Bret Weinstein wrote an email in March that angered a lot of people at Evergreen State College. In that email, Mr. Weinstein, a professor of biology, objected to a proposed "Day of Absence" that encouraged white students, staff, and faculty members to leave campus in order to "explore issues of race, equity, allyship, inclusion and privilege." He wrote that "on a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color." The request, he argued, was "an act of oppression in and of itself."
Since then Mr. Weinstein, who considers himself "deeply progressive," has been called a racist, and a group of Evergreen students have demanded that the professor be "suspended immediately without pay." What’s more, dozens of his fellow professors signed a letter last week calling for the university to investigate him, complaining that his speaking out had turned the campus into a target of white supremacists.
So Mr. Weinstein, who usually spends his time involved in less-inflammatory issues, like studying the evolution of nectar-feeding glossophagine bats, now finds himself at the center of a bitter controversy involving race and privilege on a well-respected college campus.
Curiously, it’s not the first time. Nearly three decades ago, when he was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, Bret Weinstein almost single-handedly caused a stir that polarized the campus, led to his being repeatedly harassed and threatened, and eventually shamed the university’s leadership into taking action. That story, buried in the archives of The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper, is enlightening both as a reminder of the longstanding fissures around race on campuses, and also, perhaps, as a reflection on the character and convictions of Mr. Weinstein.
The story goes like this: On October 1, 1987, the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania put on a party for between 100 and 200 members and pledges. As a surprise for those in attendance, the fraternity’s leaders had paid two women $150 to perform a striptease. It was, by all accounts, a degrading spectacle. One freshman reportedly engaged in oral sex with the women in front of the crowd. Other vulgar acts were performed, involving cucumbers and ketchup. Sexist and racist slurs were yelled at the two women, who were black.
The following week The Daily Pennsylvanian ran a story with the headline "Dry Fraternities Turn to Strippers." It included a somewhat sanitized account of the evening’s proceedings, along with quotes from fraternity members defending the event. ("It’s something you can do at college," one said.)
The only attendee willing to go on the record objecting to the event was named Bret Weinstein, who wondered "whether or not a system which allows this to go on unquestioned by a large group of supposedly educated college students should be allowed to continue." (Weinstein touched on the incident during a recent, two-hour YouTube interview, saying that he was there because a friend had invited him, but that he wasn’t rushing the fraternity and had left the party soon after the two women were brought out.)
A few days after that, concerned that the article hadn’t driven home the awfulness of what had happened, Weinstein wrote a scathing column for the student paper, calling fraternities "residential extensions of the penis" and their members "a group of guys who never escaped from the locker-room into the reality that the rest of us live in." He accused the university of standing silently by because "alumni who were fraternity brothers donate more money than alumni who weren’t." Then he asked his fellow students this question: "Should your tuition go to an institution that supports overt sexism?"
After initially shrugging at the strippers, saying there was no rule forbidding it, the university began an investigation into Zeta Beta Tau. It emerged that other fraternities were known to hire strippers as well. Rather than using the incident as a soul-searching opportunity, furious fraternity members focused their rage on the guy who blew the whistle.
"I received phone calls, usually late at night, mostly consisting of four-word dissertations on my character like ‘you are a faggot’ or ‘you are an asshole,’ and somebody hangs up," Mr. Weinstein told The Daily Pennsylvanian the following semester. A column written by a member of another fraternity called Mr. Weinstein an "ignoramus" and said he was "awfully presumptuous" to question the event, given that he was only a freshman.
The harassment went on for months, as did the investigation.
In the end, the university investigation found that Zeta Beta Tau had violated guidelines. The fraternity was suspended for 18 months, and its members forced to vacate the house where the party had been held. The fraternity called the punishment "overly harsh" but also admitted that "we were wrong and we know it." A half-apology, but a shift from the college-boys-will-be-college-boys defense.
The scandal faded, as all scandals do, and Mr. Weinstein’s role in bringing it to light is mostly forgotten, though it’s reasonable to assume that certain members of Zeta Beta Tau still remember him. Two years later, Mr. Weinstein was interviewed again by The Daily Pennsylvanian in an article headlined "Killing the Messenger." He reflected on the strain of being caught in the middle of a firestorm, and he offered advice for those who were considering speaking out publicly on a controversial topic. "If you feel it’s important, do it," he said at the time. "But know what you’re getting into."
(Mr. Weinstein, who no doubt is receiving a fair number of interview requests these days, did not respond to an email from The Chronicle.)
Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and other things. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl.