This year, for what may be first time in four decades, officials at the Evergreen State College canceled the Day of Absence.
Traditionally on the Day of Absence, students, faculty, and staff of color leave campus and convene elsewhere to attend workshops on issues of race and privilege while white students stay on campus and do the same. Later, they reconvene and have discussions. While this is not the sort of tradition you’d see at most college campuses in the United States, Evergreen isn’t like most colleges. Founded in 1967 as an experiment in higher education, students at Evergreen receive narrative evaluations instead of grades and there is little of the hierarchy you see elsewhere in higher education.
The official cancellation of the Day of Absence wasn’t entirely unexpected: One year ago, the Day of Absence threw the school—and one professor in particular—into a drama that would briefly capture national attention.
Most media reports about what happened at Evergreen last year go like this: Instead of people of color leaving campus, last year, a campus group requested that white students, faculty, and staff leave on the Day of Absence instead. In most reports, the drama started when a professor objected to this change. In response, outraged students protested that professor’s class, footage of the event went viral, the alt-right flocked to Evergreen, and the college was shut down, all because one professor objected to rejiggering an old Evergreen tradition.
That, if you read most reports—or the school’s official version of events—is what happened. But reality, as with most things, is more complex.
Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, the couple at the center of the storm, have been friends since high school and partners since college. They aren’t the kind of married couple that finishes each other’s sentences, but they do interrupt each other.
“Bret was in love with me from the beginning,” Heying told me as we sat in their living room.
“No, no, no, no,” Weinstein said, laughing. “It was a couple minutes later.”
I’d reached out to them a few weeks earlier. I’m interested in pariahs—people who, for whatever reason, have been kicked out of their own group, and I could think of no better example than this couple in Olympia, who’ve been reviled by their own colleagues, as well as in the press. At first, they were hesitant to speak with me. Much of the coverage about Evergreen was unfair and one-sided, they felt, including The Stranger’s own reporting of the events. After some prodding, they acquiesced, and soon after, we talked for five hours and they told me their version of events.
The Weinstein-Heying home is comfortable, middle-class, the walls dotted with art from far-off locales. Through the tall windows and trees dripping with moss, I could see the studio out back where Heying makes pottery and Weinstein works on bikes. The house is quite literally in the shadow of the Evergreen State College. You can’t see any classrooms or dorms or the concrete clock tower that a former governor rappelled down in the 1970s, but their property abuts the college’s thousand-acre forest. At one point, this proximity to campus would have been convenient; their commute to work just a short bike ride through the woods. But after the events of the last year, it’s no longer comfortable to be this close.
Until the controversy, Weinstein and Heying were model faculty at Evergreen, where they’d taught for nearly 15 years. While most nontraditional universities are private—and pricey—Evergreen is a public school, with an acceptance rate near 100 percent. Unlike most schools, professors there have almost complete autonomy over how they teach. They spend the entire 11-week terms with the same class, fully immersed in one group of students’ education. Weinstein and Heying relished working with these students—and their students, it seemed, loved them back. Online student reviews of Heying call her “brilliant,” “genius,” “inspiring,” and “the best educator I have ever had.” Reviews of Weinstein are just as glowing. The couple, who sometimes taught together, took students to places like the Galápagos Islands, where their students learned about evolution while snorkeling with giant tortoises. They helped students who couldn’t afford travel get grants to pay for it. They were popular on campus, and they had few problems with students, administration, or their colleagues.
Both Southern California natives, Weinstein and Heying had gone to college on the East Coast—Smith for her, the University of Pennsylvania for him—but they moved back west before long. The reason for the move, in part, was because Weinstein was getting harassed at Penn for speaking out against racism and sexism at a campus frat. After fraternity members started calling him with death threats, he eventually moved back to Southern California, where he and Heying got their first apartment together.
Adventure was part of their relationship from early on. In the early 1990s, Heying had an old Toyota Corolla that she tried to sell to raise money for a trip to Central America, but the car was so broken-down that she couldn’t get any money for it. So they drove it to Central America instead, and nearly got stuck in Guatemala after failing to get the requisite paperwork. It was one of many adventures the couple has had together, including a field trip to Ecuador with Evergreen students where Heying was nearly killed in a boating accident.
“What happened at Evergreen was a very different kind of adventure,” Weinstein said, “but the idea of sharing peril wasn’t new.”
While Weinstein has become the most visible name behind the conflict at Evergreen, Heying was hardly a bystander.
“A number of people have asked if I’m angry for being dragged into this,” Heying said. “There was no dragging. Part of what I love about Bret is his courage in the face of bad thinking and injustice. And that’s what this was.”
On May 23 last year, Heying, who was on sabbatical at the time, got a call from a dean at the college. He said there had been an incident on campus and he was trying to reach her husband. The incident, both Heying and the world would soon discover, was a student protest that had erupted outside of Weinstein’s classroom—a protest that was instigated because, according these students, Bret Weinstein, a Jewish biologist who had himself spoken out against racism as an undergrad, was a white supremacist.
Earlier that day, Heying later learned, her husband had been in the middle of teaching a class about the problems with human civilization. In a coincidence that would later seem ironic, the lesson that week was how witch hunts unfold. The students were in discussion when Weinstein was alerted that something was going on in the hallway outside of his class. In videos of the incident, you can see a group of students, spitting mad, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Bret Weinstein has got to go.” In the video, Weinstein looks calm and a bit perplexed. When he asks if they would like to have a discussion, the students shout him down. They do not want to listen; they want to be heard.
The protest lasted for less than 20 minutes, before campus police showed up and students, after initially blocking police from getting to Weinstein, disbanded and left. After it was over, Weinstein went right back inside the classroom and resumed teaching.
“If ever there was a teaching moment,” he told me, “this was it.”
The student demonstration outside Weinstein’s class was the beginning of a controversy that would unfold in front of a national audience. Video of the protest soon went viral, and three days later, Weinstein appeared on Fox News with Tucker Carlson on a segment was entitled “Campus Craziness.”
The campus, during that time, was crazy. After the protest outside Weinstein’s class, a small group of students took over buildings, stalked and accosted professors, and held administrators captive in their offices, refusing to let them leave. They roamed the campus with bats and batons, searching cars and buildings for Weinstein and others. Weinstein and Heying, their house just a quick stroll through the forest, were concerned for the safety of their two young boys, and they thought the administration was failing to address the simmering violence. That, Weinstein said, is why he decided to go on Fox News: He wanted to expose what was happening at Evergreen, and the liberal press just wasn’t calling.
Appearing on Fox News incensed many of Weinstein’s colleagues. They argued that by talking to Tucker Carlson, Weinstein had put the campus in danger, and 90 Evergreen employees signed a letter to the administration demanding an investigation.
Weinstein takes issue with this, insisting that crossing ideological lines is necessary to an open society, and he argues that it was the students’ behavior that put the school in danger, not him. Regardless of who is to blame, on the left, Weinstein was portrayed as a rogue racist professor; on the right, he became a sort of folk hero—despite the fact that his political leanings, he told Carlson on Fox News, are “deeply progressive.”
As the story spread, people from outside Evergreen began sending vile, sometimes racist e-mails to the faculty, staff, and students who had protested against Weinstein. One student told former Stranger reporter Ana Sofia Knauf that students’ personal information was posted on online neo-Nazi forums. Naima Lowe, a former Evergreen professor who opposed Weinstein, received e-mails reading, “I hope you get lynched, fat nigger bitch” and “No one cares about niggers. Go back to the zoo.” Others on campus were similarly targeted. In the days after the protests and Weinstein’s Fox News appearance, Patriot Prayer, a pro-Trump free-speech group, held a demonstration on campus, anti-fascist protesters held a counterdemonstration, and Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group, put up racist flyers on campus, including some that read, “BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER.”
There were threats of violence, as well. On June 1, after weeks of student protests, an anonymous threat was phoned into the Thurston County 911 Dispatch Center. “I’m on my way to Evergreen University now with a .44 Magnum,” the caller said. “I’m going to execute as many people on the campus as I can get ahold of.”
The threat was false—the caller, it turned out, was at home in New Jersey—but the school was shut down. Authorities were so concerned about campus security that they decided to hold graduation that spring off campus in Tacoma. Meanwhile, Republicans in the state legislature called for Evergreen, one of only six public colleges in Washington, to lose state funding.
Weinstein was blamed for all of this.
While it was the viral videos taken outside Weinstein’s classroom that made Evergreen famous, the conflict didn’t start there, nor did it start with the Day of Absence. It started, Weinstein and Heying told me, a year and a half earlier, in October 2015, when Les Purce, Evergreen’s longest-serving president and one of only a few black college presidents in the history of Washington State, retired. Purce was replaced by George Bridges, a sociologist by training, who had a long interest in social justice and has written in favor of concepts like trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses.
Bridges began making swift changes at the school. He demoted a provost who Weinstein says would not have gone along with his plans, replaced him with a friend, and began dismantling the faculty autonomy that made Evergreen so unique. And he did it, Weinstein and Heying say, under the guise of “equity.”
Equity has become something of a buzzword in recent years, but the basic principle is that institutions should strive for equal outcomes for everyone, regardless of circumstances like race and privilege that may help or hinder student success. You can think of equity as the step after diversity: First you diversify the student body, and then you make the environment work equally for everyone.
At Evergreen, Bridges made equity a priority. He appointed a council of 27 faculty, staff, and students to come up with an equity plan that the school would then implement. But the problem, according to Weinstein, Heying, and, they say, a largely silent number of their colleagues, was that the plan the Equity Council came up with was deeply flawed, would harm the college financially, and, more importantly, wasn’t even up for debate.
By opposing the equity plan, Weinstein and Heying knew it would appear as though they were opposing the idea of equity itself—which, they maintain, they were not. But they were concerned about this particular equity plan and how it would impact the college. One of their main objections was that the Equity Council recommended revising hiring practices so that new faculty would be prioritized based on their ability to put equity at the center of their teaching. To Weinstein and Heying, this looked like anyone who didn’t center equity would be ineligible for hire at Evergreen, and anyone who refused to comply could be pushed out. They say this recommendation stepped far outside the bounds of the Equity Council’s mission as it was laid forth by the administration.
“Taken to its logical conclusion,” Weinstein and Heying wrote in an editorial in the conservative Washington Examiner after they’d stepped away from the school, “this policy would mean hiring no more artists, or chemists, or writing faculty, or any faculty, really, unless their research or training could be defended on the grounds of ‘equity.’ That would spell the end of the liberal arts college.”
Before Bridges, such drastic changes would have been widely discussed, Weinstein said. “The normal process for discussing those changes was shut down by the president. Ordinarily, if the equity plan had been put forward, the faculty would have discussed it and discussed it and discussed it. So I took to the only forum we had in which it was possible to reach all of the faculty and say, ‘Hey, we’re talking about making some really serious changes. Let’s discuss this.’”
That forum was the all faculty/staff e-mail list.
Over the winter and spring of 2016 and 2017, Weinstein engaged in a sometimes heated discussion with his colleagues via the college e-mail list, arguing that the equity plan would harm the school and that it threatened the very principles of faculty autonomy on which the college had been founded.
“The founders of the college bent over backwards to create a faculty without hierarchy,” he wrote to the e-mail list in November 2016. “We have now imposed on ourselves a de facto hierarchy based on skin color, and hooked it directly to mechanisms of hiring, promotion, and dismissal—empowering some and disempowering others.”
Weinstein’s e-mails inflamed the e-mail list, and his colleagues’ responses were almost entirely negative. A student worker, Michael Penhallegon, wrote back: “As a sciences student, you and your racist colleagues are the reason I won’t recruit future students.” Penhallegon, who graduates in June, told me later that while he never personally experienced discrimination at Evergreen that he thought “warranted investigation,” he felt that some faculty and staff “were not culturally aware.” This included a professor in a computer science course who told the class that he doesn’t see race.
Despite his colleagues’ response, Weinstein didn’t shut up. Perhaps his most visible critic during this period was Naima Lowe, an artist and professor who taught at Evergreen for seven years. “I believe that it would be useful to consider why and how the accusation of racism is considered to be on par (or indeed, at times worse!) to the ears of some of our white colleagues than the racism that we’re speaking about in the first place,” Lowe wrote to the e-mail list. “This strikes me as a false equivalency. Being called racist won’t cost you your life, health, livelihood, sanity, freedom. Being faced with un-checked racism can and does all of those things.”
Lowe and Weinstein had run-ins in person as well. At a faculty meeting in January 2017, Weinstein raised his concerns about the equity plan. Lowe, according to documents later submitted by Weinstein and Heying in a tort claim against the school, confirmed his fears, stating: “If you think faculty autonomy is being targeted, you’re right… I am sick and tired of asking our students of color to articulate the experiences of racism that they have faced. We have an obligation to simply accept what they say.” Looking directly at Professor Weinstein, she added, “To do anything else is Racism with a capital R.”
Weinstein says he was stunned and asked for clarification. “Are you talking to me?” he asked. Lowe responded, “Yes.””
And, that, perhaps, was Weinstein’s major sin in the eyes of Evergreen, because Lowe was right: Weinstein was asking people of color to articulate their experiences of racism. While some members of the campus maintained that there were long-standing race issues at Evergreen, there was, Weinstein and Heying assert, little evidence to support those claims. Rather, Weinstein thinks some people of color and their allies were conflating legitimate frustrations with national politics and American history with racism at Evergreen. Coming from a white man, this sounded patently offensive to some, and it was cited as proof of Weinstein’s bias. Just because he couldn’t personally see inequality on campus didn’t mean it didn’t exist.
“At first,” Heying said, “like most ‘good liberals,’ I think that we both assumed that the vague claims of endless, institutional racism at Evergreen must have some basis in fact. Just because we had neither seen nor ever heard any credible stories of it didn’t make it untrue.” But as Weinstein continued to ask for evidence of racism and inequity, the stories, they say, never emerged. “All we heard was epithets and yelling and impassioned exhortations and hyperbole about emotional labor and white supremacy,” Heying said.
They weren’t the only ones questioning the narrative that Evergreen was a hotbed of white supremacy. As part of the equity plan, the Equity Council had analyzed many different facets of student experience at Evergreen—things like acceptance rates, retention, staff composition, internship rates, satisfaction with facilities, and more. Each category was broken down by demographic and scored. At a meeting in November 2016, members of the Equity Council portrayed the data as overwhelmingly bad: Students of color and other minorities at Evergreen were being underserved. But Jesse Robbins, an Evergreen alum and postdoctoral student in at the University of British Columbia, analyzed the data behind the report, and he says that the Equity Council cherry-picked data points to reinforce their conclusion. In reality, according to Robbins, the data shows no statistically significant rates of underperformance by minority students at Evergreen.
Robbins wrote as much in an e-mail to college president Bridges in February 2017, detailing the problems he saw with the Equity Council’s analysis. “It is clear that the council simply chose to ignore and misrepresent data that did not support its desired conclusions,” Robbins wrote. He never received a reply.
Justin Puckett, a black student at Evergreen and a member of the board of trustees, disagrees with this analysis. “Every institution, particularly those of higher ed, has room for improvement,” Justin told me in an e-mail. “To say anything else is peddling fiction. The equity plan of 2016–2017 was created to improve what the current data has shown. It looks at such data as the retention rate for students of color, the gap in Native American and Asian students taking part in internships, test scores, among other things. It then created strategies and goals to improve the campus environment. For Bret and Heather to neglect that data is evidence of their unwillingness to commit to make the campus a better place for all students.”
But the narrative that Evergreen suffers from systematic bias wasn’t universally seen to be true by people of color.
"People kept saying that Evergreen is racist and doesn’t support minorities and there is no outlet to help people who don’t identify as Caucasian,” Odette Finn, a multiracial former student of both Weinstein and Heying, told me. “As Bret and Heather’s student, I didn’t want my bias to impede my opinion, so I spent a lot of time watching and listening and talking to other students to try to figure out where the claims of racism where coming from, but it never added up.
Finn describes the atmosphere on campus during the protests last spring as “eerie.”
“People weren’t looking at you as a person,” she said. “They were looking at you as the color of your skin and that was it.” Finn says she was cornered in the library by student protesters who demanded that she join them. When Finn refused, she was called a traitor.
As for whether or not Weinstein and Heying are white supremacists, Finn said, unequivocally, no. When flyers began appearing on campus calling for Weinstein’s removal, Finn said she took them down. “Bret was a mascot used to start these protests,” she said. “He’s not racist.”
Weinstein insists he isn’t racist, as well. He doesn’t deny that white supremacy exists in America, from the White House on down, or that white people benefit from existing power structures. But hearing students and colleagues just say that racism was systemic at Evergreen wasn’t enough. Weinstein and Heying are scientists: They didn’t want opinions; they wanted evidence.
There were outside forces influencing the strife at Evergreen, as well. All this was happening in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign. After saying on the campaign trail that Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists, and black people are violent, Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won the White House. More than a quarter of Evergreen’s students are nonwhite. Students who were undocumented immigrants felt at greater risk of being deported or separated from their families—even before Trump ended DACA, the Obama-era program that allowed undocumented young people to work and attend college without fear of deportation. And immediately after taking office, Trump enacted a travel ban that targeted people from Muslim majority countries.
People were afraid, in Olympia and beyond, and they pushed back where they could. The day after the election, in November 2016, students at Evergreen took over a ceremony for the dedication of a building to Les Purce, Evergreen’s former African American president, to protest against Trump.
The unrest at Evergreen also came after several years of increased attention to police shootings. Black Lives Matter had emerged as an important social movement, and systemic racism and police violence, two issues long ignored by much of white society, were now a part of the national conversation.
It was also part of the local conversation. Almost exactly two years before the protests, two Olympia brothers—Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin—were shot by Thurston County police officer Ryan Donald. According to the Olympian, Donald was responding to a report of an ongoing assault on an employee at a Safeway, and when he tried to apprehend the brothers, they attacked him with a skateboard. Donald fired his weapon, and both the brothers sustained serious injuries. Chaplin, who wanted to be a professional dancer, was partially paralyzed and is now in a wheelchair.
Officer Donald was soon cleared of wrongdoing by the Olympia Police Department and the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office. This was hardly unusual. Even in cases where shootings result in death, police are rarely punished. This is especially true in Washington, where state law requires proof of “malice” on the part of the officer, making police shootings especially difficult to prosecute. From 2005 to 2014, 213 people were killed by police in Washington State, and the number of officers charged is exactly one.
That fall, in September 2016, Evergreen was also one of at least two dozen colleges across the United States targeted by white nationalist group Identity Evropa, which posted flyers on campus reading, “Our future belongs to us.” It was during this period of heightened racial tension both locally and across the US that Weinstein began questioning the equity plan.
The e-mail exchange came to a breaking point in March 2017, after a committee that included members of the Equity Council and a student group called POC Greeners decided to flip the script on the Day of Absence, citing, according to the student newspaper, the feeling that they were “unwelcome on campus following the 2016 election.” People of color would stay on campus; white students, staff, and faculty would leave. Weinstein objected to this.
“There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles,” he wrote to the e-mail list, “and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.”
The e-mail list was theoretically for faculty and staff at Evergreen, but there were more than 1,600 recipients, including a large number of student workers. The e-mails from Weinstein began to spread, and the student newspaper published excerpts in a March 2017 column called POC Talk, which is written by an anonymous Evergreen student.
“These messages are sent under the false assumption that students won’t or cannot see them,” the anonymous columnist wrote. “We would like to make it obvious that these messages are already seen by students, and now can be seen by students who are not also staff. We believe that all Evergreen students have a right to know what professors and other Evergreen staff members are saying behind closed, albeit transparent, doors.”
Over the next two months, tensions on campus began to broil. On May 10, Kai-Ave Douvia, then a freshman, objected to a post in a Facebook group for Evergreen students suggesting that a class be limited to people of color. Three hundred comments later, he says, he became “public enemy number one.”
Shortly after, Douvia—who says he is of Puerto Rican, Native American, and European descent—was confronted on campus by a black student regarding his comments. Douvia said he felt threatened and called the campus police. The student who confronted him and another black student whom Douvia named as a witness were questioned by campus police. While this was happening, student protesters occupied the police station. The police said they found no wrongdoing and let the students go (both declined to be interviewed for this piece), but the next day, protesters took over an event with candidates interviewing for the newly created position of Vice Provost of Equity and Diversity, a position created on recommendation by the Equity Council. A few days later, on May 18, brothers Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin were found guilty of assaulting Officer Ryan Donald. The protest outside Weinstein’s classroom took place the following week.
Immediately after protesters took over Weinstein’s class, college president Bridges agreed to meet with the aggrieved students. The meeting took place at 4 p.m. that same day, and Weinstein attended, along with hundreds of students, both those opposed to Weinstein and those who supported him. The meeting, video of which was widely shared online, was heated. When two of Weinstein’s students, both of whom were people of color, attempted to defend him, they were shouted down, called traitors, and ordered to get in line. Some of Weinstein’s other students warned him that protesters had pepper spray and were planning to refuse to let him leave the room.
Heying was at home at the time, and while this was going on, she got a text from her husband saying he wasn’t sure he was going to be allowed to leave.
“I was standing in the kitchen, holding our two boys,” she said, “and one of these giant maple trees outside cracks, falls, and hangs there in another maple. So there is this earth-shattering noise, and then… silence.”
Silence was much of what Weinstein and Heying received from friends and colleagues over the course of the conflict. While Weinstein was battling the e-mail list, only one faculty member publicly came to his defense: Mike Paros, who wrote that his colleagues’ “response will someday be used in psychology textbooks as a case study in group thinking.” A small number of students stood up for Weinstein as well—16 of them signed a letter defending him—but mostly, support was conveyed in confidence.
“Speaking out,” Heying said, “just came at too great a cost.”
At the meeting with President Bridges and student protesters on the afternoon of May 23, Weinstein wasn’t blocked from leaving, but he was escorted out of the building by student handlers. And then, over the next several days, Weinstein says, “the protests turned into riots.” Protesters occupied President Bridges’s office, blocked the exits, and refused to leave. They barricaded the entrance to the library and held administrators and representatives from the faculty union for five hours while they issued demands, including the immediate firing of Weinstein. Other faculty members were stalked and harassed. According to multiple witnesses, students calling themselves the “community watch” patrolled the campus with baseball bats and batons. There were photos of them posted to Instagram.
During this time, Weinstein says that Evergreen’s administrators continued to insist that there was no danger to faculty, staff, or students, and they ordered the campus police to stand down. Stacy Brown, the recently appointed campus police chief, told Weinstein that there was credible evidence that he was in danger but there was nothing she could do to protect him. Students were stopping cars leaving campus looking for someone, presumably Weinstein, but had he or anyone else gone to the campus police station at that time, there would have seen a sign on the door reading, “Police Department is Closed. Call 911 in case of an Emergency.”
At the end of the week, President Bridges addressed the students’ demands.
“I’m George Bridges, I use he/him pronouns,” he said. “I begin our time together today by acknowledging the indigenous people of the Medicine Creek Treaty, whose land was stolen and on which the college stands.”
Bridges went on to apologize to students and to detail how the school would respond to their grievances. On some demands, like mandatory sensitivity and cultural competency training for faculty, he acquiesced. On others, like firing Weinstein, he did not, although he did agree to increase the school’s “capacity to investigate instances of alleged discrimination.”
Weinstein held the rest of that week’s classes off campus, away from the chaos. On June 1, the shooting threat was called in from New Jersey, and the campus was immediately closed. Afraid that the protesters would blame them for the threat, the couple packed up their boys and left the state.
When it was all over, local media, including the Olympian, announced that 80 students were disciplined for the protests at Evergreen. But that wasn’t quite right. A school spokesman told me that 80 students were disciplined for all code-of-conduct violations over the spring and summer terms, not just for taking part in student protests. At least one leader of the student protests, however, was later named to the college committee in charge of revising the student code of conduct.
Afterward, a number of students left the school for good, including Kai-Ave Douvia, who transferred to Washington State. He says it’s a much better fit.
Several faculty and staff resigned, as well. The police chief, Stacy Brown—an Evergreen alum who was depicted in KKK robes on flyers passed out during the protests—has said that she was given “all of the responsibility but none of the authority” to keep the campus safe. She stepped down in August, and is currently engaged in a lawsuit against the college. Rashida Love, director of the First Peoples Advising Service, who received threatening e-mails after Weinstein appeared on Fox News, left later that fall. Media arts professor Naima Lowe resigned in December, part of a $240,000 settlement with the school. (Neither Love or Lowe responded to requests for comment.)
Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying initially filed a $3.85 million tort claim against Evergreen, alleging that the school failed to protect them. They later dropped the suit and, after months of trying to negotiate a return to their jobs, agreed to resign after reaching a $500,000 settlement. After legal fees, they say it’s about two years’ joint salary.
In response to their settlement, the POC Talk columnist wrote in the student newspaper: “Brett [sic] is the definition of white privilege and fragility—the fear and ‘danger’ he and his wife felt they were exposed to was only the slightest sliver of what POC deal with on an almost daily basis.” Michael Penhallegon, one of the students who opposed Weinstein, told me that today Weinstein is considered a “pariah” on campus.
As part of the settlement with Weinstein and Heying, Evergreen admitted no wrongdoing. In April, the school released a report on the events of spring 2017, largely blaming Weinstein for the conflict. They don’t mention him by name, but a professor, the report says, “took advantage of this situation to make a national news story out of it through high-profile interviews with national media.” The report also notes that while “the percentage of students of color in the Evergreen student population has gradually and consistently increased every year,” applications, enrollment, and retention among all ethnic groups dropped significantly after the protests. Overall, applications for fall 2018 are down 20 percent. This decline, and the ensuing revenue shortfall, will, according to the report, “present Evergreen with significant financial challenges that will not be short-lived.”
This month, the school announced that due to declining enrollment, it will slash the operating budget by more than 10 percent, raise student fees, and eliminate some faculty and staff positions.
The school continues to work on implementing the equity plan. Last fall, the faculty/staff e-mail list was taken down.
In the aftermath of the scandal, Weinstein and Heying no longer feel comfortable in Olympia. They’ve been yelled at in public and have stopped going to some of the cafes and shops they used to frequent. Many of their friends and former colleagues have evaporated. A local photographer, who was hired to shoot the couple for an editorial they published last year, asked that her name not be included in the piece out of fear of how her own community would react.
Still, something positive has come of it all, they say, and that’s an awakening. They began to see that the world isn’t so neatly broken into left and right, right and wrong, and they began to connect with people from across the political spectrum—people who might disagree on the issues, but who believe that the questioning of dogma and ideology and conventional wisdom is too vital to be shut down. This month, Weinstein testified before Congress about freedom of speech on college campuses. Both Weinstein and Heying have spoken at events across the United States. Sometimes they get disrupted and sometimes they don’t.
Weinstein and Heying aren’t sure what will happen next. They don’t know how long they will remain in Olympia, and, at this point, they don’t know if they will ever teach again. It’s a significant loss for two people who genuinely love being in the classroom. But going to a typical university, where hierarchies are enshrined and faculty must adhere to administrative whims, doesn’t feel right to them. Wherever they end up, they will be heretics in exile from the place that once was home, speaking their minds, and dissenting when they believe it’s required.
After Evergreen administrators cancelled the Day of Absence this year, rumors circulated online that students planned to revive the tradition on their own. Flyers posted on social media advertised yoga classes, film screenings, art shows, and workshops on leadership skills, multi-racial solidarity, and de-constructing whiteness. Both conservative and mainstream news groups ran the story, but school officials insist it was a hoax.
In a email sent to the Evergreen community last week, the school wrote:
"There is no Day of Absence event this spring at The Evergreen State College.
"Gross and deliberate mischaracterizations of the event in 2017 provoked violent threats against students, staff and faculty. Those falsehoods, and our priority on campus safety, made it necessary to create different ways to have important conversations about equity and inclusion. This year, Evergreen has increased opportunities for students, staff and faculty to engage in new ways on these vitally important topics."
When asked for more information—was there an unofficial Day of Absence?—a school spokesman explained to me in an email: "After the first of those flyers surfaced a few weeks ago, college staff communicated with student leaders and activist throughout campus and found there were no plans for Day of Absence activities."
Still, I heard from a student that these events did, in fact, take place at a location off campus. “There were a few hiccups,” the student said. “Alt-right media got wind of the original off-campus venue, but an alternative venue was on hand,” and the events, he said, went on as planned.
So was there a student-led Day of Absence or not? Like everything about Evergreen, the truth, it seems, is complicated.