Former Oberlin President: Institution Should Be a ‘College, Not a Cause’

In this Nov. 22, 2017 photo, pedestrians pass the storefront of Gibson's Food Mart & Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio. A long relationship between one of Americas most liberal colleges and 132-year-old family-owned Gibson's is in tatters amid student allegations of racial profiling. The bakery filed a lawsuit last month accusing …
AP Photo/Dake Kang

Former Oberlin College President S. Frederick Starr criticized the college’s current leadership in a Wall Street Journal column for its role in spreading misinformation and defamation about local family business Gibson’s Bakery.

In his column, Starr argued that Oberlin College namesake Pastor John Federick Oberlin would be “appalled” by the college’s role in defaming the local Gibson’s Bakery, which recently won a $44 million jury verdict against Oberlin College.

In November 2016, three black Oberlin students were arrested after a physical altercation with a white shopkeeper at Gibson’s bakery. The shopkeeper confronted the students after he realized that they were attempting to steal a bottle of wine. Students and administrators at Oberlin College quickly exploited the incident, accusing Gibson’s Bakery of racist discrimination against the students. These charges were brought against the bakery even though the student’s admitted in their plea agreement that race played no role in their altercation with the shopkeeper. ‘

Starr goes on to argue that Oberlin College founder Charles Grandison Finney would have been aggressively opposed to the new brand of social justice activists that have taken hold of his college. During his lifetime in the 19th century, Finney demonstrated what a psychiatrist calls “the need to have enemies.”

Pastor Oberlin would have been appalled. But the founder of Oberlin College, Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), would not have been. Finney, a fierce enemy of Calvinism and the sparkplug of the so-called Second Great Revival, believed human beings could be perfected if only specific evils and their perpetrators could be stamped out. In this frightening doctrine, Finney manifested what the University of Virginia psychiatrist Vamik Volkan called “the need to have enemies and allies.”

Towards the end of the column, Starr urges Oberlin College to opt against the appeals process and pay the court’s judgment in full. Perhaps more significantly, Starr says that Oberlin officials must reclaim the institution as a place of learning, rather than as a place of activism.

What can Oberlin do to reclaim its better self? That’s ultimately a question for the college’s trustees, faculty, alumni and students. But there is a common-sense answer that would probably seem obvious to most anyone in Lorain County or any of a thousand smaller communities around the country: Pay the court’s judgment, don’t fight it; apologize to the Gibson family and to the community and take steps to show you mean it; and then calmly think through all that has happened and do whatever is necessary to reaffirm the institution’s identity as a college, not a cause.

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