If you’ve read reports about the recent crisis at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, they probably focused on white professor Bret Weinstein claiming that whites were “ordered” off campus, facing an unruly crowd of student protesters, leaving the campus in “fear,” and suing the college for $3.8 million. As a simple story with a single hero, it works well on YouTube videos and Facebook memes. But the real significance of this story has hardly been reported at all.
In the last two months former Evergreen Provost Michael Zimmerman published four articles on HuffPost, repeating and amplifying this version of our recent history. But in nearly 8,700 words, Zimmerman couldn’t find one word to mention the threat of a massacre on his own campus, and how it created fear among students, staff, and faculty of color. He did not use one word to report on the far-right rally that brought riot police to campus and intimidated staff into leaving, nor one word about the racist hate mail that students, staff and faculty of color are receiving ―the same people he blames for the crisis.
In this article, we hope to connect the dots between conservative attacks on campus diversity and equity programs, the far-right white nationalist resurgence, the retrenchment of government programs supporting equal opportunity and diversity, and the events on our campus.
A toxic brew of “alt-right” (far right), white supremacist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-Communist ideologies is growing along the West Coast that targets college campuses as a primary enemy, with Evergreen at or near the top of the list. These groups’ primary argument is that their free speech rights are being violated by “Social Justice Warriors” (or “SJWs”), whom they demonize as deranged “mobs” practicing “reverse racism.” But even as they attempt to disassociate themselves from overt bigotry, their followers continue to commit threats and acts of violence.
At the same time, Washington State conservative leaders have targeted the college, denouncing “suppression of free speech,” characterizing student behavior as “violent,” and insisting that our administration show “strength” by taking harsh disciplinary action. These initiatives are occurring as the Trump administration directs its Justice Department to monitor and dismantle rights-based programs in colleges, including affirmative action, and as congressional committees hold hearings on the suppression of conservative views on campuses, while ignoring other forms of exclusion.
In this article we present ten issues that are not being reported, or whose significance has been overlooked or erased. This silencing doesn’t just affect Evergreen, it poses a threat to equity and diversity programs throughout higher education.
1. The Evergreen crisis fits a pattern of right-wing attacks on racial equity in higher education.
In recent months, conservative and far-right forces have intensified their targeting of higher education, particularly outspoken faculty members who stand up for equity and diversity. In HuffPost, Matthew Houghly describes, “increasingly organized attacks on college and university faculty who are critical of, and public about, social inequality. Attacks seem most virulent when the faculty are people of color and/or when they critique white supremacy.”
As Victor Ray documented in Inside Higher Ed: “The political right has developed a coordinated network to systematically target the free speech of presumably left-wing professors… This network of activists has launched a vicious series of attacks, leading to intimidation, calls for firing and even death threats. Colleges and universities have shut down operations, while scholars have canceled speaking engagements and even gone into hiding with their families.”
Chris Quintana in the Chronicle of Higher Education shows how “some scholars have become increasingly alarmed in recent weeks about professors who have come under intense criticism for controversial remarks. Prominent scholars…have voiced their frustrations with how quickly some colleges and universities have distanced themselves from scholars who are targeted by right-wing media websites.”
Elliot Kaufman predicts in The National Review: “the academy is primed to be a punching bag for the GOP’s next standard-bearer, just as the media was in 2016.” In the past two years, the percentage of Republicans who think colleges and universities had a positive effect on the country dropped from 65 to 36 percent.
Steven Thrasher notes in The Guardian, “Listening to talking heads on both the left and the right, you’d think that America is facing a freedom of speech crisis. But the crisis isn’t what it’s made out to be.” White conservatives “are not lacking in a freedom to speak…It’s women and people of color who struggle the most finding a platform – but there is a conspicuous lack of concern about that by free speech crusaders.”
From Tucker Carlson’s nightly obsession with “campus craziness,” to Milo Yiannapoulos’s racist and transphobic diatribes, to militias such as the Three-Percenters and “Proud Boys” and the “Campus Reform” group targeting professors, higher education is under sustained assault.
It should come as no surprise that Evergreen, a public liberal arts institution with a history of social justice teaching and student activism, would be one of the main campuses to be targeted. Although Evergreen’s suggested reforms for greater inclusion, equity, and diversity are relatively mild, right-wing forces have made the college a poster child for their campaigns. They have especially targeted students, staff and faculty of color who have used their free speech rights to bring public attention to racist practices on campus.
2. Evergreen’s Day of Absence was not “reverse racism.”
In order for a propaganda campaign to succeed, it needs a Big Lie. At Evergreen, the Big Lie is that Evergreen’s Day of Absence demonstrated “reverse racism” as whites “were forced to leave campus because of the color of their skin.” It is stunning to us how often this “alternative fact” has been repeated until it has become unchallenged truth. The truth is that the Day of Absence has long been an accepted — and voluntary — practice at Evergreen. On the Day of Absence, people of color who chose to do so generally attended an off-campus event, while whites who chose to participate stayed on campus to attend lectures, workshops and discussions about how race and racism shape social structures and everyday life. Many classes embraced the opportunity of Day of Absence to focus attention on how racism has impacted their own disciplines. For instance: a scientist might choose to address how race has historically and inaccurately been traced to genetic differences. A filmmaker might look at the histories of exclusion of people of color from mainstream filmmaking, or cultural stereotypes of race. The Day of Absence follows an important tradition of caucusing, in which people who share a common identity find value in creating autonomous space to share experiences. At Evergreen the Day of Absence is always followed by a Day of Presence where people have the opportunity to reconnect to the larger community by participating in shared learning activities, including a keynote speaker, a performance, and workshops.
Last spring the organizers switched the two events; the event for students of color was held on-campus, and the event for white students was held off-campus. As always, participation in some form was assumed, but attendance at the events was voluntary; the announcement to the campus read, “On Day of Absence, you can choose how and where to participate.” Nevertheless, faculty member Bret Weinstein denounced it on the faculty listserv, arguing that the college was engaging in “a show of force” and that whites were being coerced to leave campus. Although numerous colleagues attempted to show Weinstein that he was mistaken, he persisted, urging the college to “set phenotype aside.”
Evergreen’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services invited Weinstein to discuss and clarify the purpose of Day of Absence, but he never responded. As Evergreen professor Jon Davies put it in the Seattle Times, the Day of Absence is “always voluntary, always something people could participate in or not. To characterize it as mandated? It’s very hard to mandate anybody to do anything on this campus.”
On the April 12 Day of Absence, the off-campus event took place at a local church which had space for only 200 people. Since the white student body numbers about 2,800, it was obvious that more than 90 percent of white students would not be able to attend. Not all people of color chose to attend the on-campus event either. Many faculty who understood the principle of caucusing found ways instead to incorporate the discussions into their class themes. For example, a class on natural disasters watched documentaries on the history of racism, and discussed how racism contributed to the damage caused by disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
“Reverse racism” against whites (like “states’ rights”) has long been a key trope used to critique civil rights. Weinstein was espousing an ideology of “color-blindness” that denies the depths of racism in our society. H. Richard Milner IV, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that “color blindness” on the part of college faculty and staff contributes to “opportunity gaps,” as key parts of students’ identities and experiences go unseen. Weinstein’s opposition to the Day of Absence was part of his continuing campaign against the college’s equity emphasis, including our Equity Council’s proposal to prioritize the needs of struggling students of color and first-generation students.
When the Council made a mild suggestion that the college should actively recruit faculty (of any race) with the knowledge and skills to teach about race, Weinstein commented, “In order to find professors who are good at what we Evergreen professors do, we need the largest pool of applicants possible. If we are prioritizing race over everything else, we would succeed in finding those unusual professors much less often.” Essentially debunking affirmative action, Weinstein’s stance, similar to the Trump administration’s insistence that affirmative-action “discriminates” against whites in universities, ignored the history of exclusion of people of color from faculty positions, and failed to explain why faculty of color would not be equally adept at the teaching Evergreen values.
The misleading claim that the Day of Absence was “reverse racism” caused confusion on campus. Some faculty believed Weinstein’s claims of coercion, or out of a sense of humility or guilt they stayed away from campus, or suggested that their white students stay away. This confusion confirms one of the problems identified by our Equity Council: many faculty whose disciplines do not include extensive examination of race and culture sometimes lack the tools to address these issues in the classroom. (Imagine if a social scientist had started aggressively denying that humans cause climate change, and other social scientists found they were ill-equipped to address such denial in their classrooms.) The Council proposed that faculty trainings would deepen understanding of racism’s underlying institutional structures, rather than viewing it as merely individual guilt or “prejudice” that can be overcome with an “I don’t see color” reaction. Trainings would offer opportunities to listen to faculty, staff, and students who have studied or lived these realities for years or decades.
3. The student protests were not just about one professor.
The spring-quarter protests at Evergreen were a long time in coming, and have multiple origins, just like student of color protests at other campuses around the country. Students, staff, and faculty of color have been trying for years to have their perspectives and experiences heard and respected by the administration (including former Provost Zimmerman), but have not been listened to. In the words of one African-American staff member, the protests “didn’t appear out of nowhere.”
In May 2015 two young African American brothers were shot by police in Olympia, not far from campus, after they allegedly shoplifted beer from a grocery store and assaulted a police officer with a skateboard. One man is paralyzed for life and both were sentenced to prison, while the officer was exonerated. This incident brought the message of the Black Lives Matter movement home to Evergreen in a particularly urgent way. Some students had participated in the Black Lives Matter movement before arriving at Evergreen, while others joined a community group that provided support to the wounded men. The event and its troubling aftermath focused community attention on problematic behavior by campus police, student conduct officers, and faculty.
In spring 2016 African American students and their allies brought their concerns about racism to the administration. The administration responded by forming the Equity Council and pledging to focus institutional resources on dismantling institutional barriers. In fall 2016 African-American students challenged a Convocation speaker to once again call attention to their concerns about institutional racism. In winter 2017 students objected to disciplinary action against black trans students, protested for equal pay for student employees who work in the diversity office and denounced the behavior of campus police who responded to a complaint against two Black students by rousting them from their beds and confining them in the police station for hours. A proposal to address Latinx student recruitment and retention resulted in promises but little action. Many students of color felt disrespected and not listened to. Bret Weinstein came to symbolize a dismissive attitude that was being enacted in multiple areas of the college. By the time students disrupted Weinstein’s class, in May 2017, they had been waiting for over a year — more than a quarter of their time at the college — to see their concerns addressed.
These bottled-up resentments are visible in the infamous May 23rd video of students confronting Weinstein over his Day of Absence claims, and the May 24th occupation of the president’s office. The students used tactics of disruption and confrontation that often occur in social movements, whatever their political orientation. They were far less unruly than protests of the 1960s that are remembered and romanticized by some of the same people who criticize students’ actions today. Weinstein’s sensational claims that the president, faculty and staff were “kidnapped,” and that “mob rule” and “anarchy” ruled the campus have been vigorously denied by Evergreen President George Bridges. They certainly don’t mesh with the reality of the negotiations we witnessed. Some disruptions were problematic and counterproductive, as the May 23rd video began to go viral, giving right-wing groups a meme they had been looking for to hammer Evergreen. Still, a series of meetings attended by faculty, staff and hundreds of students produced welcome promises for reform. Many of us supported the proposed changes, and most of us thought the crisis would be resolved through a renewed commitment to dialogue and institutional change.
4. The Tucker Carlson interview unleashed a flood of hate toward Evergreen.
All that changed on May 26th, when Weinstein appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show on FOX. The segment was labeled “Campus Craziness” and appeared under the banner that Evergreen had ordered “All White People Leave Campus OR ELSE!!”
Weinstein failed to correct Carlson’s sensationalist distortions of the Day of Absence. He did not explain the larger reasons for the Evergreen protests, characteristically putting himself at the center of the story. Weinstein had the right to do the interview, but that didn’t make it the right decision. His interview, and the subsequent tweets he sent about “black supremacists,” were judgment calls he knew full well would unleash vitriol and far-right threats against his colleagues.
Zimmerman would have us believe that for Weinstein’s detractors, appearing on a conservative network should be taboo. He has argued that this is the mark of a culture that is intolerant of free speech. But the problem was never simply appearing on FOX; it was the show’s use of a false message to mobilize a specific virulent audience. Although Tucker Carlson used to be a genuine conservative, in recent months he has become a darling of the alt-right (as documented by Haaretz, “How Fox News’ Rising Star Tucker Carlson Is Winning Over White Supremacist America”). MediaMatters has written, “the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer has been regularly posting clips of Carlson’s interviews… the site’s founder, calls Carlson ‘our greatest ally’.”
We feared the interview would be followed by a dramatic escalation in hate mail and far-right threats, and it was. Weinstein is entitled to voice his opinions, however ill-informed we consider them to be. But his participation in such a toxic forum demonstrated complete lack of interest in the safety and well-being of our community. Even after the Carlson interview went viral, Weinstein continued using Twitter and any media outlet available to push his extreme misrepresentations of the college — in the words of one faculty member, “pouring gasoline on the fire.” Continually casting himself as the victim, he ignored the violent counter-reaction created by right-wing media, a counter-reaction which makes the acts of the unruly Evergreen students seem mild in comparison.
5. Evergreen was targeted by a far-right terrorist threat and rally.
On May 26, the same day Tucker Carlson interviewed Weinstein’s interview, far-right activist Jeremy Christian slashed the throats of three men who had intervened to protect two African American women (one of them Muslim) from his assault on the Portland MAX train. Two of the men died. A month earlier, Christian had attended a protest of “Patriot Prayer,” an anti-Communist, anti-Muslim anti-immigrant group led by Joey Gibson. Only five days after the fatal attack, on May 31, Gibson appeared on the program of Seattle right-wing radio talk show host Dori Monson, promising that his group would come to the defense of Weinstein’s “free speech” by protesting at Evergreen.
The toxic and intimidating atmosphere created by right-wing media inevitably led to a physical threat to Evergreen the next day on June 1st, when an anonymous person called to say he was on his way to “Evergreen University” to “execute as many people on that campus as I can get a hold of… You communist, scumbag town.” When law enforcement officers and the FBI decided the threat was credible, campus was evacuated for two days. It was closed on a third day when new threats were received.
Fears of a school massacre, just a week after the Portland slayings, permeated the campus. While most students left campus, students who lived in the dorms could not leave and did not trust campus police to defend them. The students reported hearing trucks gunning their motors on the back roads behind the dorms, and drivers shouting racist slurs. They describe holing up in dorm rooms for safety and finding it impossible to sleep. In response, they organized a “Community Watch” and armed themselves with baseball bats. Like the disruptions of the previous week, the baseball bats were problematic and counterproductive, and after conversations with administration and faculty, the students put them down. But the threat of a massacre (never even mentioned by Zimmerman) offers some context to understand why some students might have seen the bats as a way to protect themselves. (A New Jersey man was later charged with “making terroristic threats” against the college.)
Two weeks after the terrorist threat, on June 15, Joey Gibson carried out his promised alt-right rally at Evergreen. Gibson and the media usually portray his “Patriot Prayer” group as merely pro-Trump “conservatives” or “libertarians.” But Gibson’s rallies not only supported President Trump, but have served as cover for far-right ultranationalists and white supremacists gathered around his “Warriors for Freedom” gang.
The college responded to the disruption by closing its doors; in the name of campus safety, staff were let out early and buildings were locked. The rally drew about 75-100 people supporting Weinstein and opposing campus equity and diversity programs. They were met by a counterpresence of more than 200 campus members and Olympia community supporters who carried banners opposing fascism and supporting “Community Love,” a slogan of the recent student of color protests. A huge force of riot-clad Washington State Patrol officers separated the two sides with metal barricades. Gibson’s followers displayed all the covert “dog whistle” expressions of fascism understood within the far-right movement, including the “Kekistan” Nazi flag symbol, and the alt-right frog meme Pepe, along with other fascist symbols. The Nazi “Atomwaffen Division” had put up posters around Evergreen the previous week. As Evergreen student Jacqueline Littleton headlined her New York Times op-ed, “The Media Brought the Alt-Right to My Campus.”
Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights observed, “As someone who’s monitored white nationalist activity for the last 25 years, I can state―without reservation―that the evidence of dangerous far-right activity at the Olympia rally is incontrovertible… The flags, banners, hats, t-shirts and other paraphernalia in the crowd represented a melding of white nationalists and Alt-Right activists with the far-right paramilitaries of the Three Percenters and militia-types.”
One of Zimmerman’s HuffPost articles displayed a photo of the riot police without any context, implying they were there only because of the student protests. Other media outlets have repeated the untrue assertion that student protests were responsible for riot police presence, and for the closure of the campuses. Far from defending “free speech” Gibson’s rally intimidated members of the Evergreen community from remaining on their own campus to exercise their free speech rights. Any fascist demonstration on a progressive campus is calculated to intimidate those practicing social change and free speech. The far-right could have cowed the community into silence and invisibility — fortunately, it didn’t. The next day, due to security concerns, Evergreen held its annual graduation in a Tacoma stadium 40 miles from campus; during the ceremony elected student speakers of color and first-generation students celebrated their achievements and those of their peers. Acknowledging the urgency of the student protests, the faculty graduation speaker urged reflection “on the community we have not yet accomplished and are now being asked to accomplish, a community that has justice and inclusion at its center.”
6. Racist hate mail and threats targeted free speech at Evergreen.
As Littleton observed in her New York Times op-ed, Weinstein’s interview “became a call to arms for internet trolls and the alt-right. Online vigilantes from 4chan, Reddit and other forums swarmed to unearth Evergreen students’ contact information. They have harassed us with hundreds of phone calls, anonymous texts and terrifyingly specific threats of violence that show they know where we live and work.”
An anonymous poster on the 4chan “Politically Incorrect” page asked on May 31, “I live in the same town as evergreen college, does /pol/ have any special requests?,” and received numerous responses such as “Fertilizer bomb, “Burn a cross on the campus,” “Put some signs up that say we support our white professors, ni**ers get out,” “Swastika and 14/88 [white power] graffiti on campus,” and “100 4chan points for every dead student, 200 for professor, 500 for administrator,” and “Mustard gas please… Burn the entire fu**ing place to the goddam ground.” This was only one example of many, many such pages on far-right social media, which inspired numerous emails such as one received by two white women faculty on June 2: “You radical bit**es need to rein your asses in… The days of anti White male hatred, intolerance and bigotry are over.”
Many faculty who signed a statement in solidarity with student demands received similar emails and posts.
African American staff members and faculty were particularly singled out for racist abuse online and in emails. One black faculty member was called a “gorilla” and received numerous hate mail messages along the lines of “I hope you get fu**ing lynched you fat piece of ni**er sh*t.” This professor was one of those who held their classes off campus after the shooter threat.
On July 22, alt-right agitator Milo Yiannopolous targeted the same faculty member in a Facebook video with 290,000 views. As per his usual tactic, he published contact information to explicitly direct harassment and violent threats toward her. She was deluged with 40-50 racist hate mail messages per day, including “no one owes you a fu**ing thing you fat c**t. Certainly not white people. The only thing you deserve is for someone to punch you in your fu**ing head.”
As Weinstein and the media complained about the students who yelled and called him “racist,” there was a deafening silence about the systematic, directed intimidation of Evergreen faculty, staff, and students of color. The administration and Board of Trustees made no official statements condemning it, nor did the national media report on it, beyond a New York Times report of African-American staff and faculty “being mercilessly ridiculed online” — an understatement that masked the full reality.
What about the free speech of those who are part of the campaign to create greater equity and diversity on our campus? What about their ability to do their jobs and express their academic freedom without fear of intimidation and violence? What about the education of the students whose faculty and advisors have been forced to go into hiding or hold their classes in secret?
Throughout this crisis the viewpoint of one white professor and his supporters has outweighed the experience of a large community of students, staff, and faculty who have been deliberately terrorized, threatened, and demonized. Furthermore, the recent Portland murders, school shooter threat, and violent backgrounds of some of the alt-right activists who rallied at Evergreen, confirm the physical reality behind the threats. It is no accident that many readers of this article are hearing the other side of the story for the first time—because so many at Evergreen fear the emails, online abuse, and threatening calls they would have to endure if they speak out.
7. Evergreen is a target of political assaults that could affect all of higher education.
The drama unfolding at Evergreen quickly intersected with state and national efforts to constrain public colleges and universities. On May 31, State Representative Matt Manweller (political science professor at Central Washington University) submitted a “request for investigation” to the Washington State Human Rights Commission. He reiterated Weinstein’s assertion that he was subjected to race-based exclusion; the Commission chose not to take up the request. Manweller also sent a letter to Evergreen’s Director of Government Relations, stating, “Evergreen students are an embarrassment.” He called the college leadership cowardly and complicit, adding, “My colleagues and I have had enough of this ridiculous behavior fostered at our public institutions.” A few days later, with the support of 14 Republican representatives, he submitted House Bill 2221, proposing “transitioning The Evergreen State College to a private four-year institution of higher education.” Senator Fortunato introduced the companion Senate Bill 5946 to reduce state support for the college in a planned regression of funding over five years, culminating in a sale to a private party, echoing similar proposals from the 1970s and ’80s.
Manweller’s bill sends a message to public higher education in our state that it is being scrutinized, and threatened with budget cuts, privatization, receivership or closure. This is not Manweller’s first attempt; last year he introduced a bill to “protect free speech” in Washington’s public colleges that was characterized by higher education advocates as “legislative overreach.” But this spring’s drama at Evergreen provided another occasion to go after public higher ed. Four days after Evergreen’s graduation, the State Senate’s Law and Justice Committee convened a work session on “Safety at The Evergreen State College.” Besides Manweller; invited speakers were President Bridges, a faculty member who spoke as a proxy for Bret Weinstein, and representatives of the campus, county and state police. The session framed the Evergreen story as a crisis of law and order, with scant attention directed to racial equity, educational mission, or the safety and well-being of all students, staff and faculty. Yet none of the faculty, staff or students who have been put at risk by threats to the campus were invited, and public comment was not permitted. Although the “Evergreen bills” were never brought to the floor, they reflect a readiness on the right to summarily discipline colleges and universities with invasive scrutiny, if not full-scale penalties or even dissolution. Still Rep. Drew Hansen, Democratic chair of the House Higher Education Committee signaled that “We’re not going to end public funding at Evergreen, or any other public university, because of student protests.”
Higher education’s struggles to overcome institutional barriers to equity are taking place in an increasingly hostile environment at the federal level as well. On July 27 the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform convened a hearing on “the undermining of free speech in higher education.” The committee heard from several invited witnesses, including Michael Zimmerman. Committee Chair Representative Jordan stated that his committee was “committed…to help colleges reinstate freedom of speech as an important protection.” Although Zimmerman argued against the “historical silencing” of marginalized people, he also singled out for criticism a ‘radical left’ among college professors, and the rise of “a post-modern agenda,” which is “causing great harm.” He called on college administrators to show “strength,” echoing groups such as Campus Reform that are positioning Evergreen as a test case for what happens when progressive campuses are not properly disciplined.
8. Free speech works both ways.
The double standard has been astonishing, as we watch people who claim to be “even-handed” in their politics uphold the “free speech” of white supremacists, while condemning as “intolerant radical leftists” those who exercise their own free speech to challenge hate speech. What has been happening at Evergreen is a conflict between different parties and beliefs, with both sides exercising free speech. Nevertheless, some media have equated having an unpopular political opinion on a campus to being a marginalized racial or gender “minority.” Radio host Bryan Fischer lionizes Bret Weinstein as “Rosa Parks” for “refusing to go the back of the diversity bus.”
A diversity of ideological viewpoints is not the same as diversity of identities. Having a political viewpoint that doesn’t match the majority viewpoint on a campus does not lead to a shorter life span, nor does it create fear of being assaulted in a routine police stop, or lead to higher suicide rates. Identities connected to race or LGBTQ status do all these things in 21st-century America.
As one Evergreen staff member described the student protesters’ decisions, “it is clear that if you are not a white college student, you will certainly pay for your mistakes long after the 30 minutes have passed and be described in terms that cement the fear people have about angry or insistent people of color. No one will ever focus on what the reasons for that anger might be, but rather the fact that they dared to voice it.”
Evergreen is not the first place where white moderates have criticized people fighting against injustice more than the injustice itself. These words from Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” were never truer than today:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods.’
9. Liberal arts and intersectionality are both about increasing available viewpoints.
The goal of a liberal arts education is to draw from different disciplines. The goal of intersectionality is to connect the experiences of diverse communities. The backlash against liberal arts and intersectionality is about reducing or demeaning “identity politics” in the public discourse. We constantly hear that for “minority” groups to express their own identities takes away from our identities as Americans or human beings. As an example, “All Lives Matter” has been offered as a counter to the Black Lives Matter movement. In exalting Weinstein as “Rosa Parks,” Pastor Fischer asserts that “strength does not come from diversity, as the left endlessly bleats, but from unity.” An August 3rd Wall Street Journal editorial equated the critique of Eurocentric approaches to scholarship with a quest for “not knowledge but power” and cited specific Evergreen classes as an example of “ridiculous” course offerings.) In a similar way, former Provost Zimmerman condemns Evergreen as “a place where identity politics takes precedence,” ignoring the numerous programs on social class, environmental studies, and other cross-cutting themes.
But the problem students have identified is that higher education has paid short shrift to their identities, with faculty not speaking up against prejudiced statements in the classroom, or opting out of discussing social issues if they do not fit their discipline or curriculum. In the natural sciences, for example, issues of race and culture could easily be incorporated by introducing environmental justice research or tribal salmon habitat restoration. Such simple reforms make the connection between “identity politics” and universal themes that unify people, and help them (as one of Evergreen’s five foci state) to “learn across significant differences.”
Instead of exploring how pedagogy can bridge identity differences and explore unifying similarities, Weinstein and his followers advocate a strategy to “set aside” race, and “not talk so much” about race and gender. One purpose of the Day of Absence was for students to widen their awareness beyond themselves, and understand the perspectives of people with different life experiences, and how these might relate to their own. Intersectionality is a hallmark of a liberal arts education, not its opposite. A liberal arts education should never “set aside” anything.
The goal of equity and diversity programs is to widen awareness. The goal of those who want to shut them down is to narrow or constrict debate to prioritize dominant perspectives. Only when a white professor objects to equity proposals do we suddenly hear about the importance of listening and understanding others’ perspectives. That’s not only true at Evergreen but at many institutions around the country.
As Provost, Zimmerman could have done a lot to practice such listening, bring people together and head off the current crisis. Instead, he was one of the administrators who students and faculty of color felt did not listen to them and put off their concerns. Despite his current defense of free speech, he sparked his own free-speech controversy in 2014 when he attempted to cancel a project to perform a play LGBTQ students had written that satirized Disney films.
Zimmerman also tried to institute an Evergreen program on a Wyoming reservation, without first adequately consulting with and getting approval from the tribal government.
Rather than join the right in labeling Weinstein’s critics as “radical left,” or a “vocal minority,” Zimmerman could humbly and reflexively examine his own policies, and how they might have helped to prevent the crisis. At the very least, he could acknowledge the pain and fear that students, faculty, and staff, particularly those of color, have faced since May. Instead, as the former provost, Zimmerman has an axe to grind with the administration of President George Bridges. He began grinding it on HuffPost on July 2, as soon as he could legally do so under his administrative contract.
10. Equity and diversity reforms are continuing.
There has been a lot of anger at Evergreen, as on many other campuses. When people are angry and feel unheard they often make statements and commit actions they may later regret. But wherever the Greener community goes next, we can agree that the Evergreen spring has been a long time coming. Now is a time for us to listen to our students, and act for a more positive future. We hope to look back at this period a decade from now, and proudly say that Evergreen rose to the occasion and found creative, innovative ways to defuse conflict, lessen polarization, and take needed steps to support the learning of all our students.
Whatever one’s opinions about student actions or demands, we should understand that the current situation cannot be reduced to a single issue or person. Action is long overdue. When changes that were within the college’s decision-making authority were not made, student demands were redirected outside that structure, leading to polarization and confrontation. Now that they have the college’s attention, the students have put forward proposals that the administration has promised to consider and act on. Hopefully, the power relations on our campus will be restructured so the Equity Council’s concerns can be addressed, rather than having to pressure the administration from the outside.
We, concerned faculty at Evergreen, look forward to participating in a process through which we learn to better understand the concerns and lived experiences of students, faculty and staff of color. We believe that reforming Evergreen’s programs and making them more conducive to equity and diversity will make the college stronger. We are hopeful that faculty, staff and students will find ways to connect identity differences and unifying similarities, and meet the needs of communities of color while at the same time widening the experiences and engagement of whites. Change can be challenging and uncomfortable; it can also be energizing and optimistic. At Evergreen we are optimistic that we can meet the challenge of creating a more inclusive future.
Anne Fischel has taught media and community studies at Evergreen since 1989, and was the 2017 elected faculty graduation speaker. Zoltán Grossman has taught geography and Native studies at Evergreen since 2005. Lin Nelson is an emeritus faculty who taught sociology and environmental health at Evergreen from 1991 to 2016.