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Evergreen Regroups Amid Discord

College calls off classes today after another threat. As diversity debate continues, board pledges support for free speech. Faculty members circulate letter questioning actions of colleague.

June 5, 2017
 

Evergreen State College was hoping for normal operations this week, but the divisions on campus remain visible in the competing statements being issued.

The college has faced weeks of controversy as some minority students have said they are unsafe on campus and called for the firing of a faculty member who spoke out against a campus activity on race and a proposal to evaluate all proposed new faculty positions based on their relevance to equity and diversity efforts. The faculty member was at one point advised by the campus police chief that it would be unsafe for him to be on campus amid reports that some students were engaged in marches around campus to find him.

Amid another development that officials said constituted a "direct threat," the Evergreen State campus was closed on Thursday and Friday.

The Olympian obtained a copy of the threat, which was made to law enforcement. The threat: “Yes, I’m on my way to Evergreen University now with a .44 Magnum. I am gonna execute as many people on that campus as I can get a hold of. You have that? What’s going on there? You communist, scumbag town. I’m going to murder as many people on that campus as I can. Just keep your eyes open, you scumbag.”

The college had hoped to open on schedule today but closed the campus because of another threat received over the weekend.

Evergreen State has long had a reputation for a left-leaning student body, but also for providing a rigorous liberal arts education. The recent controversy, however, has made the college a target for widespread criticism as being politically intolerant. Supporters of protesters insist that they have been unfairly portrayed, while others say the college has failed to stand up for free speech.

Until the board issued a statement on Saturday, Evergreen State officials had largely praised the student protest movement and agreed with the critique on campus that press reports were being unfair to the college.

In its Saturday statement, however, the board said that a minority of those on campus had engaged in uncivil and inappropriate behavior.

"We are deeply committed to ensuring that Evergreen provides a civil, safe campus environment for all," the statement said. "During the last week, the conduct of a small percentage of Evergreen’s community members exhibited unacceptable behavior that is completely contrary to Evergreen’s values. Although almost all of students continued to attend classes and receive the extraordinary education that Evergreen delivers, the lack of tolerance and respect displayed by a few during these recent events and disruptions is indefensible."

Further, the statement said, "Freedom of speech, civil discourse and open debate has been a cornerstone of our country’s history -- and Evergreen’s history. In difficult times, these pillars become even more significant. Intellectual inquiry, freedom of expression, tolerance and inclusiveness are core tenets of Evergreen’s philosophy and approach to education."

The statement also pledged that the board supported the college's recent and planned efforts to enhance diversity and inclusiveness on campus. But the statement cautioned against expecting all changes to take place immediately. "The tumultuous events of the last week have revealed the need to delve further into issues of diversity and equity at Evergreen," the board statement said. "Going forward, the college will take a measured approach, which is crucial to ensure that we respond appropriately, rather than reactively."

The board statement does not name any individuals, but a letter circulating among faculty members, and already signed by more than 50 of them, demands a "disciplinary investigation" of Bret Weinstein, the biology professor who many students have demanded be fired.

Among the reasons Weinstein is controversial is that he opposed the way a campus tradition called the Day of Absence was carried out this year. The day is based on a 1965 play by that name by Douglas Turner Ward. The play is about an imaginary Southern town in which all the black people disappear one day. The idea behind the play is that societies with deeply racist ideas in fact depend on the very people they subjugate. The play is in some sense the inspiration for events like this year's national Day Without Immigrants.

For many years at Evergreen State, minority students and faculty members have observed a Day of Absence in which they meet off campus to discuss campus issues and how to make the college more supportive of all students. Later a Day of Presence reunites various campus groups. Weinstein said he's been aware of the tradition for some time, and never objected to it. But this year, organizers said that on the Day of Absence, they wanted white people to stay off campus. Weinstein opposed this shift, and he posted a message on a campus email list in which he objected to the proposal to ask white people to stay off campus.

"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 underappreciated roles (the theme of the Douglas Turner Ward play Day of Absence, as well as the recent Women's Day walkout), and a group encouraging another group to go away," Weinstein wrote. "The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself."

That email led to much criticism of Weinstein, including the demand that he be fired. He and his supporters argue that he is upholding equity in his stance and that -- regardless of what one thinks of the Day of Absence -- objecting to the way it was held this year should not have someone labeled a racist and a target for firing.

The faculty letter criticizes the way Weinstein has spoken out about the situation to many journalists, saying that his recounting of events has been unfair (a charge he denies). "Weinstein has endangered faculty, staff and students, making them targets of white supremacist backlash by promulgating misinformation in public emails, on national television, in news outlets and on social media," the letter says.

The letter also calls for the college to support the student protest movement. "We acknowledge that all of us who have power within the institution share responsibility for the racist actions of others. Furthermore, those of us who are white bear a particularly large share of that responsibility," the letter says.

On social media, students involved in the protest movement have made much of the way conservative websites have jumped on the Evergreen State controversy, frequently using words like "mob" to describe the way student groups have demanded Weinstein's ouster.

But as word of the controversy has spread (along with videos showing the protest activities), criticism of the protest movement has also come from liberals.

Writing in The New York Times on Sunday, the liberal columnist Frank Bruni said that students are correct that campuses and society need to do more to fight racism. But he added, "We’re never going to make the progress that we need to if they hurl the word 'racist' as reflexively and indiscriminately as some of them do, in a frenzy of righteousness aimed at gagging speakers and strangling debate."

He wrote that Weinstein's campus statements were "a reasonable perspective and a prompt for discussion, not fury." Bruni's headline for his column: "These Campus Inquisitions Must Stop."

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