Open Letter to President Ambar Regarding Gibsons’ Suit

Editors’ Note: This letter is an edited version of the copy initially sent to President Carmen Twillie Ambar on Oct. 12.

Dear President Ambar:

I am writing about what I see as the “canary in the coal mine,” with the College being the latter. I write as a member of the Class of 1970 who supported Oberlin for more than half a century, financially and otherwise, because of my deep affection and appreciation for the institution. These thoughts are rooted in my 30 years of experience as Associate General Counsel of a Fortune 25 company.

I believe the College’s handling of the Gibson’s litigation demonstrated both a failure of leadership and of stewardship. People go to court to solve a problem. While law firms are designed to make money by approaching litigation as a win-lose contest, smart clients look beyond that binary model to first identify the problem the plaintiff is seeking to solve and then pursue a solution to that problem.

Certainly, litigation did not solve the problem here. The College’s reputation and stature in its local community and the national community from which the College recruits students have been grievously damaged by this court case. And while the Gibsons might take some comfort in the judgment, the lawsuit caused them, as well as you and your colleagues, significant emotional distress and feelings of personal and institutional damage.

Before the litigation, the College was engaged in a disagreement with one of its neighbors. As is common when neighbors disagree, both parties had hurt feelings and a sense that their side was the ‘right’ one. And as any good trial lawyer would tell you, there is always some validity to the other party’s view of what happened and usually evidence supporting both sides. That is why smart neighbors look for a way to resolve their dispute without going to court.

Truly understanding the neighbor’s point of view and reducing the level of animosity are key to achieving a compromise which embraces both parties and their respective dignity. There are some highly gifted mediators skillful in guiding parties through the emotional journey necessary to find a mutually acceptable resolution. Good lawyers know how to find those mediators. I know the College tried to settle the Gibson’s case, but you get no points for trying. You only achieve success when the case is settled.

In my mind, the College not working out a solution with its longstanding neighbor was a critical failure of leadership. A key objective of any liberal arts education is learning how to solve problems. In Oberlin, students look to the faculty, the administration, and each other to learn how to solve problems. In the Gibson’s case, the College failed to do what it teaches its students.

The College also failed to meet its duty of stewardship. The administration and trustees share a fiduciary duty to act in the College’s best long-term interests. This responsibility obligates those individuals to manage Oberlin’s affairs with an eye toward the College that will be here a century from now.

While the Gibson’s dispute was underway, I’m sure people talked about how important it was to uphold certain principles and to support the deans and others involved. Principles are enduring values that help define an institution, and so I agree that they must be respected. But inevitably, there are additional principles at play which make the right path less black-and-white and more shades of gray.

I understand the importance of supporting and not undermining the College’s leaders. Yet, every manager should be able to honestly say, “In retrospect, I could have handled that better than I did.” That doesn’t mean somebody was wrong, but it does recognize that each of us is an imperfect human being. By embracing that perspective, the College should have been able to craft a solution which its key players could support.

Stewardship of an institution also includes transparency with its stakeholders who, along with the institution itself, are the beneficiaries of the administration’s and trustees’ fiduciary duty. Oberlin’s stakeholders are broad and include its faculty and other employees, current and prospective students and their families, its alumni, the community in which it operates, and, in Oberlin’s case, people who benefit from the College’s history of social action, justice, and scholarly innovation.

In the Gibson’s litigation, the College was not forthcoming with information about what it was doing, its intentions, or how much this was costing all of us who have financially contributed to sustaining Oberlin. Litigation costs go beyond the jury’s award to include legal expenses plus the opportunity costs of diverting the College’s time and attention away from its primary mission of education. Insurance never covers all of those costs, yet the College’s public statements have been ambiguous at best about that.

The College’s lack of transparency is more than worrisome. Does the relative silence about this litigation and failure of leadership reflect a significant change in how the administration and trustees have been exercising their responsibilities to Oberlin’s stakeholders?

This is painful for me, as someone who loved Oberlin as a student and has been grateful for all the College did to help me become the adult and contributor to society I am now. I fear these two failures constitute the canary in the coal mine warning me it’s time to get out. Therefore, I am asking you to explain why I should continue to support Oberlin College. Has the College been taking stock of its actions regarding the Gibson’s litigation and otherwise in an effort to define a better path that aligns with Oberlin’s historic values? Or is the College standing firm on how it has been handling things, convinced that these failures of leadership and stewardship are what we should expect to continue?

Sincerely yours,

Marc S. Krass, OC ’70