national cultural war over education. The irony is that taxing the most affluent college endowments was promoted by Republicans and has been opposed by high-profile Democrats when a left version of this tax makes good sense.
The Oberlin administration let their students down by not being the adults in the room, and may have strengthened Trumpism in a traditionally key swing state before 2020. Competition for students paying tuition in the range of $50,000 to $70,000 in U.S. private colleges likely make administrators more interested in keeping students happy and safe rather than educated with politically diverse views.
Sociologists have rightly addressed significant pieces of the problems in American higher education by exposing the exploitation of for-profit colleges, the underfunding of public universities and how racial profiling incidents and racism play out in everyday life.
Scholars need to go further by confronting the fact that American private universities are part of the broader problem of inequality. Educators around the world should not see the American private system as the gold standard but as a deeply flawed incubator of cultural wars. Social democratic and public alternatives must be protected and fashioned in order to promote quality scholarship and provide broad access to higher education.
But the issue cuts deeper, as a university system led by elite privates lays the seeds for incidents that inevitably benefit the populist right, create tuition rates that leave far too many in debt and produce colleges not willing to tell the truth to students when they are in the wrong.
This is a corrected version of a story originally published July 2, 2019. The earlier story used an incorrect figure for Oberlin College’s endowment.