The Tragic Transformation of Oberlin College

Oberlin College is a place that I once loved and admired. It was a place that nurtured my intellectual and social development, where I established life-long friends, and where I learned how to think critically. It was a place where I — the daughter of anti-apartheid activists who had grown up in South Africa — befriended fellow South Africans, both black and white, and together imagined a time in the future when we would return home and be permitted to share a table for coffee. Indeed, the Oberlin community of my day valued relationship building as a means toward creating a more equitable world.

Today, 30 years later, despite having devoted my life to anti-bias education and other progressive causes, Oberlin is a place where I no longer feel welcome. This shift in my relationship with my alma mater is the outcome of three years of disturbing interactions with Oberlin College administrators and troubling observations of how they have perverted Oberlin’s historic legacy of “social justice.”

My interactions with Oberlin administrators are also the basis for my reaction to the recent Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College trial. Indeed, when I heard the damning testimony about Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo and her colleagues, I was entirely unsurprised. I was similarly unsurprised by the college’s refusal to acknowledge its culpability, to apologize, and show remorse for the personal and financial damage it had caused for the Gibson family. On the contrary, I was very familiar with the college’s ideological leaders, knowing that they encourage hostility and disparaging attitudes toward members of so-called “privileged” identity groups and then display dismissive attitudes toward their subsequent distress.

I first met with Meredith Raimondo, former Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, and Dean Eric Estes (now at Brown University) in February 2016 in my capacity as the president of the group, Oberlin Alumni Against Antisemitism (OAAA). Joined by OAAA’s three other officers, I traveled to Oberlin from Maryland to discuss a pattern of hostile incidents against Jewish students that had occurred on campus and that had prompted our recently published Open Letter. The letter, which had been signed by over 300 alumni and 20 current Oberlin students, described bullying and intimidation of Jewish students by student and faculty supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel, and a campus-wide effort to promote their message, “Either forfeit your allegiance to Israel and join us, or we will brand you as an enemy of justice and complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people.”

Prior to the meeting, I also had submitted a document to President Krislov that included Joy Karega’s notorious photo-shopped images of Benjamin Netanyahu as an ISIS fighter and a sinister-looking Jacob Rothschild. Karega had posted those images, along with false accusations about Israel shooting down a Malaysian jet and orchestrating 9/11, on her public social media page where they had appeared for over a year without objection from anyone in the Oberlin community.

The four of us arrived at the administration building where we were invited into a conference room that was adorned with carved wood décor and portraits of past Oberlin presidents. Almost immediately, Krislov angrily accused us of misrepresenting the situation on campus. Uneasy but undeterred, I expressed my concern to him about the steady stream of highly paid and unchallenged anti-Israel speakers appearing on campus, about Meredith Raimondo’s course syllabi that contained one-sided and inflammatory perspectives on Israel, and about an educational environment in which political rhetoric had replaced academic rigor.

The youngest member of our group, a 2012 graduate, then directed her comments to Meredith Raimondo. She explained that it was unfair and inappropriate to expect Jewish students to report their experiences with harassment to Raimondo given her ties to the BDS movement and requested a different point person for Jewish students to consult. Finally, we requested the creation of a task force to address antisemitism on campus and a more diverse and academically oriented marketplace of perspectives.

That afternoon and the following day, I also met with several Jewish students. What I heard echoed what our alumni group had already established. They described imbalanced course content that portrayed Israel as an oppressive regime, professors sharing their extremist perspectives rather than providing nuanced dialogue or debate about Israel, and how their extremism emboldened pro-BDS students to aggressively espouse their views in class with the professor’s tacit support. I heard about students’ reluctance to challenge their professors for fear of retaliation including low grades and poor letters of recommendation. As one student explained, “it’s their way or the highway,” as she described a divided community and an overall atmosphere of tension and fear about being marked and labeled as “the bad guy” for supporting Israel.

Those same themes emerged once again when I returned to Oberlin seven months later to hold a symposium on civil discourse. Despite being an Oberlin alumna, Meredith Raimondo denied my request for a room on campus to hold the symposium. According to Raimondo, unless a student approached her directly to ask that she sponsor the symposium, she was unable to provide a place for us. In response, I sent her an email that stated:

“Students are not comfortable asking you to sponsor the symposium, which I can’t imagine comes as a surprise to you given what we shared with you when we traveled to Oberlin in February. I tell this to you to offer yet another example of Jewish students feeling afraid and intimidated on your campus, and to reiterate my request that you co-sponsor our symposium as an act of good faith on their behalf.”

Raimondo bluntly replied, “As I explained, the Dean of Students office responds to requests from student groups. Any students on campus can certainly approach a leadership body like Student Senate and ask them to make a request on their behalf.” As a result of her refusal, we were compelled to raise funds to secure a venue off campus. Numerous Oberlin alumni, who were uniformly unimpressed with the ways in which we were being treated, chose to redirect their annual funds marked for Oberlin to us instead, enabling us to rent a conference room in the Oberlin Hotel and cover the costs of our three speakers.

Days before the event, the Oberlin Police Department informed me about a growing number of student protestors who were planning to block the entrance to the hotel, and they suggested that we place camera crews on the roof to deter them. They also recommended that I not walk around the campus alone give the growing hostility toward me since Joy Karega had recently been fired. It appeared that substantial numbers of students and faculty members had determined that Karega was a victim of racism and that our group—now called Alums for Campus Fairness—was responsible for her dismissal.

I heeded the advice of the officers and our symposium proceeded peacefully. Despite many hostile questions from students in the audience, I felt that the symposium was a success and believed that we had opened a door for further dialogue and understanding. I was particularly pleased at the turnout —approximately seventy students, faculty members, and administrators, including Meredith Raimondo. Unfortunately, my optimism was misguided.

Days later, I wrote to Raimondo to thank her for attending and to say, “Please keep in touch and let me know how we can continue to work together on behalf of all students.” I did not receive a response. I did, however, hear from an Oberlin employee who had attended a meeting in which the Oberlin administration was “quite dismissive” of the symposium, “asseverating that (I was) merely a distant alumna, who rarely had contact with the college” and that antisemitism at Oberlin “was really a non-issue.”

Our attempts to engage with Oberlin’s new president, Carmen Ambar, have generated similar displays of gas lighting and proved to be just as futile. After denying our request to meet in person in the fall of 2017, she granted us a phone call, during which she repeated what we had heard before. According to Ambar, the campus was not hostile toward Jewish students who support Israel and if students wanted to invite “pro-Israel” speakers to campus, they were free to do so. She further insisted that it was not the administration’s responsibility to determine the nature or frequency of invited speakers. She concluded the call by instructing us to voice our future concerns to the campus directors of Hillel and Chabad.

My subsequent emails to Ambar remain unanswered, including one that contained a published book chapter written by Eliana Kohn, a current Oberlin student. In the chapter, Kohn described how the BDS campaign is facilitating a deterioration of civil discourse and intellectual curiosity at Oberlin, and how as a Jew with close ties to Israel, she felt ostracized and alienated on campus. Ambar did respond to our second Open Letter, by publishing a statement that, once again, described our concerns as unfounded.

Tragically, Oberlin College has become a paradox of itself—a place where the self-righteous and dogmatic “social justice” ideology of the institution’s leaders promotes hostile and divisive behaviors. Indeed, as the Gibsons trial has shown, Oberlin is now a place where ideology has replaced civility and where arrogance has smothered all expressions of humility and grace.

Until someone or something demands that Oberlin’s leaders take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, alumni donations will continue to dwindle and the caliber of Oberlin students and of Oberlin’s reputation will continue to decline. In the meantime, despite the pain I feel as I witness these transformations, I will take comfort in knowing that the Oberlin that I once loved lives on through those of us who refuse to stand by and silently watch a handful of individuals destroy our once great and beloved college.

About the Author
Melissa Landa Ph.D has been addressing the tactics and goals of the BDS campaign for four years. Most recently, she founded the new organization, Alliance for Israel. The diverse leadership and membership of Alliance for Israel reflects Melissa's teaching and research on cultural competence and anti-bias education as a former Assistant Clinical Professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. Melissa taught courses about music as a form of social protest in apartheid South Africa (where she grew up) and about attitudes and beliefs about the "Other". She also created and led a University of Maryland short-term education abroad program in Israel that explored the immigration and acculturation experiences of Ethiopian Jews. Melissa earned her B.A from Oberlin College, her M.A. from Tufts University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and is the author of two books, articles in peer-reviewed journals, and numerous op-eds. You can contact Melissa by email: Melissa@alliance4israel.org
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