Four months have passed since the riots that brought The Evergreen State College to the attention of the world occurred and with the start of the academic year quickly approaching for the college it is well worth taking stock of where things currently stand.
The most important question, it seems to me, is whether or not the learning environment for students has improved at Evergreen because of what transpired last spring and the aftermath this summer.
What is absolutely clear is that the student protestors and their faculty supporters successfully achieved their main goals. From the outset the protesters wanted (at least) three members of the faculty and staff to leave their positions, preferably by being fired. (Will anyone ever forget the fervently aggressive chanting as students held the campus’s administration hostage: Hey, hey, ho, ho, racist faculty have got to go?)
All three are no longer in the positions they filled during the spring and two are no longer employed by the college.
Andrea Seabert Olsen was the student conduct officer, the person responsible for overseeing the student code of conduct. The protestors demanded that she be fired but provided only vague, if overly incendiary, reasons. “Seabert Olsen has shown a consistent often violent flaw in judgment when it pertains to the needs and safety of Black students, other students of color, Trans students, students with disabilities, students who have experienced sexual assault…. The students who are in the most danger in the current climate and culture of both the Evergreen campus and the United States do not view Seabert Olsen as a safe person to seek help from.” She’s no longer serving as the student conduct officer, a position she’s held for many years.
Stacy Brown was Evergreen’s chief of police. Evergreen students wanted her fired because, well, because she was the chief of police. Indeed, there was a major demonstration at her swearing in ceremony this past January with students protesting the very idea of a chief of police and of policing in general.
After a number of them assaulted the vice president for student affairs during the aborted ceremony they were brought up on charges of violating the student code of conduct and had to deal with Andrea Seabert Olsen. Chief Brown no longer works at Evergreen having resigned from her position this past August because she did not believe that in the current climate she was able to do her job of protecting the campus community effectively.
Bret Weinstein was a faculty member with expertise in evolutionary biology. He was also a vocal member of the faculty consistently calling for open debate and discussion about many issues including those centered on the campus’s “equity” initiative. Although his politics are well situated in the progressive portion of the spectrum,
Weinstein’s insistence on discussion of complex faculty issues and his desire to be certain that policies ostensibly designed to help marginalized students actually help those students led to him being targeted by protestors and called both a racist and white supremacist by colleagues. The call for his firing was at the epicenter of the protests. After Chief Brown made it clear to Weinstein that his welfare was at risk if he appeared on campus and that she was not being permitted to protect him from student protestors, he was forced to teach off campus. Convinced that the college was not taking any actions to protect him, Weinstein took legal action against the college. A settlement was just reached that included a monetary payment to Weinstein coupled with his resignation.
The protestors received a bonus in this case in that Heather Heying, Weinstein’s wife and also a faculty member at Evergreen, was included in the settlement. She too resigned from her position. And she too was declared to be a racist when she expressed displeasure with the administration for not permitting the police to protect her husband.
So, in the absence of these four people, has the learning environment improved for Evergreen students? It’s difficult to see how one could reach such a conclusion. Weinstein and Heying were two of Evergreen’s most popular instructors and their offerings always had waiting lists of students hoping to enroll. Brown, herself a graduate of Evergreen, had hoped to bring an enhanced sense of community policing to the campus and to break down barriers between students and campus police. Seabert Olsen has worked tirelessly on campus assisting students in need while adjudicating complex cases. Beyond the campus, she’s devoted her life to helping disadvantaged and abused young women find a way to move forward successfully.
While it is absolutely true that no one on a college campus is indispensable, it is difficult to see how the loss of these four individuals improves the Evergreen environment. Yes, some will say, indeed, some have said, that with their departures Evergreen has four fewer white supremacists in its midst. But those are people who seem to view anyone who disagrees with them as a white supremacist.
Make no mistake about it, racism exists all around us and white supremacy has been and continues to be responsible for many terrible things. But, while Evergreen is far from perfect, pretending it is a hotbed of racism is both disingenuous and dangerous. Labelling virtually everyone as a white supremacist trivializes the concept and emboldens those who are the embodiment of white supremacy. Ta-Nehisi Coates, no apologist for the far right, made this point very clearly recently when explaining to Chris Hayes why Donald Trump but neither George W. Bush nor Mitt Romney should be considered a white supremacist. Disagreements about policy, about politics, and about tactics can be healthy – especially on college campuses.
The departure of Weinstein and Heying from Evergreen has another critically important downside for the college and its students. The lesson to be learned by students, faculty and staff alike is that viewpoints differing from the loudest voices on campus will not be tolerated. Question those loud voices, or simply call for a discussion, and you will be shunned, attacked and ultimately ex-communicated.
As one faculty member has written, “The scorched earth style of leadership by the college administration is disheartening for many of us.” When voices are lost, homogeneity increases and critical thinking, the hallmark of the liberal arts, is diminished.
Four months later, what about the leaders of the protest? The answer to this question reinforces the lesson about the dangers of questioning the campus’s loudest voices. The student who played the largest role in the protest, the one who organized the taking of administrative hostages and who was seen patrolling the campus with a baseball bat, was rewarded for those efforts by being hired by Evergreen to serve as a “Presidential Equity Advisor” over the summer. The faculty member who was seen berating colleagues with foul language, who, on Facebook, asked “Could some white women from Evergreen come and collect Heather Heying’s racist ass,” and who regularly and publicly called Weinstein a racist, remains in her faculty position.
As the new academic year begins at Evergreen, student protestors and their faculty allies got much of what they wanted – and the college has been weakened as a result. In addition to the losses outlined above, student numbers are significantly down leading to a major budgetary crisis. This is the classic case of winning a battle but losing the war.