Education

How Activists Took Control of a University: The Case Study of Evergreen State

The student protests that took place at Evergreen State College earlier this year were remarkable, drawing international coverage and substantial analysis here and elsewhere. Video recordings of students screaming at biology professor Bret Weinstein are iconic, as are those of a faculty member telling two other faculty members “you are now those motherfuckers that we’re pushing against.”

The most memorable scenes, though, are those that involved college president George Bridges. The scenes of Bridges meekly acquiescing to students’ demands for delayed homework after they occupy his office and hurl insults at him, telling him to “Get to work” and to “Get the fuck out of here”, and of him later standing up in front of students as a focal point as they scream at him, nodding as a student tells him “We had civilisation way before you ever had, coming out your caves” are surreal.

Throughout these scenes, Bridges repeatedly apologises to the students. On several occasions, he’s admonished for raising his hands while speaking, which he immediately accommodates by lowering them or putting them in his pockets, to the students’ great delight. (Meanwhile, students are screaming at him and jumping up and down.)

The scenes suggest a mild-mannered college president whose only mistake is failing to draw boundaries when he’s overwhelmed and intimidated by angry protestors. And more generally, of an autonomous group of student protestors going too far, encouraged by a lone faculty member or two. There is, it turns out, much more to the story.

*   *   *

In an interesting and well-written article in The Washington Examiner, Weinstein and Heather Heying—a fellow former biology professor at Evergreen who’s married to Weinstein—provide their account of the protests. Although Weinstein has previously shared his story, and other insiders have added their perspective, the Examiner article offers a more detailed account than I’ve seen before.

While I highly recommend reading the full article, I’ll briefly recap the main points, as I understand them.

In 2015, Evergreen hired a new president, Bridges, who almost immediately began expanding administration, allying himself with factions focussed on race, and remaking school policies to place more emphasis on equity and social justice. He also emboldened protestors by apologising to them and by consistently refusing to draw boundaries.

At a meeting held by the ‘Equity Council’, faculty members were read an equity manifesto and were given a binary choice: you’re either allies or enemies. A few months later, white people were asked to leave campus for a day, replacing what had previously been a day where people of colour voluntarily stayed away. Weinstein voiced his dissent on both occasions to what he felt was an unreasoned and intimidation-based approach, and was met with accusations of racism.

A few weeks after the second incident, student protestors held Weinstein—and later several other faculty members, including Bridges—hostage while they subjugated and humiliated them. A faculty member later that day proudly wrote an email saying: “They are doing exactly what we’ve taught them today”. Weinstein was told by police that he needed to get off campus, and that they couldn’t protect him because they’d been ordered to stand down. Weinstein and Heying were denied leave, so they settled with the college and left for good.

So, while Bridges might have appeared to outsiders as a victim of the protests, Heying and Weinstein show otherwise. Bridges systematically implemented a grievance culture by empowering radical faculty members, rejecting reasoned discourse in favour of the sanctity of subjective experience and multiple truths, promoting a binary worldview of allies and enemies, draping major initiatives in vague notions of equity and social justice, and consistently apologising for every accusation, whatever its merits. Eventually, he was devoured by a beast of his own creation, as anger and righteousness engulfed the students and they were egged on by radical faculty members acting without restraint.

Despite all that has happened, Evergreen has continued undeterred along the path set by Bridges when he arrived. When confronted in an interview with a student’s statement that he’s a white supremacist, Bridges said he doesn’t believe he is, but was quick to add “I’m a white person in a position of privilege.” Towards the end of their article, Heying and Weinstein remark that they feel “we were paid to leave a burning building. “

*   *   *

Evergreen is interesting, in my opinion, because it provides a case study of an institution where a small minority of ideologically motivated people have been able to exert immense influence. While Bridges as college president has a lot of formal authority, he couldn’t have changed Evergreen as he did through that alone. As Heying and Weinstein explain, he and his faculty allies employed several other mechanisms to intimidate people and shut down resistance. Understanding these mechanisms can hopefully produce a broader sense of how ideologically motivated people are able to acquire and wield so much power.

You don’t have to look for very long at the current landscape to notice there are many places where this is relevant. Consider a months-long investigation of elite Boston-area private school Tufts University by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

Students have been systematically investigated, interrogated by police, and punished by Tufts for speech the university claims, generally, to permit. What’s more, numerous students told us the campus climate is “toxic” for free inquiry, with a passionate but small and exceptionally like-minded student body attempting to silence “offensive” or disfavored speech — even reporting it to administrators and police, or characterizing it as a literal act of “violence.” These mutually reinforcing phenomena create a perilous combination for students who want to speak their mind at Tufts: Open disagreement isn’t just “social suicide” — it can get you in serious trouble.

What does Evergreen teach us about the mechanisms that produce this type of situation? While some of Bridges and his allies’ actions were traditional exertions of power—Bridges expanding administration and firing an influential potential dissenter, and a faculty member threatening other faculty members—there are three mechanisms worth examining closer, I think, as they are much subtler and tie directly into ideology:

  1. A binary classification of allies and enemies that’s vaguely defined but emotionally and morally charged.
  2. A notion of multiple truths and the sanctity of subjective experience that’s selectively applied.
  3. A notion of an extremely powerful but intangible power structure.

I’ll briefly go through each one.

Mechanism #1: A binary classification of allies and enemies that’s vaguely defined but emotionally and morally charged.

The Equity Council—whose members Bridges had appointed and empowered—arranged an emotionally charged meeting full of platitudes and tears, after which people were asked to step down to the stage in front of everybody and form a giant canoe in a ritualistic performance with drums beating in the background. The implication being that you were either onboard or not, with no in-between. The Strategic Equity Plan they were ostensibly affirming was never actually read. (Apparently, an alum later presented a critique of the statistical foundation of the plan, to which Bridges promised a response that never came.) This followed a process where Bridges and his allies implemented multiple initiatives under vague notions of equity and social justice, and where any resistance was struck down as ‘anti-equity’.

This is a very potent mechanism, because it combines two things. On the one hand, an emotionally and morally charged classification that leverages people’s aversion towards being labelled anti-equity, racist or a similarly charged term, as well as their fear of the repercussions that come from being branded as such. On the other hand, an extremely vague definition of these terms and of the requirements for being classified one way or the other. This grants the classifiers tremendous power. If the requirements for being an ally or enemy—and more generally, being anti-equity and racist—were well-defined, there would be much less power in the hands of those making the classification, because it would follow automatically. And of course, that would also be the case if the classification were less charged and thus had fewer repercussions.

The combination of these two factors, though, mean that it’s almost entirely within Bridges and his allies’ discretion who to label an enemy (or a racist, or anti-equity), with severe repercussions for the person involved. The results, as Heying and Weinstein lay out, is that people became scared to critique anything Bridges or his allies did. All public responses were positive, giving the illusion of consensus, while in private many people expressed disagreement and concern. In some sense, this mechanism functions as a power enhancer. Some power is necessary to be in position to implement it (in this case, Bridges’s position as president), but once implemented it enhances that power. Bridges can shut resistance down in a way he wouldn’t be able to through his formal authority alone.

Eventually, this mechanism spread to students as well, providing a tool for students to exert power over other students.

Mechanism #2: A notion of multiple truths and the sanctity of subjective experience that’s selectively applied.

When questioning the equity plan, Weinstein was also faced with another response. He was told by colleagues that “there are multiple versions of ‘truth’ that exist at once.” And that: “If our students are telling us … that they are experiencing a hostile environment, we must take our students at their word.”

This was put to the test when students confronted Weinstein, and two of his students came to his defence. They were shouted down. Why were their truths not accepted? In an interview, another student claims that she’s “afraid to have a nuanced opinion” and that she doesn’t feel she has “the ability to speak” if she has disagreements with the methods used in the protests. Why is her truth not accepted, and why is her experience of a hostile environment not taken at her word?

The answer, it seems, is that not all truths are accepted, and not all experiences of hostility or oppression are taken at their word, or even accepted at all. Only those that fit the dominant narrative are. In practice, the idea of multiple truths and taking students at their word is another mechanism used by Bridges and his allies. In effect, their initiatives and arguments become irrefutable; at any hint of resistance they can simply point to claims by one or more students, while rejecting any questioning of those claims. Yet, when students make claims against their arguments, they just avoid appealing to multiple truths and to taking students at their word.

Mechanism #3: A notion of an extremely powerful but intangible power structure.

Weinstein was regularly met with the claim that Evergreen is full of white supremacy and racism, and that the safety of students of colour is threatened. Yet, no evidence was ever presented. In fact, questioning this was itself regarded as an act of racism. This, too, functions as a mechanism of power for Bridges and his allies. By pointing to white supremacy as the dominant but intangible power structure, they justify their own tangible power structure as being defensive. People, especially those in left-leaning environments, are sensitive to accusations of oppression and authoritarianism. By appealing to a stronger power structure that they’re resisting, they deflect such accusations. They position themselves as liberators, not oppressors. Consequently, it allows them to bypass the normal processes that prevent power from accumulating in the hands of a small number of people. After all, if the real power is in the hands of this intangible structure, then they can’t really have it.

 

Uri Harris is a freelance writer with a MSc in Business and Economics. He can be followed on Twitter @safeortrue.

40 Comments

  1. Nathan says

    I always wondered how the Khmer Rouge and similar groups managed to get power.
    This author has written wonderful stuff lately.

    • I’ve lived 4+ years in Cambodia, landed a month ago, returning in 2 months, and I can assure you, what this article is about has nothing to do with the KR. If anything, Pol Pot studied social sciences in France, and the story tells he had very little success with women. A happily married man doesn’t go on a killing spree.

      Even if it’s hard for you to believe, Cambodians are extremely peaceful – like most buddhist countries – and avoid standing out. They are an epicurean people, not prone to violence, at all.

      Here’s Phnom Penh, before the KR:
      https://www.npr.org/2015/04/22/401020275/the-nearly-lost-story-of-cambodian-rock-n-roll

      When the randomness of evolution fathers a sick man, and gives him the tools to build a dictatorship with the help of a handful of thugs, the only thing that stands in the way is your average courage. And I don’t blame them in the least for not standing up. Phnom Penh was emptied in 2 weeks, at gun point. Cambodians had little choice, take up arms (that they didn’t have) and die now, or submit and die later. What would you have done?

      Evergreen is a testament to cowardice, which the article doesn’t even begin to address. The West is a repulsive embodiment of cowardice. If evergreen was important to B. Weinstein, why did he leave? The kids are still down there with the monsters! I’d love to hear his rationale on this, besides that now, we know this episode had a price, but still know nothing about its value.

      We deserve everything that’s coming to us.

      • Uri Harris says

        The safety of him and his wife were threatened, and Evergreen refused them leave. What else were they supposed to do? Besides, they’re doing more to fight this now than they could have when they were employed there.

        • “The safety of him and his wife were threatened, and Evergreen refused them leave. ”

          I’m glad your rationale never quite worked for the civil rights movement. If his safety was really threatened, simply for exercising free speech, then he had to stay. If not, he had to stay.

          Eventually, the teacher has given up on the kids.

          • Daniel T says

            I think your notion of civil rights [activism] is quite naive, and illogical. When one’s safety is at stake, how is it logical to remain in danger? Why did he have to stay, rather than ‘live to fight another day’? Did he really give up on ‘the kids’? Would you be writing here if he did?

          • Matthew says

            Wait–you don’t blame Cambodians for giving into threats of violence, but you fault Weinstein for it? They could do nothing to fight the power structure that came down against them, and neither could Weinstein–but he’s at fault and they aren’t? And he’s also a coward because he left? Have you actually seen the videos of him calmly talking down a mob, or seen how vociferously he denounced Evergreen while still working there? This story received national attention when he went on Tucker Carlson–a move that he knew would get him in trouble with his peers (and it did).

            You talk like someone who’s never actually faced the threat of ostracization and/or violence. Perhaps you have; if so, you should realize the difficulties involved and the hard choices that have to be made to balance personal safety with the pursuit of ideals.

            If you haven’t, you should check out the stuff Bret has done since leaving. He’s in a spotlight at the moment that he wouldn’t be able to use as effectively if he were still teaching. Perhaps leaving was the right choice.

        • Marcus says

          My idiot stepson (Wintfred Huskey) attended EVERGREEN STATE STUPID COLLEGE, he went on to get a Masters of Fine Arts! He stopped talking to his mother after graduating from Evergreen State Stupid College because he said he was embarrassed that she worked hard for a living. She was a kitchen manager. He never had trouble with us giving him money, especially mine! It did absolutely nothing for him, He later went on to become a para-legal. Evergreen State College is one of the biggest jokes in Washington, ON THE TAXPAYERS! They should tear it down!

        • Barron Lee says

          What this President Bridges did is a disgrace to all college administrations throughout the civilized world. He is in the wrong profession. The students and staff have no respect for him and I am sorry for that.

      • vieras says

        Atlas Shrugged. Sometimes the best thing is really to leave and let the system just crash.

        • Which proves you haven’t seen anything crashing, although I can’t really blame you for the dismissive approach. It’s tempting, I give you that.

          @Matthew: I’ll let your conscience deal with the Khmer Rouge part, and the faulty reasoning that ensued. Good bye.

          @Daniel T: Actually, it isn’t. “When one’s safety is at stake, how is it logical to remain in danger?” => QED. Please note that someone else surely will, and you might not like the solution. And give me a break on the threat part.

          • Uri Harris says

            “and give me a break on the threat part”

            Students posted pictures of themselves with baseball bats. Weinstein was told by police that he needed to stop riding his bike because people knew him and he was an easy target.

            Also, a faculty member posted a message on social media that could be interpreted as wanting Heying kidnapped. There was a group of students intent on doing everything she and other leaders asked.

            The college refused to condemn any of this, and made the police’s job harder.

          • Cerise says

            If you don’t think there was a specific group of students that did a handful of threatening things, then you were not paying attention. It isn’t even up for debate, the evidence of this is staggering. The act of holding a bat in a hostage situation is a threat of violence, and well an argument could be made that they would never follow through with these threats, how is anyone to know they wouldn’t.

            Evergreen could have been a bunch of melee welding hostage takers, until it wasn’t. It only takes one person to take things to far(as if hostage taking isn’t to far already).

      • Like most Liberal blowhards- you said a lot of nothing. You made no point.

  2. Yes, we can look at this overall phenomenon as a blueprint for what the very far left would do once in power. They’re patterning themselves after the Bolsheviks, they’re mini Bolsheviks. This is actually pretty scary stuff when you think about these “kids” graduating and joining the Democratic party and pushing out all the centrists. Stomach churning stuff that.

  3. I thought this piece was excellent!

    In particular, the insights around emotionally charged, poorly defined terms being a source of power. If this was done deliberately, that’s strangely admirable. I suspect cock up more than conspiracy, though.

    Fortunately, in the wider world these terms carry less emotional impact and are being sufficiently diluted (largely by social media) that I can’t foresee this becoming a wide-spread problem.

  4. Maurice says

    “You’re either with us or against us” seems to be a more and more common mentality. I don’t see how that can possibly work or function.

    People are going to have different opinions. That’s just life. But some people think, “You have to agree with everything me and my friends think, or your opinions are unacceptable.”

  5. Jeff Wray says

    Uri Harris claims that Weinstein was taken hosstage. If you read “The Washington Examiner” article this doesn’t seem to correspond to what happened. Weisnstein was certainly verbally threatened and intimidated and feared that he might be taken hostage, but he noted that he wasn’t actually taken hostage.

    I find the debate over whether Weinstein and Heying’s leaving was cowardice, as intinitiated by Alex, interesting. They were obviously working in a toxic work environment where any reasonable person would certainly look for a way out. Social justice activists are regularly criticized for seeing “violence” and “harm” everywhere. How are Weinstein and Heying different in their leaving the college out of a fear for their safety? Is their a difference between actual verbal threats and finding something threatening? To the person being threatened is their any difference? I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions and would be interested to see what others think.

    • At last, some sanity.

      Why have we collectively become such pu**y? That’s the only question worth asking IMO.

      Why everyone backs down, or looks for a way out, while a 17yo nutcase barks preposterous idiocies – even the Monthy Python wouldn’t dare saying – ?

      If B. Weinstein’s students told him “Go away, you’re not needed anymore”, that would have made a lot more sense to find an exit.

      “The best professor I’ve ever had. A genius in the field. Cares, challenges you, fair to all.”

      “Bret is an amazing teacher — a superb critical thinker and champion of truth. His classes changed my life.”

      Errrr no, must be something else.

      • Alex,

        I think your logic suffers from the “boiling frog” view…

        Bret could see the water beginning to boil, and got out of the pot before it did. By your logic, he should have stayed in the pot.

        Also…

        This is 2017, and Bret can teach from outside of the institution via YouTube, his own writing, and perhaps books he has written, and will write.

        He hasn’t failed as a teacher, in fact, I would say he has become a better one because the metaphorical “weight” of that poisonous institution has been lifted.

    • How are Weinstein and Heying different in their leaving the college out of a fear for their safety?

      Because there’s a dirrenrebxe between a baseball bat and a pronoun.

      Is their a difference between actual verbal threats and finding something threatening?

      Yes, there’s a difference between an explicit threat and irrational inferences taken from entirely unthreatening behaviour.

      Someone threatening to kill someone because of the colour of their skin is an entirely different thing to presenting a Medieval English literature class that ignores the oral tradition of prehistoric Africans.

      • Rob Darling says

        Why, on this blue ball we call Earth, would an Medieval English Literature class have anything at all to do with prehistoric African oral tradition?

    • man with the axe says

      the difference between the violence social justice warriors see everywhere and what Weinstein was dealing with is the difference between fantasy and reality. Someone having an opinion that people like me are lesser people is not going to lead to me being physically assaulted. A group of vigilantes combing the campus with bats and searching every car entering the campus for me is a different story. The police had heard enough threatening information to warn Weinstein to stay off campus, saying they could not protect him. I don’t see how there is even any debate about this. You can stay in a dangerous situation if you want, but it is absurd to insist that someone else has to put his health and his life in jeopardy with an obviously irrational and bloodthirsty mob is calling for his head.

  6. contraproferentem says

    “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

    – Karl Popper

    At what point do we start fighting back – why have we not started already?

    • Jeff Wray says

      What Popper said could easily apply today to the intolerance preached by both the so-called SJWs of the far-left and racists of the alt-right.

      • Rob Darling says

        Guess what… intolerance is always from beyond the fringes of rational thought and action.

  7. @Uri Harris, @Cerise, for some reasons, your reply button is disabled.

    It’s always difficult to make the difference between a real threat, and a territorial threat. I can give you that. What you said however, strictly amounts to training your opponents in getting their way.

    I don’t mean to put B.W. in that category. I mean to say that Evergreen is a toy-model of our time, and we should give it a cold, hard look. The old world where a beloved, dedicated teacher could give his class seems to be fading away. If anything, his settlement wasn’t commensurate to the stakes at hand.

    Until another B. Weinstein is on trial for corrupting the Evergreen Youth, or for refusing to acknowledge the Gods ‘du jour’, little will change.

    Happy Xmas.

  8. geegee says

    This is exactly the way communism I have experienced worked: on both macro (national) and micro (community, universities, high-schools, organizations, local bureaucracies, state-owned companies) levels. Strategy was the same, power grabs based on same premises, just tweaked to suit the overall discourse, big/small themes, personalities.

    And while the USA was built on a wholly different tradition, I am not sure any society is 100% immune to this kind of manipulation. All I can say is: good luck.

  9. george says

    You all are some sick MO Fos!
    Like Buddha and Rodney King said, “can’t we all just get along”

    • Rob Darling says

      The answer is… slightly higher evolved primate behavior. No other reason.

  10. Joe MoMA says

    This doesn’t negate all of Harris’ points, but the exclusion of the wider context of students of color’s safety at Evergreen weakens the arguments, particularly #3, and Weinstein’s version of events since he and his wife also never mention the broader context. It’s particularly troublesome in regards to this passage from Harris in #3: “Weinstein was regularly met with the claim that Evergreen is full of white supremacy and racism, and that the safety of students of colour is threatened. Yet, no evidence was ever presented. In fact, questioning this was itself regarded as an act of racism.” That is, more or less, straight from Weinsten and his wife.

    But if you read this article: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/evergreen-state-college-another-side_us_598cd293e4b090964295e8fc

    …you will find information like this:

    “In May 2015 two young African American brothers were shot by police in Olympia, not far from campus, after they allegedly shoplifted beer from a grocery store and assaulted a police officer with a skateboard. One man is paralyzed for life and both were sentenced to prison, while the officer was exonerated. This incident brought the message of the Black Lives Matter movement home to Evergreen in a particularly urgent way. Some students had participated in the Black Lives Matter movement before arriving at Evergreen, while others joined a community group that provided support to the wounded men. The event and its troubling aftermath focused community attention on problematic behavior by campus police, student conduct officers, and faculty.

    “In spring 2016 African American students and their allies brought their concerns about racism to the administration. The administration responded by forming the Equity Council and pledging to focus institutional resources on dismantling institutional barriers. In fall 2016 African-American students challenged a Convocation speaker to once again call attention to their concerns about institutional racism. In winter 2017 students objected to disciplinary action against black trans students, protested for equal pay for student employees who work in the diversity office and denounced the behavior of campus police who responded to a complaint against two Black students by rousting them from their beds and confining them in the police station for hours. A proposal to address Latinx student recruitment and retention resulted in promises but little action. Many students of color felt disrespected and not listened to. Bret Weinstein came to symbolize a dismissive attitude that was being enacted in multiple areas of the college. By the time students disrupted Weinstein’s class, in May 2017, they had been waiting for over a year — more than a quarter of their time at the college — to see their concerns addressed.”

    This doesn’t excuse the more extreme viewpoints of Evergreen’s students or faculty, but it does explain the highly emotional environment. I don’t know how you could call the above incidents an “intangible” system of white supremacy, either. That kind of description just makes it clear that the voices and experiences of students of color are not being listened to. I don’t mean to imply a nefarious bias on Harris’ part. (Though citing FIRE is really asking to be critiqued for playing the reverse discrimination card.) Instead, I would suggest that we all bear in mind the complexity of local issues at any college campus and resist building any argument on one or two individuals’ points of view. I find much fault on both sides here, from the college’s leadership to its students and faculty, including Weinstein, who does indeed seem tone-deaf even if he’s correct about the need for reasonable dissent. I agree with the Evergreen profs who wrote the HuffPo article that Weinstein’s version is the media-compatible version, particularly in our current Trump-inspired fervor to dismantle any university’s capacity to challenge dominant thought and turn it into vocational training.

    • Mathew says

      ““In May 2015 two young African American brothers were shot by police in Olympia, not far from campus,”

      That’s not on campus, and thus has zero to do with racism ON campus.

  11. That entire incident was inexcusable. Police should have been called and taken control of that situation. The students had no right to take over the campus, threaten the administrators, and bully them to submission. Very, very, very, weak and incompetent leadership.

  12. scott says

    I’m of the age of letters to the editor. If print was still king the pages would be massive to allow for all the letters. After about the 6th comment the rest just becomes noise.like mine does

  13. Grabbler says

    Concealed carry on campus would be a quick cure for this madness. People would be able to defend themselves against the hordes and if the scum decide to murder someone then it will actually get attention instead of being swept under the rug by the lying press.

  14. Excellent article and noteworthy replies.
    This is excellent stuff that shows how narrow-minded people are with their conditioning, that they can’t fathom a different perspective to consider another’ view albeit in race and religion and this is the reason there will always be wars. These were not threats, they were a firm expression of ideals which leads to fear and bewilderment due to your lack of comprehension beyond the walls built in your minds through your ignorant beliefs, after all you only know what you know and after that there is a void. What we dont understand we fear. The exhibition was a social success proving your lack of perception and perspectives and the irrational behaviours the test results provided.

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