College Implements Activism Monitoring Measures for Students, Faculty, Staff

In the wake of Oberlin College v. Gibsons Bros., Inc., which began in 2016, College administrators have implemented a series of policies designed to monitor student, faculty, and staff activist endeavors. The Review presents a timeline of some of these College policies, spanning from 2017 to 2023.

Trustees Initially Reject Proposal for Student Board Member (2017)

In early October of 2017, after 18 months of student activism in its favor, former Student Senate Liaison and then-fifth-year double-degree student Jeremy Poe’s proposal for student representation on the Board of Trustees was rejected by the board.

Board Chair Chris Canavan, OC ’84, released a statement later that month which expressed the board’s reasoning for rejecting the proposal.

“A healthy board is one on which every trustee feels absolutely comfortable thinking out loud,” Canavan wrote. “Trustees are no less human than students: when we think out loud, we take note of who’s in the room, consciously or subconsciously. Most trustees, including those who might otherwise support the resolution, worry that some of us would think out loud less candidly if students were in the room. As chair, that’s unacceptable to me.”

Rapid Response Team Organized to Monitor and De-Escalate Protests (2020)

On Feb. 18, 2020, President Carmen Twillie Ambar announced that the College was “formally considering” outsourcing 108 dining and custodial jobs held by United Automobile Workers union members. Students responded with protests, including a gathering of hundreds in King Building Feb. 19 in opposition to the lay-off.

The Division of Student Life assembled a Rapid Response Team, which made its debut at one of the ensuing protests.

At the time of its rollout, Rapid Response Team Co-Chair and Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct and Community Standards Thom Julian expressed the team’s motives in the article “Rapid Response Team Debuts at UAW-Related Protests” The Oberlin Review, Feb. 28, 2020.

“The purpose is really of the team to support students in their right to express their … freedom of speech, to make sure that students are aware of campus policies, and to support that process from a neutral perspective,” Julian said. “The members of this team are not supposed to have an opinion, necessarily, when they’re assisting and supporting students when it comes to whether they agree or disagree with the message of the student activists; it’s really just to support the students as students.”

When the team was made aware of student protests, demonstrations, or other forms of collective activism, its protocol was to reach out to organizers and ensure that they were aware of campus policies. The team would then station itself at the event in order to monitor and de-escalate it, or defer to Campus Safety Officers if needed. 

Then-Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo told the Review that the Rapid Response Team’s existence was not specifically inspired by the UAW-related protest activity, but by a broader history of student activism.

​​“It was put together in response to some of the challenges around student protest and demonstration in the past,” Raimondo said. “I’m thinking about the events at Gibson’s; I’m also thinking about some of the protests that occurred around the ABUSUA demands. … We wanted [to get] something up and running this semester, I think with the knowledge that spring is a time when typically there’s something that’s going on. But [creating the team] was not specifically driven by the outsourcing announcement.”

Student Organizers’ Request to Negotiate with Board of Trustees Denied (2022)

In early October of last year, at a faculty teach-in event organized to protest the impending vote on the Board of Trustees’ proposed bylaw amendments, student activists were denied an audience with the board. Dean of Students Karen Goff eventually staged a meeting between protestors, who were stationed outside of the Center for Engaged Liberal Arts, and Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees Lillie Edwards, OC ’75. Student attempts both to enter CELA and to speak with Canavan were denied. 

General Counsel Sessions (2023)

On April 27, Assistant General Counsel for the College Justin Younker led a session titled “Oberlin & Me: When am I Oberlin, and why does it matter?”

“This session will focus on the intersection of action and responsibility,” the event description read. “We will explore a variety of topics, such as specific actions that could be attributable to the College (including social media and other speech), implications of actions taken pursuant to one’s employment, and the creation of obligations on behalf of the College. We will also consider the College’s procedures regarding protests and student speech.” 

With faculty and staff present, this session covered vicarious liability, when College employees are and are not agents of the College, and social media usage. Younker asked attendees to consider, in various case studies, when the College may be liable for the actions of its employees.