College’s Concerns Around Liability Stifle Progressive Values

Last September marked the conclusion of the Oberlin College v. Gibsons Bros., Inc. lawsuit, with the institution paying out $36.59 million to the local business. Following the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision to not hear Oberlin’s appeal to the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas’ ruling, the Review published an editorial titled “Court Decision on Gibson’s Suit Threatens Student Speech,” The Oberlin Review, Sept. 16, 2022. The editorial considered the possibility of increased conservatism toward student protest across higher education. Now, all these months later, the signs of anxiety toward possible litigation are turning up a dime a dozen.

As of last July, the College employs an associate vice president of risk Management & Operations, currently Kalinda Watson, a new role on Oberlin’s campus. While roles like Watson’s aren’t altogether new to higher education, the introduction of the position to Oberlin  is indicative of tightening attitudes among administrators toward the potential liability student protests present. One crucial way in which the administration, though not necessarily Watson herself, has changed aspects of student life deemed capable of risk is by prohibiting classes or activities, such as Barefoot Dialogue, from taking place in faculty or off campus households. This may seem innocuous at first glance, but consider the bigger picture of risk management: last October, the Board of Trustees voted to change language in the institution’s bylaws to erase any delegation of authority to faculty councils in matters outside curriculum. When asked about the reason for this revision by the Review, Trustee Chuck Birenbaum, OC ’79, outlined the state of abundant litigation concerning the College and the necessity of risk aversion.

“The board recognized our claims history was a lot greater than it should be for an institution of Oberlin’s size,” Birenbaum said. “The number of lawsuits, employment cases, Title IX claims, personal injury cases, the Gibson’s case — which we can call a torts case — all these claims demonstrated that Oberlin needed to take a hard look at itself in some ways that it hasn’t before. One of the things that [Oberlin] did was it sought professional advice on risk management.”

Despite joint student, staff, and faculty protests against this decision last October, the Board elected to add language to the amended bylaws that specified faculty should be consulted on long term institutional planning — a symbolic gesture of collaboration in an otherwise unilateral decision. Symbolic gesturing unfortunately cuts both ways, as is apparent in the amendment to visiting assistant professor contracts that now explicitly state their employment can be terminated at the College’s will. While Ohio is an at-will employment state, the choice to introduce that language to contracts is conspicuous within the present reality of the College redoubling efforts to implement legal safeguards against potential liabilities. Last week, the Review published a statement by the Oberlin American Association of University Professors Executive Committee that considered the risks to academic freedom this shift in contract language enables (“AAUP Asks Oberlin to Value Faculty,” The Oberlin Review, April 21, 2023).

This emphasis on litigation is visible from student and faculty affairs to pedagogical opportunities like the Conversations with Counsel that the Office of the Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary have hosted all year. For yesterday’s session of the discussion series, 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.” None of this is happening with any malicious intent, rather efforts like Conversations with Counsel seem like a unique opportunity to understand the inner workings of the College. At the same time, the institution’s obsession with finding and sealing these gaps in its operation can come at the expense of the wants and needs of our collegiate community. 

So where does this meet the current reality of activism on campus? It seems unlikely that a college living in fear of litigation, and one that has used legal technicalities to dismiss concerns expressed in protest, will behave favorably toward activist efforts in the years to come. Further, several of these decisions were made unilaterally or without disclosure to the broader public. The room to have an effectively informed conversation is shrinking, which makes it tougher for students to know the stakes of what’s happening on our campus. This has the potential to limit students’ ability to organize and engage in discourse with administrators. In fact, since spring 2022, the highest student turnouts have been at protests surrounding faculty issues, organized by faculty and staff. It isn’t that the state of discourse in College issues is shrinking, but rather that certain kinds of decisions have become less visible and the likelihood of being heard has become more distant. 

Oberlin’s student body has historically been defined by its involvement in nationwide movements and activism in general. These tightening restrictions and a larger focus on risk management and liability within our administration threaten to curb the progressive nature of Oberlin and, to a certain extent, limit what makes Oberlin the institution that drew many of us here in the first place. As we near the end of the year, as seniors graduate to go on to involve themselves in the outside world, as Oberlin prepares itself to welcome another first-year class, we must ask the school and the students what kind of institution we want to be and what kind of institution we want to be a part of. Student activism in Oberlin is integral to the culture. Without it, what do we stand for?