Right wing media sources have been all ablaze in the past few days with stories about PC-inspired thuggery at Evergreen State College. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been objective reporting on these events to set the record straight, and unless saner voices speak out there is a risk the Fox version will be the only one most people know.
I teach at Evergreen, and I have been present for most of the fireworks (and the slow burn that preceded it). I’m no expert, but I also have no particular axe to grind.
Although racial issues have been a part of Evergreen’s history from the beginning, the last year has seen a significant increase in tensions. A group of faculty and staff, initially calling themselves the Diversity and Equity (now the Equity and Inclusion) Council, formed to spearhead a drive for reforms. They had difficulty agreeing on just what needed to be done, but they converged on a demand for annual mandatory diversity training for all faculty. This proved to be divisive and did not get majority support at a faculty meeting, leading to a sense of frustration and polarization. Social justice activists came away convinced that discussion and persuasion were fruitless, and only a top-down, administration-led approach would get results. This in turn exacerbated tensions with faculty who were concerned about a more general drift away from faculty governance at the institution.
One consequence was an email battle, which quickly devolved into the Council and its supporters against a lone “anti” voice, Bret Weinstein, an evolutionary biologist. Using a campus-wide list, Weinstein repeatedly argued that the Council was imposing an atmosphere of intimidation, a claim with an element of truth but which was delivered with what can charitably be described as insufficient awareness of his own assumptions and biases about race and racism.
The triggering event on the email front was a decision to alter the format of the college’s Day of Absence/Day of Presence observation in 2017. DOA/DOP is a longstanding college tradition. On DOA students, staff and faculty of color are invited to meet off campus to discuss the state of racial awareness and progress; on DOP everyone is invited to discuss these issues together. For the current iteration it was decided to encourage those of color to meet on campus during DOP and invite others to a small, limited capacity off-campus event, a symbolic “flip”. No one was required to do anything; it was all about invitation. This seems to have pushed a button for Weinstein, who responded with an email (falsely) attacking the organizers for instructing whites to leave campus, a charge he embedded in a more sweeping claim of reverse racism. The email wars heated up and then subsided; for several weeks it appeared the matter had been dropped.
But meanwhile a number of students of color and their supporters were organizing behind the scenes. They were upset about several incidents involving the campus police, particularly one in which two black students were taken into custody following a heated verbal exchange over racial issues in the student cafeteria. There was also buzz among students that a number of the faculty were displaying racial and gender bias in the classroom and anger about Weinstein’s email. Last week they launched their protest by invading Weinstein’s class and shouting at him to either apologize or resign. Someone (Weinstein says it was a student, the protesters say it was Weinstein) called the campus police, and further ugliness ensued. (This has all been captured on video.) Then the protesters moved on to the administrative offices of the college and engaged in an off-and-on sit-in. No police were called in response to this. Protesting students also disbanded a faculty meeting and herded the faculty to the site of their sit-ins, apparently worried about a police attack and hopeful that faculty presence would forestall it.
The immediate effect for Weinstein was banishment from the campus. Students peppered the buildings with graffiti denouncing him as a racist, and campus police told him he should stay away for his own safety. He held classes with his students off-campus. There may also have been threats against some of his students, but protesters deny this charge, and the truth can’t be determined at this point.
The email war reignited, and one of the faculty most closely associated with the protests posted a message on Facebook that was at best ill-advised in its vituperation against Weinstein’s partner (also an Evergreen faculty member). Meanwhile, Weinstein did himself no favors by agreeing to be interviewed for Fox News, during which he made exaggerated claims about the situation on campus.
George Bridges, the president of the college, has responded to the protests by supporting a number of initiatives (including the mandatory diversity trainings), but also demanding that personal attacks cease.
My purpose in relaying this information is to provide as objective a narrative as possible. I have strong views of my own, but I’ve kept them out. All I want to say at this point is that racial injustice is a pressing issue at Evergreen, I appreciate the attention students have brought to it, but I also think they have barely scratched the surface of the real problems, and a lot of the behavior on all sides has been unhelpful.