Colleges Are Losing Control of Their Story. The Banh-Mi Affair at Oberlin Shows How.

November 13, 2019
Communications
campus building in the fallwith a small read leaf tree on left
Quad view of Cox Administration Building on Oberlin College campus. Photo credit: Douglas Menefee

The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Vimal Patel October 31, 2019

 

Oberlin College’s banh-mi ordeal started, innocently enough, in a journalism class.

A Vietnamese student told Ferdinand Protzman, the lecturer teaching a news-writing course in the fall of 2015, that some international students had concerns about food in the cafeteria being passed off as authentic when it fell far short.

Protzman was pleased to see her take his advice to be observant around the campus, but his first response was dismissive. “Come on,” he told the student, “it’s just institutional food. It all sucks, right?”

But the more he learned, the more Protzman, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, thought his student might have a useful local story. The banh mi wasn’t just inauthentic—it didn’t even resemble banh mi. Instead of grilled pork, pâté, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork, and coleslaw, according to the student. And the “chicken sushi,” Protzman said, was just chicken loaf draped over a little mound of bad rice.

“I don’t know what culture it wouldn’t offend,” he says.

Protzman instructed the student to interview Campus Dining Services, where staff members told her they didn’t know about the concerns international students had about the banh mi, “chicken sushi,” and other ostensibly Asian dishes. She filed the story. Protzman’s teaching assistant, who was an editor at the student newspaper, the Oberlin Review, wanted to publish it. The author agreed.

“CDS Appropriates Asian Dishes, Students Say,” ran the headline. The article quoted some students who said the food was culturally appropriative and others who disagreed. After the story appeared, dining officials talked with students who had concerns, and agreed to “improve the naming process of meals by not associating excessively modified dishes with specific cultures” and working with students to make dishes “more culturally accurate,” according to a follow-up story in the campus newspaper on December 4. The international students said they felt as if their concerns had been heard.

“This was a great example of what journalists are supposed to do,” says Protzman, who in addition to teaching the journalism course was also the college’s assistant to the president for communications, and is now chief of staff. “She identified a news story that affects people’s lives in the community, and reported on it in a fair, balanced, and verifiable fashion.”

That’s when the professional journalists got involved.

Enter the New York Post, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid known for headlines like “Bezos Exposes Pecker” and “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” Now, six weeks after the original campus newspaper story, the Post weighed in with its Oberlin headline: “Students at Lena Dunham’s College Offended by Lack of Fried Chicken.”

“Who is going to bother with an article six weeks past its sell-by date? As it turns out, everybody.”

OK, some professors thought. That would ensure a drubbing in the right-wing press and blogosphere. Nothing Oberlin wasn’t used to by now.

“Who is going to bother with an article six weeks past its sell-by date?” wrote Steven Volk, a retired Oberlin professor on his blog. “As it turns out, everybody.”

Newsweek followed up two days after the Post with its own take, headlined “Oberlin College Students Protest ‘Culturally Appropriative’ Dining Hall Food.” Two days after that, the New York Times weighed in with “Oberlin Students Take Culture War to the Dining Hall,” the Atlantic with “A Food Fight at Oberlin College,” and the Washington Post with “Oberlin College Sushi ‘Disrespectful’ to Japanese.”

It crossed an ocean and into Britain’s Independent: “US University Accused of Cultural Appropriation Over ‘Undercooked’ Sushi Rice.” Even prospective college students—an all-important demographic for Oberlin—could read about the incident at Seventeen in an article titled “These College Students Claim Their Cafeteria Food Is Racist.”

That fall, student protesters were roiling campuses across the country to demand more racial inclusivity. Oberlin was no exception. In December, students with the black-student union included more-traditional meals on a list of varied demands that ran to 14 pages. Media accounts of complaints about the dining hall, however, centered on the Asian students.

Volk, the retired professor, summarized the frustration many supporters of the college have about how its students are characterized.

“An article written in a local campus newspaper,” he wrote on his blog, “reporting on complaints by three students (and balanced by the quite measured comments of three others), was picked up six weeks later, weaponized (add Lena Dunham and remove any reasonable comments), and sent out into the world by a right-wing tabloid where it was picked up by, seemingly, every media outlet on God’s green earth, only to return, time and again, as an example of Oberlin’s privileged, radical, preposterous students.”

And it kept returning.

Cultural appropriation in the cafeteria has become the shorthand national reporters often use to convey the excesses of Oberlin-student activism—and, by implication, the excesses of higher education more broadly. Earlier this year, in a Nicholas Kristof column headlined “Stop the Knee-Jerk Liberalism That Hurts Its Own Cause,” the columnist began with Harvard as “a troubling example of a university monoculture nurturing liberal intolerance,” went on to Cambridge, and before long introduced Oberlin as a place “where students once protested the dining hall for cultural appropriation for offering poor sushi.”

For professors and administrators defending Oberlin, the incident served as a portent of the following year, when the college found itself again at the center of national media attention: Student protests against the treatment and arrest of a black student at a local business, Gibson’s Bakery, ultimately resulted in a county jury’s $32-million defamation verdict against Oberlin. The college announced this month that it would appeal.

Protzman says the banh-mi episode resulted from an intersection of ideological media outlets who use Oberlin to gripe about liberal arts education and liberalism run amok, and the broader mainstream theme of Oberlin students as “pampered snowflakes, etc., etc.”

“The thing that was most disturbing to me as a journalist is that people at mainstream publications just took the narrative that grew on these ideological blogs and basically just repeated it,” Protzman says. “No one called. No one.”

Vimal Patel covers student life, social mobility and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.

 

Used with permission of The Chronicle ofHigher Education Copyright© 2019. All rights reserved.

 

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