Evergreen State College – May 2017

Olympia, Washington

Student activists demanded the firing of Biology Professor Bret Weinstein, whom they believed to be racist. Weinstein publicly opposed a request by minority students that Caucasian faculty and students remain off campus during the “Day of Absence.“ Additionally, he opposed a recommendation by Evergreen State College’s Equity and Inclusion Council to require an “equity justification/explanation” for all faculty hires. Campus police instructed Weinstein to stay off campus in order to ensure his safety. More than 50 faculty members signed a letter demanding disciplinary action against him. Weinstein and his wife, also a professor at the college, resigned from their respective positions after winning a $500,000 settlement in a tort claim against the college.

Key Players

Professor Bret Weinstein, who teaches biology at Evergreen, adopted a controversial position on two issues related to race and diversity on campus.

President George Bridges said at the time that Weinstein’s job is not in danger and that his right to speak out had never been threatened. Bridges rejected demands from students that Weinstein be fired. However, he announced that Evergreen will work to foster a more inclusive and diverse environment, including mandatory diversity and cultural sensitivity training for all faculty members. Additionally, Bridges accepted a policy recommendation that every official event at Evergreen start with an acknowledgment that it is located on land stolen from Native Americans.

Further Details

The Day of Absence event was inspired by a play written by Douglas Turner Ward in 1965, reports Inside Higher Ed. It has become a campus tradition, during which minority students and faculty members meet off-campus to discuss how to make higher education institutions more inclusive. Students also organize a Day of Presence to reunite the campus. While Weinstein had no objection to this tradition, he opposed the new request by student organizers that white people remain off campus. He sent an email to campus community members saying, “on a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color.” Students claim that his email was condescending and disrespectful to organizers of the event. Weinstein also disapproves of a proposed “equity justification/explanation” for faculty hires, grounding his opposition in the principle of equality. Weinstein told Inside Higher Ed that he believes colleges should actively attempt to attract diverse candidates, but he argues that the proposal “subordinates all other characteristics of applicants to one thing.” He maintains that the motivation for hiring a professor should be his or her academic qualifications, not diversity.

Some of Weinstein’s fellow faculty members have sharply criticized his public comments, claiming that his recounting of events was unfair. A letter signed by faculty members also charged that Weinstein had “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.” In the wake of this incident, Evergreen was forced to close its campus due to direct threats of violence. The Olympian reports that one individual was able to prompt the closing of campus by telling emergency call operators, “Yes, I’m on my way to Evergreen University (sic) now with a .44 Magnum. I am gonna execute as many people on that campus as I can get a hold of.” Law enforcement officials in New Jersey later arrested a resident of that state for making the call threatening the campus, charging him with terroristic threats, criminal coercion,and false public alarm, reports NJ.com.

Student protesters interrupted Weinstein’s classes, shouting about racism and white privilege, according to The New York Times. Students have also highlighted a fatal attack on two men in nearby Portland, Oregon, who were trying to defend two Muslim women. Some students view this incident as evidence that minorities face real dangers in society.

The board of trustees issued a statement in which it criticized the student protesters, claiming that some individuals had partaken in uncivil and inappropriate behavior. The statement reaffirmed Evergreen’s commitment to Free Speech, while pledging to take a “measured approach” in delving “further into issues of diversity and equity at Evergreen.”

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni weighed in on the controversy in a column titled, “These Campus Inquisitions Must Stop.” Bruni criticized student protesters at Evergreen, writing that Weinstein’s remarks were “a reasonable perspective and a prompt for discussion, not fury.”

In August 2017, The College Fix reported that enrollment has declined since the previous fall at Evergreen State College. Although conservative media outlets blamed this decline on recent unrest on campus, a spokesman for the college maintained that the enrollment decline stemmed from increased competition among small, liberal arts colleges, KUOW reports.

In July 2017, Weinstein and his wife, a professor of anthropology at Evergreen, filed a $3.85 million tort claim against the college, alleging that it had failed to “protect its employees from repeated provocative and corrosive verbal and written hostility based on race, as well as threats of physical violence,” according to The Seattle Times. In September, Weinstein and his wife resigned from their respective positions at Evergreen State College. Evergreen administrators agreed to pay the couple $450,000, as well as $50,000 for attorney fees. However, an email from Evergreen officials announcing the settlement noted that “the college admits no liability, and rejects the allegations made in the tort claim. The educational activities of Day of Absence/Day of Presence were not discriminatory. The college took reasonable and appropriate steps to engage with protesters during spring quarter, de-escalate conflict, and keep the campus safe,” reports The Seattle Times.

Outcome

Professor Resigns, Wins Settlement from University

Weinstein and his wife won a $500,000 settlement from Evergreen State College after filing a $3.85 million tort claim. Although the college admitted no liability, Weinstein and his wife claimed that the college had provided inadequate protection in the face of hostility relating to the Day of Absence incident.

Free Speech Supported by the Administration

College administrators have defended Weinstein’s freedom of speech. However, Weinstein believes that President Bridges has advanced a “false narrative” and failed to acknowledge the harassment that Weinstein and his students faced. Additionally, the statement by the board of trustees was critical of student protesters.

External References:

Evergreen Regroups Amid Discord, Inside Higher Education

These Campus Inquisitions Must Stop, The New York Times

Statement by the Board of Trustees

Morris man’s threats led to 2-day shutdown of college, authorities say, NJ.com

Enrollment Drops At Evergreen State College, Hiring Freeze Coming, KUOW

Evergreen professor at center of protests resigns; college will pay $500,000, The Seattle Times

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

November 14, 2017