In Other Ivory Towers

Joey Fox

In Other Ivory Towers is the Record’s look at colleges and universities outside the Purple Bubble. This past summer, Oberlin College and Wesleyan University faced significant lawsuits, both of which alleged that the institutions did not properly intervene against students engaging in defamatory protests.

Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH)

In June, following a years-long legal process, a jury ordered Oberlin College to pay $11 million in compensatory damages and another $33.2 million in punitive damages to Gibson’s Bakery, a family-owned bakery near the college. The total damages were later reduced to $25 million.

The jury found that the college, as well as one of its administrators, was guilty of “libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and improper interference in the business relationship between Gibson’s and Bon Appétit, Oberlin’s food management company,” according to reporting by The Oberlin Review, the college’s student newspaper. 

The lawsuit, which the owners of Gibson’s filed in 2017, stemmed from an incident that took place in November 2016. After a Black Oberlin student attempted to purchase alcohol in Gibson’s using fake identification, a white Gibson’s employee accused the student of shoplifting — an offense the student later plead guilty to — resulting in a physical altercation that also involved two other Black students. The employee maintains that the students were the aggressors, while other eyewitness accounts claim that the employee initiated the violence.

The students acknowledged in their guilty pleas that the employee’s actions were not racially motivated. However, the event nevertheless instigated a series of protests among Oberlin students and faculty, who argued that the bakery had long engaged in racial profiling.

The successful lawsuit claimed that Oberlin College assisted students in their efforts by cancelling classes, allowing the free use of copy machines for protest flyers and ultimately ending its business relationship with the bakery for two months. The college attempted to obtain a new trial, but was denied last Wednesday.

Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT)

At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, an associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry is suing the university for defamation because it failed to hold students accountable for what he called “slanderous and vicious personal attacks.” The suit, which was filed in May, has not yet been resolved.

The professor, Michael McAlear, says that, after he called into question student protesters’ use of the words “sexual predator” to refer to two Wesleyan faculty members, he himself was labelled a “predator.” According to reporting by the Hartford Courant, McAlear had never been accused by the institution of sexual misconduct. McAlear reached out to university administrators, who he says agreed with him that the students were out of line and should have been identified and questioned.

However, no student ever faced disciplinary action from the university, according to McAlear’s lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges that McAlear was professionally and personally damaged by the students’ statements, which surfaced in protests against the administration, fliers distributed to visiting students and teaching evaluations.

In a statement through a spokesperson which was provided to the Hartford Courant, Wesleyan denied McAlear’s accusation of defamation.