Administration

A Polarized Campus Struggles to Understand How Racial Tensions Became National News

June 02, 2017

Tony Overman, The Olympian via AP Images
An Evergreen State College police officer monitors the campus on Thursday as students evacuate following a threat. The university announced that the campus would reopen on Saturday.

With only a week of classes left, Evergreen State College remains mired in controversy and struggling to understand how a conversation about alleged racism transformed into a national brouhaha.

The situation reached new heights when someone threatened to come to the campus while armed, causing classes to be canceled on Thursday and Friday. It’s unclear whether the caller who issued the threat had any connection to the recent student protests that disrupted some classes and other planned forums. On Friday afternoon, the administration announced that the campus would reopen on Saturday because local law enforcement had found no evidence of an active threat.

Some media reports have portrayed the travails of the small liberal-arts college in Olympia, Wash., as an extreme case of political correctness. But Peter Dorman, a professor of economics there, said the reality is more complicated: "It’s fair to say there’s a lot of polarization on campus."

Mr. Dorman aimed to clear up some of the misconceptions in a blog post this week. In particular, he refuted the idea that white professors and students were told to leave campus as part of a racial-awareness event. "No one was required to do anything; it was all about invitation," Mr. Dorman wrote. "A lot of the behavior on all sides has been unhelpful."

In late May, students presented President George Bridges with a list of demands that included calls to change the student code of conduct and terminate a professor. Mr. Bridges agreed to many of the concerns, but he disagrees with how right-leaning websites are characterizing his response.

"I viewed it as being responsive to the listening and learning that I did with our students," Mr. Bridges said in an interview on Friday. "We live in a society where it seems people aren’t listening carefully to others. Rather they listen in order to reject ideas or dismiss ideas summarily, and I believe that’s not the kind of behavior we want to model at Evergreen."

In recent days, people on social media have accused the institution, which serves about 4,000 students, of promoting racist attitudes.

Most national attention has been focused on the college’s "Day of Absence." On that day, minority students have traditionally met off campus to discuss race. But this year, organizers decided that the roles should be reversed. They asked that white people voluntarily leave the campus.

In March, Bret Weinstein, a professor of biology, objected to that suggestion. "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," Mr. Weinstein wrote in an email dated March 15 that was later published in the Cooper Point Journal, the student newspaper, "… and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away."

That email came and went, but tensions tightened in May when the student newspaper reported that two students had been questioned by the campus police after a classmate accused them of making threats.

On Friday afternoon, a person claiming to represent students at Evergreen sent out a news release that sought to further debunk claims that the "Day of Absence" was an anti-white event. The statement also objected that "a professor chose to misrepresent the nature of the events," on right-leaning media outlets, and it called on Mr. Bridges to publicly condemn Mr. Weinstein, the professor in question.

And early Saturday morning, the chair of the Board of Trustees, Gretchen Sorensen, criticized the actions of a minority of students in a statement. "The lack of tolerance and respect displayed by a few during these recent events and disruptions is indefensible," she said. "Anyone who prevents Evergreen from delivering a positive and productive learning environment for all students has, and will continue to be held accountable for their actions and face appropriate consequences."

‘We Won’t Respond’

As for the deluge of outside criticism, Mr. Bridges said the noise is best ignored. "It’s tough to get the vitriolic messages from people we don’t know," he said. "We can’t respond to it. We won’t respond to it. It’s not a constructive exercise."

Mr. Dorman, the economics professor, said faculty members have been divided in their attitudes on the recent student protests and the president’s actions. Email conversations, he said, suggest they can’t decide whether the president’s response was lackluster or he should have gone even further in addressing students’ demands.

Similarly, many faculty members would be happy to see Mr. Weinstein leave, Mr. Dorman said, but others feel that the biology professor has been "victimized."

The faculty, he said, do appear to largely agree on one thing: "Bret Weinstein’s decision to take his case to Fox News was regarded as quite negative, probably by most people on campus. We have a sense that the people Bret talked to and who took advantage of his comments are people who don’t wish us well and don’t want to see us succeed in any event. There’s a bad feeling from that."

Mr. Weinstein has not responded to multiple interview requests from The Chronicle. But on Twitter in recent days, he has aired grievances about being blamed for the campus’s closure, and he blamed President Bridges for the controversy.

Mr. Bridges declined to comment on Mr. Weinstein’s comments on his leadership. Mr. Dorman said that he expected that every faculty member would be discussing the recent events in their classrooms when students return to class. "I don’t think anybody is just throwing up their hands," Mr. Dorman said. "We all want to make the education gains for our students as real as possible."

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.