Evergreen State College—the small, progressive, public liberal arts school in Olympia that made national headlines over student protests last year—has been ranked as one of the worst universities in the nation for free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), as the Seattle Times reports.
FIRE, an organization with the mission of defending "freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience," referred to the saga of former Evergreen professor Bret Weinstein in their analysis. They write:
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One year ago, this small, liberal arts college in Olympia, Washington was unknown to most of the country. Now it has achieved a kind of infamy, at least in higher education circles.
It started when Evergreen State College staff decided to invert their annual “Day of Absence.” Traditionally, that’s a day when people of color leave the campus to illustrate how much the community depends on them. In 2017, however, Evergreen’s administration decided to ask white people to leave campus instead.
Biology Professor Bret Weinstein responded to this request on a staff and faculty email list, objecting to the idea of asking people to leave rather than having a group voluntarily leave. Weinstein’s message ended with: “On a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color.”
Some weeks later, after the Day of Absence had passed, 50 students showed up outside Weinstein’s class. They shouted and chanted until he came out, accusing him of racism and demanding his resignation. They yelled over him when he tried to talk and blocked him when he tried to leave. Students then occupied the library, surrounding the college president’s office. They reportedly blocked entrances with furniture. ...
Protest is good. Calls for censorship are not. Disagreeing over how to stand up for diversity is not a good reason to intimidate or attempt to silence anyone.
Weinstein, for his part, agrees with the FIRE's ranking, although he disputes the Times protrayal of the unrest at Evergreen. Times higher education reporter Katherine Long wrote that Weinstein "questioned an event called Day of Absence, in which white students who chose to participate were asked to go off campus to discuss race issues, while students of color remained on campus." Weinstein says white students weren't "asked" to go off campus, they were ordered to. And according to minutes recorded during a meeting of the Equity Council in January 2017, Rashida Love, at the time the head of the campus diversity office, "secured commitments from 15-17 faculty members to require that their students participate" in the event.
"The mainstream press can not seem to get this story straight," Weistein told me in an email. "It wants to paint the picture as if I took offense at something minor, when in fact, I responded to coerced racial segregation in the way any decent person should: by saying that it’s wrong, and refusing to participate. It is negligent to report the story as if whites weren’t asked to leave campus, and as if students in many programs weren’t required to participate. The new structure for Day of Absence was blatantly illegal, and the documentation is now readily available. The fact that the Seattle Times won’t correct the story even after the facts have been brought to their attention makes it clear that their portrayal isn’t really news. It’s a bedtime story designed to make people feel better about what is happening than they should."
But what happened at Evergreen is more complex than just a disagreement over the Day of Absence, as Weinstein told me during an extensive interview last month, and it began well before spring of 2017. Weinstein says that the whole battle stemmed from an equity plan that college president George Bridges and others attempted to impose upon the school, with, according to Weinstein, no opportunity for debate.
"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. It's the step after diversity: First you diversify the student body, then you make the environment work equally for everyone.
At Evergreen, an Equity Council appointed by the president was tasked with formulating ways of increasing equity on campus. One of Weinstein's central objections to the Equity Council's proposal was that it recommended revising hiring practices so that faculty would be prioritized based on their ability to put equity at the center of their teaching, and that this recommendation was well outside the bounds of the Equity Council's stated mission. To Weinstein, it looked like anyone who didn’t center equity in the classroom would be ineligible for hire at Evergreen, and anyone who refused to comply could be pushed out.
“Taken to its logical conclusion,” Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying—who was also a professor at Evergreen—wrote in a Washington Examiner editorial, “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.”
The equity plan, not the Day of Absence, is what started it all, but over last spring, tensions on campus continued to mount. Student protesters first took over Weinstein's class, as FIRE noted, and then the entire campus. They barricaded themselves in the library, took over administrative offices, and there were reports of groups of students patrolling the campus with batons and bats, calling themselves a “community watch."
The scandal escalated after Weinstein appeared on a Fox News segment called "Campus Craziness" with Tucker Carlson. Afterward, Weinstein's colleagues argued that by appearing on the conservative news network, he had put the campus in danger, and 90 of his colleagues signed a letter to the administration demanding an investigation.
Weinstein, who describes himself as "deeply progressive," takes issue with this, insisting that crossing ideological lines is necessary to an open society, and that it was the students’ behavior that put the school in danger, not him. Whoever is to blame, alt-right media outlets like Breitbart, Heat Street, and the Daily Caller soon picked up the story, and viewers from all over the country began sending racist emails to some Evergreen faculty, staff, and students.
There were threats of violence as well. On June 1, 2017, after weeks of student actions, 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 a hold 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 last spring's graduation off campus.
In the ensuing months, at least six faculty members resigned from Evergreen, including both Weinstein and Heying, Rashida Love and another employee who opposed Weinstein, and the head of the campus police. The school paid out nearly $750,000 in settlements, including a half-million to Weinstein and Heying. They say after legal fees, it's about two years joint salary.
Evergreen did not immediately respond to request for comment, but in a statement published by the Seattle Times, officials said that the school “has always been a college that embraces difficult issues through dialogue and debate. We value the freedom of speech and expression of all our students, faculty, and staff. Throughout the events on our campus last spring our commitment to the freedom of speech of our faculty members, staff and students remained steadfast.”