Evergreen Calls Off ‘Day of Absence’

Annual event, seen as way to highlight needs of minority groups, set off major controversy last year.

February 22, 2018

The annual Day of Absence at Evergreen State College took place for years without much notice outside the campus. That changed last year, when controversy over the event led to protests, counterprotests, threats and national debate. And that may be the last such day at Evergreen State.

A spokesman for the college confirmed that the institution will not hold the event this year.

The spokesman provided this statement: "With the fall 2017 arrival of the college’s first-ever vice president/vice provost [for equity and inclusion], Dr. Chassity Holliman-Douglas, the college is moving forward in the planning of a new equity symposium to be held this year. The symposium is not a replacement of Day of Absence/Day of Presence, but rather an opportunity for the Evergreen community to design a robust new equity event from the ground up." Asked to confirm that there would be no Day of Absence in addition to the symposium, he said that there would be no Day of Absence.

The Play and the 2017 Controversy

The Day of Absence was based on a 1965 play of the same 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.

For many years at Evergreen State, minority students and faculty members have observed a Day of Absence in which they met 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. While some have objected to the way the Day of Absence worked previously, it was the 2017 version that brought scrutiny on campus and national attention.

Last year, organizers said that on the Day of Absence, they wanted white people to stay off campus.

Bret Weinstein, a biology professor, posted a message on a campus email list in which he objected to the proposal to ask white people to avoid 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."

Weinstein went on to say he would be on campus on the Day of Absence and would encourage a similar stance by white people being asked to stay away. People should "put phenotype aside," he said. "On a college campus, one's right to speak -- or to be -- must never be based on skin color."

That email was widely shared, promoting threats against Weinstein and calls from student activists for Weinstein to be fired. While the college did not do so, he said repeatedly that Evergreen failed to forcefully defend his right to express his views.

Weinstein soon said that it was unsafe for him to be on campus, and he sued Evergreen for $3.85 million on the grounds of "hostility based on race," alleging that the college "permitted, cultivated, and perpetuated a racially hostile and retaliatory work environment … Through a series of decisions made at the highest levels, including to officially support a day of racial segregation, the college has refused to protect its employees from repeated provocative and corrosive verbal and written hostility based on race, as well as threats of physical violence." Weinstein and his wife settled the suit, agreeing to resign their faculty positions in exchange for $500,000.

Weinstein did not respond to a request for comment on the end of the Day of Absence. Nor did the First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services, which is listed as the contact for Day of Absence on the Evergreen website.

Share Article

Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

Back to Top