Mugging of Professor Sparks Evaluation of Campus Security

Rosemary Boeglin, News Editor

Last Sunday afternoon, History professor Gary Kornblith was hosting a Civil War film festival in King 106. As he was bringing in a box of supplies, he passed by two young men sitting by the Rice parking lot entrance; he nodded at them and continued down the hallway. Moments later, Kornblith heard footsteps increasing in speed behind him. Before he realized it, he had been knocked down to the floor, struggling with one of the teens.

“I feel these arms around me, and my first reaction was ‘Someone is hugging me,’ and then I realized ‘No.’ Then I’m on the floor … and one of the two kids was trying to get the wallet out of my back pocket,” Kornblith said.

With no one else around, the teen was able to rip the wallet out of Kornblith’s pocket and run out of the Professor Street door of King with the other boy. Kornblith chased after them and subsequently alerted Safety and Security of the incident via the Blue Light Phone outside the building.

“There was some conjecture about what might be behind the incident, but until we know more, we can try to take preventative measures, but it’s an imperfect world,” Kornblith said. “I think it’s unfortunate; I think the campus and the town are reasonably safe places, and I’m a little disheartened, but I haven’t given up my faith in human nature.”

Drew Lafontant, College senior, had been walking toward King with her roommate when the teens ran out of King and down Professor Street. She went to assist Kornblith, and after giving statements to Safety and Security officers, went with her roommate to identify two possible suspects who, Lafontant believes, were not the adolescents who attacked Kornblith.

“I was in shock [after the incident]. The kids looked really young, and that’s why I was really surprised, and surprised that they had just planned something like that: to hang out in an empty building. I just wanted to help [Kornblith] — he seemed really shaken up, disoriented and, like, freaked out. It was pretty surreal,” Lafontant said.

Marjorie Burton, director of Safety and Security, said that this incident is an abnormal occurrence. “I have worked for Oberlin College for over 20 years and cannot recall any such similar incident of robbery … in my experience here.”

Dean of Students Eric Estes was also quick to classify this occurrence as uncharacteristic of crimes in Oberlin and to emphasize the relative safety of the campus. “We should remember that our campus is safer than most campuses in the country. It is also important to remember that despite the relatively safe nature of our campus, we must be alert and proactive in maintaining the safety of ourselves and of others.”

Though measures have not yet been taken, Kornblith said that questions should be asked about increasing surveillance and security on campus in light of this event. “I’m not sure that just because I was the victim, I have any special wisdom on [whether or not there should be increased security in academic buildings],” he said. “There’s a classic trade-off between freedom and security, and in this case freedom means access to these buildings. Do we want to have the academic buildings cordoned off? Do we really want to segregate these spaces so that they’re for college students, faculty and staff only?”

For now, though, Burton said that there has been no response of increased security or surveillance on campus. “An incident such as this brings additional awareness about crimes of opportunity to the forefront. We continue with the same recommendations about reporting and safe practices as helpful daily practices a community member can incorporate in his or her life. Again, the most important contribution to one’s own safety is to become a supporter of a safe community by watching out for yourself and others and report[ing suspicious activity].”

As chair of SPRITE, the committee on Strategic Priorities Relating to Information Technology Expenditures, Kornblith said that there is potential for using technology, rather than the proverbial cop on every corner, to help prevent and combat crimes of this nature.

“[We should consider increased security or surveillance] not because I’m the head of SPRITE and I was the victim, but because I’m the head of SPRITE and it triggered a sense of ‘What are we doing? How do we plan on this?’… We have certain areas of the school where we have surveillance cameras, but we don’t have the whole campus covered, and I’m not sure that we want to have the whole campus covered. But maybe we would like to be able to run back a tape of a public hallway from 11:45 a.m. on a Sunday. … There are questions about, ‘Are there ways to maintain public spaces … and is there a role for technology?’ I don’t know the answer, but I think that it’s at least worth addressing.”

Kornblith, who has long been active in the community and working to bridge the town-gown divide, said he’d be reluctant to put the campus on “lockdown” and that doing so has the potential to increase tensions between the College and the city of Oberlin.

“There’s no question that College people are seen as not really part of the community, for the most part, and that there’s resentment of that and a sense that we’re more affluent and privileged. So we’re potential targets. That is not how most of the people in the town look at us, but it doesn’t take most people. We should just be self-conscious both of how we talk to people in the town — we shouldn’t be haughty — but also be careful when we’re walking late at night,” Kornblith said.

“There are town-gown tensions, and I don’t want this to make them worse, but I want us to understand that there might be a reason that we’re perceived as potential targets because there’s a sense that college folks are privileged, and we are … but that doesn’t justify a mugging, and it doesn’t mean that the College can solve it by [increasing security]. The better relations between town and gown, the less likely it is that something like this is [going] to happen.”