The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington has earned its renown as an experimental – indeed avant-garde – institution; its ‘progressive’ bona-fides have been warranted as well. Back in the day, I explored the possibility of taking a faculty position in entrepreneurship there. Although it didn’t come through, this institution has remained close to my heart.
A recent controversy at Evergreen has made national news and has placed at least one professor as well as students and staff in potential peril. From the New York Times:
[Professor Bret] Weinstein, who identifies himself as “deeply progressive,” is just the kind of teacher that students at one of the most left-wing colleges in the country would admire. Instead, he has become a victim of an increasingly widespread campaign by leftist students against anyone who dares challenge ideological orthodoxy on campus.
This professor’s crime? He had the gall to challenge a day of racial segregation.
A bit of background: The “Day of Absence” is an Evergreen tradition that stretches back to the 1970s. As Mr. Weinstein explained on Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal, “in previous years students and faculty of color organized a day on which they met off campus — a symbolic act based on the Douglas Turner Ward play in which all the black residents of a Southern town fail to show up one morning.” This year, the script was flipped: “White students, staff and faculty will be invited to leave campus for the day’s activities,” reported the student newspaper on the change. The decision was made after students of color “voiced concern over feeling as if they are unwelcome on campus, following the 2016 election.”
Mr. Weinstein thought this was wrong. The biology professor said as much in a letter to Rashida Love, the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. “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, “and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.” The first instance, he argued, “is a forceful call to consciousness.” The second “is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.”
Seattle’s The Stranger reports on the “campus lockdown” ordered at Evergreen late this week “after local law enforcement officials received a call with a “direct threat to campus safety'”:
Student activists say they’ve been unfairly maligned. “While it is probably true that some of our strategies were very passionate, they were also peaceful,” an Evergreen student, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote in an e-mail. “And while it might be true there was some ‘harassment’ (a subjective term), it was on the lines of condemnation and scorn, rather than threats and stalking.”
One student, who asked to remain anonymous out of safety concerns, said death threats to campus activists followed Weinstein’s media appearances. “A swastika appeared on campus. Student personal information was published on 4chan channels and other neo-Nazi and violent racist internet communities,” the student told The Stranger.
Said another student: “Calling these people ‘Weinstein supporters’ would be irresponsible of me. These people are mostly organized racists from off campus that use internet presence, anonymity, and misinformation to disrupt a narrative, and the threat of violence to suppress those who would fight back.”
Professor Weinstein fears that his and other students have been placed at risk:
On Twitter, [he] claimed that his student supporters were being threatened online by his critics. He subsequently tweeted: “I’m told people are doxing those that protested against me. I don’t know if it’s true. If it is, *please stop.* No good can come from that.” The biology instructor also said that Evergreen campus police warned him that he was “not safe on campus. They can not protect me.”
Student demonstrators refuted Weinstein’s claims that their supporters had attempted to dox the teacher’s supporters. They believe the media’s focus on Weinstein is a distraction from their chief concern: ongoing issues revolving around racism, sexism, and transphobia at Evergreen.
As a professor and as a person with many fond memories of the energetic intellectual and moral debates I shared or witnessed as a young student at SUNY/Buffalo and Stanford University, I find this Evergreen mess dismaying to the point of heartbreak.
cross-posted from basil.CA