Oberlin Community, College Reflect on Town-Gown Relationships Post Gibson’s Litigation

Last week, Oberlin College announced it would pay Gibson’s Bakery the sum of $36.59 million in damages and attorney’s fees. With litigation now concluded, members of the community are reflecting 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 public radio journalist for the last 20 years and has written about the College on a number of occasions. Referencing her years of engagement with the College, she highlighted the unique attitude of students during the 2016 protests.

“What I discovered when I went downtown was that there were literally hundreds of students, first in front of Gibson’s, and then the police moved them across the street to the south side of Tappan Square, and none of them would talk to me ,” Schaefer said. “Eventually, I went into Gibson’s to find out something from them. They had nothing to say at that point. And so I left, but I left with a distinct impression that this was a different kind of protest than I’d ever seen before.” 

Schaefer also commented on the distinct nature of the events as they related to the 2016 presidential election. Former President Donald Trump was elected Nov. 8, and students began protesting Nov. 10. 

“You have to remember that this was the night after the election of 2016 had occurred,” Schaefer continued “I think everybody in this town, which is mostly liberal, was feeling pretty strongly about the outcome of the election. Pretty disappointed. … I wonder if this protest would’ve gotten so large if it hadn’t come at the particular time…that it did, 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 the position of the protests within the broader political context. She also expressed her dissatisfaction with the manner in which the College handled the protests and pursuant litigation. 

“I have not been a happy camper from the beginning,” Peterson said. “I don’t think the College handled it well. The students obviously acted the way they acted based on their perceptions at the time. … I was not happy with the College basically helping to support the protest, which is how I saw it with them being physically present and printing things. … Even if you just move it forward from the first court decision had they accepted the first decision, it would’ve been behind us sooner and it would’ve cost the College a lot less.”

Peterson also commented on the tone of the College’s announcement informing the community they would pay the Gibsons.

“Well, they made a point of saying they were disappointed and it’s not gonna affect our endowment and we’re gonna move forward,” Peterson said. “I think they could have said something that might have opened the door to a more positive relationship with Gibson’s. … I don’t think that addressed town-gown relations at all. I think they did have a sentence saying we hope that we can move forward, but it didn’t say anything that was really inviting to bring people together, in the way I read it.”

President Carmen Twillie Ambar spoke to the Review about the College’s ongoing commitment to town-gown relations, highlighting initiatives such as the Community 101 course for first-years and Taste of Oberlin that were started during her tenure. At the conclusion of the litigation, President Ambar would reiterate her message to students on the quality of their impact on the town.

“We always want to create the positive impact because we are inextricably intertwined — both the College and the city,” she said. “So that’s been my message from the beginning: that we want our students to shop downtown, be engaged 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 impact of the College in Northeast Ohio, Columbus, and nationally, President Ambar spoke about students, faculty and staff, and alumni as extensions of Oberlin’s work across various communities. 

“When our students are out volunteering in the Oberlin School District, that is Oberlin’s presence,” Ambar said. “When our faculty is engaged in community based research, that’s Oberlin’s presence. When I am out talking to City Council, that’s Oberlin’s presence. When the CFO is on the business partnership, and we rotate going to those various meetings each month or so, that’s Oberlin’s presence. The idea here is that every time Oberlin’s students, faculty and staff, and alumni are out engaged in this work, that is Oberlin’s presence. And so it’s not just the President that does this work of town-gown relationships, it is the entire institution.”

Peterson added that her outlook toward financially supporting the College has changed since the start of the Gibson’s trial. Following Oberlin’s response to incidents at the bakery, Peterson feels she no longer donates as much as she would have under different circumstances. 

“When I was a kid, my parents would sit at the table every month and write the bills, and I would say, ‘Why are you giving money to Oberlin College?’” Peterson recalled. “And they said, ‘Because it’s a private college and they count on donations from their alumni, and we are alumni, and we are gonna support the college.’ So I grew up doing that, modestly at the beginning, obviously. And when I got to the point where I could give more, never millions the way some have done and are able to do, I found myself donating significantly less than I would have.”

Now that the active litigation is over, the Gibson family and legal team are grateful that the community can move forward. The Gibsons’ legal team shared the family’s hopes for the continued patronage of Oberlin community members.

“Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson Family cherish their historic 137 year collegial relationship with the entire Oberlin Community, including its residents, Oberlin College’s students and alumni, and Oberlin College itself,” the Gibsons’ legal team wrote to the Review. “The Gibson Family and Gibson’s Bakery are thankful the litigation is over and that this chapter in Oberlin’s history is behind everyone. We believe our bakery has contributed to the wonderful tapestry of memories of Oberlin for thousands of alumni, residents and visitors to our wonderful city. The Gibsons welcome everyone from the College and town to patronize their store and begin to make new friends and memories which will create tasty smiles forever.”

Oberlin College has made no announcement regarding plans for any future business with Gibson’s Bakery.