I’m a professor at Evergreen State College, currently on leave. Last year I lived through the events that were captured on videotape and brought the college a lot of unwanted publicity. As a social scientist, long interested in organization theory and social movements, I found the experience grimly fascinating, an extraordinary case study. In my writing on it, I try to focus on understanding how such things could occur, rather than apportioning blame to specific individuals, which, from what I can see, has been the main sport.
Today I read another post mortem by Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, published in the right wing Washington Examiner. Disclosure: I know both of them, and I had a positive experience co-teaching for a quarter with Heather several years ago in Evergreen’s environmental masters program. I’m not socially connected to either of them, and I haven’t had political discussions with them either. I agree with some of what they say in their latest missive, and disagree with other parts. Readers of this blog, who are far from the scene and wonder who and what to believe, might find my reactions interesting.
There is an obvious, fundamental point on which the three of us see eye to eye: Evergreen descended into an atmosphere of intimidation, in which the right to speak, no matter how civilly, was openly attacked. There was a group solidarity logic at work: if you affiliated with one group on campus, you could speak your mind in public and be immune from any scrutiny regarding the tone or logic of your utterances; if you didn’t you were expected to remain silent. This pressure was felt by faculty and students alike. It was in this context that disruptive actions by students escalated over many months until they paralyzed the college. It’s remarkable that it even needs to be said that this situation is intolerable for an institution of higher education.
Personally, I think it is bizarre that Weinstein and Heying would be sent packing by the college under the same terms—the same monetary settlement—as Naima Lowe, whose verbal attacks on her colleagues caused enormous damage to Evergreen. This is not a verdict of the “which side are you on” sort. It’s not about whose political views you agree with or who you like or don’t like on a personal level. Weinstein and Heying had a case against the college, and the college had a case against Lowe. There wasn’t a shred of symmetry in this situation.
One critical aspect of the Evergreen imbroglio goes unmentioned in the Weinstein-Heying account, the barrage of terrifying, intimately threatening emails that bombarded students and faculty after Bret appeared on Fox News. The wording in these emails reeked of racism and was often graphic, about specific acts of violence, and some students went into hiding because they couldn’t be sure the hatred was only verbal. To be clear, I don’t blame Bret for that, at least in this sense: I’m pretty sure it never occurred to him that this would result from coverage by conservative media, and no doubt most of it would have taken place even if he had said “no” to Tucker Carlson. Still, it’s an important part of the larger story, and if you offer an account of what happened you shouldn’t cherry-pick the parts that support your side. Speaking for myself, I was appalled by this tsunami of hate, and I didn’t feel it was enough to say, this is just the alt-right being the alt-right. We are all of us responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions, even if we aren’t the ones carrying them out.
But there is also an aspect of the Evergreen story, in many ways the most important one of all, that I think Weinstein-Heying got wrong. The way they tell it, a left wing minority made a power play on campus in order to enact a radical, identity-fixated political program, the notorious Equity Plan. This plan, they say, would have destroyed much of what made Evergreen a vital force in education, and the purpose of the intimidation was to push it through. They cite one sentence from the plan document that calls for bringing diversity and equity criteria into decisions of what faculty specializations to hire in. It is the Equity Plan that, in their account, makes the conflict political, a battle over which policies would be adopted by the college.
Now here’s the truly extraordinary thing which, in my view, completely upends the conventional understanding of the Evergreen affair: there was no Equity Plan. Yes, there was a document, hyped in a truly bizarre manner during the November 2016 “canoe event”, called an Equity Plan. It ran 38 pages, to a large extent a copy-and-paste job, in which rhetoric from a couple of nationally circulated diversity manuals was cobbled together to make it look like a plan existed or might come to exist at a later date. To be blunt, there was a need for a document called an Equity Plan, so, in a few hours, something with this title was assembled, but there was no actionable plan for the college—no set of proposed regulations, no budgetary analysis, virtually nothing to endorse or oppose. (This is a slight exaggeration: the “plan” called for mandatory diversity training, which is a staple of corporate America, and it created a new Vice Presidency for Equity and Inclusion, whose occupant would be tasked with figuring out what her job entailed.)
Moreover, there was no political platform behind the student protests. Listen, for instance, to the student reading a statement at the disruption of the dedication of Purce Hall; it’s all about feelings of disrespect and fear, but there’s not a single word specifying what the college should do to assuage them. The students who occupied the administrative wing of the library building in the spring issued (belatedly) a list of demands, but they were mostly either about personalities (a list of faculty and administrators to be fired) or too vague to be a subject for implementation. At a college whose priorities are tightly constrained by its budget, there was no call for a reallocation of resources to meet the needs of underserved populations. (This is a call I would have welcomed.)
The weird truth at the heart of what happened at Evergreen is that there was no political content to it. It was all about group solidarities and symbolism. If this can be given a left-right interpretation, it only means that politics in the wider society has been drained of all substance. By continuing to portray the meltdown at the college as political, pinning it on (a portion of) the left, Weinstein-Heying are mischaracterizing it. This in turn has the effect of reinforcing the tendency to take sides; no doubt many readers of their piece will see it as a defense of moderation in the face of radicalism. Near the end, for instance, Weinstein-Heying write, “Both positions [left and right] have merit and, despite the frequent tenor of conversations between factions, they are not mutually exclusive. Wisdom is likely to emerge from the tension between these worldviews, uniting good people around the value of a fair system that fosters self-reliance as it distributes opportunity as broadly as possible.” But the Evergreen meltdown was not about left versus right, institutional fairness versus personal responsibility. Bret’s challenge, for which he was hounded out of the college, was not to the adoption of a political program that didn’t exist, but to the imposition of a coercive ritual symbolism. You can be very radical in your politics and take that stand. In fact, if you’re really interested in changing the world and not just how we talk about it, that’s exactly what you’ll do.