Last week, Oberlin College announced it would pay Gibson’s Bakery $36.59 million in damages and attorneys’ fees. With litigation now over, community members reflect on the circumstances of the original incident and the culmination of five years of litigation.
Karen Schaefer is an Oberlin resident who has worked as a freelance journalist on public radio for the past 20 years and has written about the College on several occasions. Referring to her years of involvement with the College, she highlighted the unique attitude of students during the 2016 protests.
“What I found when I went downtown was that there were literally hundreds of students, first in front of Gibson and then the police moved them across the street. street, on the south side of Tappan Square, and none of them wanted to talk to me.” says Schäfer. “Finally I went to Gibson to find out something about them. They had nothing to say at that time. And so I left, but I left with the distinct impression that this was a different kind of protest than I had ever seen before.
Schaefer also commented on the distinct nature of events related to the 2016 presidential election. Former President Donald Trump was elected on November 8 and students began protesting on November 10.
“You have to remember it was the night after the 2016 election,” Schaefer continued. “I think everyone in this town, which is mostly liberal, was pretty confident about the election result. Quite disappointed. … I wonder if this protest would have gotten so big if it hadn’t happened at that exact moment… it happened, but who knows, that’s not a question we can answer now.
Kristin Peterson, OC ’72, a fourth-generation college student and current city council member, echoed Schaefer’s sentiments about where the protests fit into the larger political context. She also expressed dissatisfaction with the Order’s handling of the protests and resulting litigation.
“I haven’t been a happy camper from the start,” Peterson said. “I don’t think the College handled the situation well. The students obviously acted as they acted based on their perceptions at the time. … I wasn’t happy that the College was basically helping support the protest, that’s how I saw it with their physical presence and the impression of things. …Even if you just moved forward from the court’s first decision if they had accepted the first decision, it would have been behind us sooner and it would have cost the College a lot less.
Peterson also commented on the tone of the College’s announcement informing the community that it would pay the Gibsons.
“Well, they made a point of saying they were disappointed and it won’t affect our staffing and we’ll move on,” Peterson said. “I think they could have said something that could have opened the door to a more positive relationship with Gibson’s. … I don’t think it dealt with the dress-dress relationships at all. I think they had a sentence that said we hope we can move forward, but it didn’t say anything that really called for bringing people together, the way I read it.
President Carmen Twillie Ambar spoke to the journal about the College’s ongoing commitment to city-to-city relations, highlighting initiatives such as the Community 101 course for early years and Taste of Oberlin that were launched during her tenure. At the end of the trial, President Ambar would reiterate her message to the students about the quality of their impact on the city.
“We always want to create a positive impact because we are inextricably linked – both the College and the city,” she said. “So that’s been my message all along: we want our students to shop downtown, get involved downtown, volunteer downtown, be good citizens downtown. And we want our colleagues in the city to recognize and value our students.
President Ambar also contextualized the many forms of Oberlin’s presence in the community. Highlighting the College’s impact in Northeast Ohio, Columbus and nationally, President Ambar spoke of students, faculty and staff, and alumni as extensions of Oberlin’s work in various communities.
“When our students volunteer in the Oberlin School District, it’s Oberlin’s presence,” Ambar said. “When our faculty is engaged in community-based research, that’s Oberlin’s presence. When I talk to the city council, it’s Oberlin’s presence. When the CFO is on the business partnership, and we go to these different meetings in rotation every month or so, that’s Oberlin’s presence. The idea here is that whenever Oberlin students, faculty, staff, and alumni are engaged in this work, that is Oberlin’s presence. And so it’s not just the president who does this city relations work, it’s the whole institution.
Peterson added that his view of financial support for the College has changed since Gibson’s trial began. Following Oberlin’s response to the incidents at the bakery, Peterson feels she is no longer giving as much as she would have under other circumstances.
“When I was a kid, my parents sat down at the table every month and wrote the bills, and I was like, ‘Why are you giving money to Oberlin College?’ “recalls Peterson. “And they said, ‘Because it’s a private college and they rely on donations from their alumni, and we’re alumni and we’re going to support the college. So I grew up doing that, modestly at first, of course. And when I got to the point where I could give more, never millions like some did and are able to do, I found myself giving way less than I would have.
Now that active litigation is over, the Gibson family and the legal team are grateful that the community can move forward. The Gibsons’ legal team shared the family’s hopes for the continued patronage of members of the Oberlin community.
“Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family cherish their historic 137-year collegiate relationship with the entire Oberlin community, including its residents, students and alumni of Oberlin College, and Oberlin College itself,” wrote the Gibsons legal team to the review. “The Gibson family and Gibson’s Bakery are grateful that the litigation is over and that this chapter of Oberlin history is behind everyone. We believe that our bakery has contributed to Oberlin’s wonderful mosaic of memories for thousands alumni, residents and visitors to our wonderful city.The Gibsons welcome everyone from the College and the city to patronize their store and begin to make new friends and memories that will create tasty smiles forever.
Oberlin College has made no announcements regarding plans for any future ventures with Gibson’s Bakery.