Education, Top Stories

The Evergreen Meltdown

A case report will often describe a condition that is an extreme or unusual version of what one might typically observe. In medicine, it can be used to illustrate and explore disease mechanisms and the underlying pathology of more common manifestations of an illness. What has transpired and continues to transpire at The Evergreen State College where I teach provides some important lessons. My college is now famous for its intense student protests, the bizarre ousting of biology professor Bret Weinstein, and the absence of public support for Weinstein from faculty and a college president who thinks he might be a white supremacist. But these are only clinical symptoms of a much deeper disorder that had been growing at Evergreen for some time, and is only at its early stages in many universities across the country. Evergreen’s prognosis is guarded at best, but it might explain what ails higher education in general.

Earlier this month, in his annual State of the College address, President George Bridges announced that next year’s projected enrollment for Evergreen will be 3100 students. This represents a 19 percent drop from this year, and continues a steady downward trend that began in 2009. Next year, Evergreen (a public college) will likely be serving 26 percent fewer students than is currently funded by the state legislature, despite having a nearly 100 percent acceptance rate. In his address, Bridges speculated that an improved economy may have resulted in fewer people looking to earn college degrees. But that doesn’t explain the fact that all other four-year institutions in Washington State have seen increases in enrollment during the same time period that Evergreen saw its student population shrink by 33 percent. In an effort to rally dispirited faculty and staff, Bridges also suggested that the college’s enrollment decline and looming financial crisis could be due to a vicious social media attack by politically motivated outsiders.

I have a different hypothesis for Evergreen’s predicament. The college has become a hostile and intolerant environment for diverse viewpoints, and it is this that is causing students to leave Evergreen, or discouraging them from applying in the first place. When undergraduates become fearful of expressing unpopular opinions out of concern that their classmates, and sometimes even their faculty, will shun and verbally harass them, they are likely to seek a different college. Students might feel they are not getting a good return on their investment if they are forced to attend workshops promoting a particular socio-political agenda unrelated to their academic and career goals. When students are told in a seminar that they can or cannot speak based on whether they belong to a particular category of people (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation), is it surprising they might feel discouraged and drop out? They will tell their parents, family, friends, and neighbors. A college’s reputation for honest intellectual inquiry can be tarnished remarkably quickly if it promotes a culture of self-censorship fueled by a constant fear of “offending” certain people.

Over a year ago, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt warned against what might happen if a university’s main objective becomes social justice rather than the pursuit of truth and knowledge. Little did he know that it had already happened. In 2011, my college changed its official mission statement to read: “Evergreen supports and benefits from a local and global commitment to social justice.” The fundamental problem is this: how and in what form a “just society” should manifest itself is not a self-evident truth closed to debate and discussion. Words like “diversity,” “equity,” and “sustainable” have been stripped of meaning and are used to obscure real issues that demand exploration. If social justice is institutionalized in a manner that discourages foundational questions about vaguely defined terms, then a college cannot be inclusive or educational. In addition, Evergreen’s absence of multiple perspectives among faculty has created a campus culture that reinforces its own beliefs at the expense of all others.

President Bridges, college trustees, administration, and faculty believe that the answer to Evergreen’s current enrollment crisis is to double down on its specific brand of social and political activism as a primary selling point for prospective students. Perhaps this will prove to be a smart marketing strategy and Evergreen can fill a niche for undergraduates who are passionate and committed to fighting for the oppressed against those with privilege and power, without the stress of having their ideas challenged in the classroom.

But my deepest fear is that this approach to education will actually harm the very people it is intended to help. Shortly after becoming Evergreen’s president, Bridges accused the University of Chicago of being out of touch with the “academic and developmental needs of many students,” in an op-ed piece for the Seattle Times disagreeing with Dean of Students John Ellison. In an acceptance letter to Chicago’s class of 2020, Ellison wrote: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” In response, Bridges argued that the University of Chicago’s elite don’t need the kind of sheltering that Evergreen’s more vulnerable student population requires: “At The Evergreen State College, where I serve as president, 90 percent of our students belong to at least one group traditionally underserved by higher education: first-generation college students, low income, people of color, veterans, people with disabilities or students of nontraditional age.”

This notion that Evergreen students are somehow less capable simply because they belong to a particular segment of society is insulting as well as prejudicial. Shielding historically underserved groups of students from diverse viewpoints under the pretense of protecting them from emotional harm, will only increase inequities that exist across society by denying them the opportunity to develop the critical thinking skills necessary for social reform. Even worse is the bigoted assumption that a student’s race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or socioeconomic status automatically defines their values and opinions. Stereotyping Evergreen undergraduates based on group identity, while considering them unable to contemplate certain uncomfortable ideas may be bad for business. More importantly, it is also antithetical to what the educational mission of a college ought to be.

We mustn’t let student protests and debates about free speech on college campuses distract us from diagnosing the root causes of the sickness. In Evergreen’s case, it began with a severe lack of viewpoint diversity among faculty that became toxic when conjoined with a commitment to social advocacy and activism. Colleges that address these issues early will survive and even thrive while others like Evergreen will wither. And those marginalized students seeking justice for themselves and others will realize that they deserve a school where ideas can be exchanged freely.


Mike Paros is a Professor of Biology at The Evergreen State College. He also owns a large animal veterinary practice in Southwest Washington.


  1. ga gamba says

    Dr Paros, thank you for taking a public stand. I know it’s tough to do, but if not for people like yourself who are on campuses declaring “Enough!” and explaining the threat we’re in even deeper trouble.

  2. When you protect someone, you make them less capable, not stronger. When you make someone dependent, they’ll always be dependent.

    • And of course that’s the point. Any learning institution devoted to conformity of thought, narrative, rather than truth deservers a withering death as it produces no fruit.

  3. Molly McC says

    “The fundamental problem is this: how and in what form a “just society” should manifest itself is not a self-evident truth closed to debate and discussion.”


  4. Melinda Dauley says

    My controversial and unpopular opinion is that we actually need to DO SOMETHING instead of standing around wringing our damn hands. If we are so insistently demanding of things changing, we should be the change. What a novel idea!
    I’ve had ideas about STEM and Ag programs for the college crowd and potential incoming high school students. None of the faculty wants to listen. None of administration wants to listen. We are held in the suspension of this learned helplessness. Its not just me, others have told me that they feel the same. I’m not happy with that.
    Dr. Paros, you are awesome. You have done so much good in the world. Don’t ever forget that.

  5. Atown says

    Please be much more specific in describing fundamental practices that must be restored or embraced to make TESC the college for students who want to learn by enhanced autodidacty. Please include strategies to deal with the transition from current student body a high percentage of which is not prepared and doesn’t want such a curriculum. How will you remediate while pursuing enhanced autodidacty? Will applications from prepared autodidacts increase to the point that mass remediation will not be necessary?
    Peace, A.

    PS I want to recommend Dr. Heying to replace Dr. Bridges.

  6. Frank Tisdale says

    “”Evergreen can fill a niche for undergraduates who are passionate and committed to fighting for the oppressed against those with privilege and power, without the stress of having their ideas challenged in the classroom.””

    It is hard to imagine how students trained in an environment where they are never exposed to any point-of-view which differs from their own are ever supposed to be effective public-advocates for anything, much less ‘social-justice’.

    “Fighting for the oppressed” should reasonably require being able to communicate effectively with both the communities you’re advocating on behalf of, as well as the groups that you see as oppressing them.

    If you are steeped in nothing but self-referential arguments which are incomprehensible and unconvincing to the vast majority of people – many of whom are the very same ‘oppressed’ they claim to be advocating for – then you can never hope to effect any change in the outside world.

    In practice, all “social justice warriors” truly do is build in-group solidarity.

    They may claim their activities are intended to rectify the world’s wrongs – but if you ignore the rhetoric and just look at the behaviors and their results, they far more resemble religious proselytizers than ‘social reformers’. They’re far more concerned with finding heretics and apostates that they are actually improving the lives of truly disadvantaged people.

    If there’s any obvious critique of social-justice movements, its that their claimed raison d’etre is self-evidently false: that all the protests and public-outrage in the world doesn’t ‘change minds’ at all. It mostly serves to reinforce protesters own sense of moral-superiority. Real social change happens when you convince your opponents that you both have similar interests and you need to work together. They are utterly disinterested in this sort of political coalition-building, and far more interested in burning critics at the stake.

    • PaulR says

      “all the protests and public-outrage in the world doesn’t ‘change minds’ at all. It mostly serves to reinforce protesters own sense of moral-superiority. Real social change happens when you convince your opponents that you both have similar interests and you need to work together.”

      Exactly – what these students call “politics” is actually just self-expression. Politics is about persuasion in order to bind people together. Self-righteous outrage is actually anti-politics.

    • reign88 says

      It’s not that hard to imagine if you just imagine them going into HR departments and reproducing the same totalitarian environments in the companies they work for.

      Tyrannical societies work out great for the companies that are allowed to operate. Their consumer base is guaranteed.

      • Michiel van Haren says

        So yeah that’s what we’re seeing happening now in Google etc. The question is, how long is that going to be able to go on? At some point, at least some good, qualified people who happen to have the “wrong” socio-political viewpoints are (hopefully) going to either leave or avoid these companies, just like students are leaving or avoiding a college like Evergreen.

  7. Professor Paros sums up the crisis in higher education: “Stereotyping [students] based on group identity, while considering them unable to contemplate certain uncomfortable ideas … is also antithetical to what the educational mission of a college ought to be.” This paternalistic approach to teaching is revealed in Evergreen’s anti-science curriculum, for example on the question of the first colonization by humans of the Americas:
    With course readings featuring the creationist Red Earth White Lies (Deloria, 1995) and other non-academic fringe sources, the syllabus specifies the criteria for evaluation of student learning: “Since this issue has no wrong answers because of the fluctuation in scientific reasoning, creative writing should be embraced as having the potential to be as accurate as the current scientific opinion.”

  8. Maureen says

    There is another reason for the plummeting enrollment beyond students not wanting to be silenced. And that is, quite simply, that Evergreen has now made itself infamous. If one wants to be an evangelical pastor, then going to a Bible college like Liberty University makes sense. But if one wants to be taken seriously in any other professional field, a degree from Liberty University is relatively worthless. It is the same with Evergreen at this point. If one wants to be a professional in the grievance industry, then a degree from Evergreen might be of some value, I suppose. To most other employers, seeing the name of this college on a resume would be a huge, “DON’T HIRE ME” sign – worse than not having a degree at all. There are likely a number of prospective students (or at least their parents) that know this – a degree from this school at this point simply broadcasts that the graduate is a brainwashed ideologue with a huge chip on his/her shoulder and a likely discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen. Not many kids are going to pay a lot of money for four years of being shouted down, sworn at, and menaced by baseball bats only to graduate and find themselves unemployable.

      • Maureen says

        Precisely. As I said, a profession in the grievance industry – the only viable option.

    • Kendra Aguilar says

      Hi Marueen,
      By any chance do you have research to back this? My students and I are discussing it in class but nobody has been able to show any evidence that going to Evergreen is keeping graduates from being hired in their preferred fields. In fact, the MPA program has been listed in Newsweek’s top 10 programs in the Nation before. In my experience working in Tribal Colleges, people use this same threat to deter students from enrolling. I just haven’t seen anything to show that it’s true.

      • Maureen says

        Hi, Kendra,

        No, no hard evidence. The blowout from last spring is still fairly new, so in-depth research on employment prospects for Evergreen students would be hard to find less than a year after the school made such horrible headlines from its Feeding Frenzy. It might be an interesting project to anonymously poll those who make hiring decisions and see if they recognize the name of the college and how it might affect their decisions. Anecdotally, I can state that in various discussion forums concerning what happened at the college, I saw multiple comments stating something to the effect of, “I own a business, or I make hiring decisions in my organization, and there is no way I would ever consider hiring a graduate from this college.” That of course isn’t hard data, but one could certainly understand the sentiment behind it. The students gave themselves a huge black eye last May.

        I’d like to add that there are lots of things that are true but cannot always be quantified in hard data. While documented evidence is certainly useful, it can sometimes be a professional hazard of those in the ivory tower (so named for a reason) to assume that if there is research that states, “X,” then X must be true, and if there is an absence of research to back “Y,” then Y must be untrue. The world is often a lot more grey than that, and it’s fairly easy to lie with stats and studies. So while I acknowledge that I cannot cite a formal study to support my claim, that isn’t on its face a refutation of it. There is no study to show that last summer’s fiasco has not had an impact on their employment prospects, either, for example. I’m glad to hear that there are discussions concerning this among the students, though I fear the damage may be too severe to repair.

    • sestamibi says

      Problem is there aren’t a whole lot of six-figure paying jobs as coodinators of diversity, sustainability, etc. for people with MA’s in things like “critical queer studies”.

  9. K J Aldous says

    Well there is at least one faculty member at Evergreen who can present a measured, lucid and persuasive argument in elegant English. All is not lost.

  10. ccscientist says

    When I went to college many years ago, I got a practical degree that has given me a good income all my life. THIS is what “underserved” or “minority” students need, not to all become agitators and “studies” majors. The drift of college into social justice reflects a need among the faculty to feel important when the truly important thing is that students be able to make money.

  11. ccscientist says

    ”Evergreen can fill a niche for undergraduates who are passionate and committed to fighting for the oppressed against those with privilege and power” this conflates being disadvantaged with being oppressed. In a setting where all around you are unemployed and have been to jail, there are no cultural norms of success and no one to give you a job. This is the reality of South Side Chicago, for instance. Even if every white person in the world was perfect and there was no oppression at all, young blacks in this setting will be at a disadvantage. High rates of unwed motherhood put their kids at a disadvantage–did white oppressors cause this unwed motherhood?
    If you really wanted to help minorities, you would end rent control and excessive building regs so housing could be built, encourage private schools, reduce occupational licensing rules, encourage Walmart to open a store, build trade schools. But none of these things will happen because protesting is so much more satsifying than actually helping.

  12. Aristotle Anonymous says

    How is it possible that President Bridges is still employed there. He’s burning the place down to the ground in broad daylight. Their whole organizational structure is corrupt.

    • Superb question.

      Under his leadership, the very existence of Evergreen now hangs in the balance. Surely the State of Washington can not tolerate such monumental ineptitude for long.

      Can it?

  13. This is an excellent essay by Professor Paros. Evergreen College caters to veterans, so I hope the veterans attending the college would emphasize to the college president that they vowed to uphold the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, a policy which entails allowing/encouraging freedom of speech. The fascist actions at the college indicate an aversion to the principles of that grand document.

    • That is a very naïve view of both the Constitution and veterans.

  14. It must be irksome to George Bridges and the TESC politburo that the library is named after Daniel J. Evans. Bridges has, in effect, flushed away all the goodwill that Evans so tiringly worked to secure. A penny for Dan’s thoughts . . . after all, it was at Evans’ behest that TESC even exists.

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  16. Kendra Aguilar says

    As a Native woman (and Veteran and person with disabilities) and Evergreen Alumni (both BA and Master’s degree), I can say that creating “safe spaces” in learning institutions can feel essential for our peoples. To say that we are closing ourselves off from differing perspectives isn’t accurate, because we have been dealing with those perspectives our entire lives and continue to do so outside of the classroom, often in life-threatening ways. Of course civil discourse within the classroom is imperative, but as systemically oppressed and abused peoples I hope you would consider that there are few spaces that exist where we can let our guards down and learn from each other. Imagine the healing that occurs when we are able to learn without our gifts and voices being dismissed or bulldozed over. Imagine what it must be like for us to be able to invite people to enter our spaces and follow our protocols around discourse, so we can do whatever ceremonies we need to do in order to prepare for what we will hear/face. Understand the importance of being able to have some control over how we dissect those differing (and often harmful) perspectives. Having “safe spaces” to learn, like Evergreen’s Native Pathways Program, actually CREATES equity for us. It is not denying us the ability to learn critical thinking skills, as you say, because we already possess those skills and only seek to improve them. We are not “retreating” from ideas other than our own, we are gathering the knowledge, skills and strength, as a community, to SURVIVE them.

    It is not the “protected” groups that suffer by creating “safe spaces”. It is everyone else who would benefit from entering those spaces. And we hope to be able to welcome them in if they are able and willing to be uncomfortable, to honor our differences, to acknowledge the gifts we have to share, and to sit on an equal plain with us.

    As ABD in my Doctorate in Indigenous Development and Advancement (with my dissertation being on educational trauma), I am happy to share resources and studies that show what is essential for our success as students and as a people(s). WE know best what we need. Feel free to ask us. We have our own voices and are happy/eager to share them.

    • Maureen says

      This comment illustrates a large amount of what is wrong with academia nowadays. From the very first words, it breaks down everything into parroting of decades-old identitarian psychobabble. The hyperbole of the claim that people are constantly having their “lives threatened” because of their identity is also generally absurd. This claim keeps being repeated, yet I somehow don’t see legions of college kids getting murdered based upon their identities. The videos people saw of what was happening at Evergreen were not of “healing” and “mutual learning.” Nor were they of well-informed young scholars intelligently defending their positions through critical debate and mature discussion. They were videos of entirely invented mass hysteria and of brutes intimidating people with threat of force. The Lord of the Flies, basically. Pure theater and psychodrama manufactured by kids high on power, fed by faculty members long divorced from reality and spineless administrators pathetically trying to save their positions.

      These risible descriptions of “space” and “ceremony” concerning the exchange of ideas (which yes, will sometimes include offense) further illustrate the sheltered, cult-like mentality in certain areas of the modern campus. It is ludicrous to suggest that anyone’s voice is automatically bulldozed just because of their skin color or gender or what-have-you. If your ideas have merit and backing, you can broadcast them just as much as anyone else, and they will stand on their own in the marketplace of ideas. If they don’t have merit, then all the safe spaces in the world will not make them worthwhile. Minorities do not need to be patronized like this. Intelligently win the debate, rather than demand that everyone dance to your tune because of your supposed fragility. An equal footing means EVERYONE is uncomfortable, and everyone is scrutinized based on the value of what they have to say. If you are already so adept at dealing with opposing viewpoints, then this should be a breeze. Yet we keep seeing these students resort to physical menace or degenerating into profanity and screaming, unable to stand even the slightest polite disagreement or even new information. If that is your idea of students being well educated, I hate to imagine what you would consider ill-prepared.

      Such incredible nonsense. PLEASE stop hawking victimhood to impressionable young people. Modern day college students in the West are not “just trying to survive,” for crying out loud. They are among the luckiest, safest, most comfortable, and yes, most privileged humans ever to walk the face of the earth. ALL of them. “Educational TRAUMA,” for God’s sake! Can you even hear yourself? Rubbish claims like this make the world outside the academy mock it mercilessly and strongly suggest that what is happening on campuses is indoctrination, not education. It reflects the collapse of the liberal arts, to my great sadness.

    • Zoltan Coughlan says

      As a human being who doesn’t feel the need to reference accidents of birth as if they added some extra weight to my arguments, I disagree.

      First of all, who this “us” is you purport to represent? Could you say a little about the process by which you gained the authority to speak their behalf? I know many individuals that you would certainly stereotype and see as members of some “oppressed” group, who find the ideology you advocate both intellectually and morally bankrupt. What do you make of them? Do you speak for them too?

      I would also be very keen to see evidence for your implication that TESC is rife with vicious bigots threatening your “survival”. Thus far the only evidence we have of intolerance and actual violence has been from those who support your views. If people are “dismissing” your thoughts (whatever that means) because of your race, gender etc., let alone threatening your “survival”, I want to know so we can put a stop it. Unfortunately, all you have provided is vague allusions to your subjective feelings. Having an opinion that differs from yours is not only perfectly okay, but desirable at a college.

      Make no mistake, advocates of safe spaces and ethnocentrism want the power to decide which opinions are capable being expressed. At TESC, it’s no longer possible to entertain unpopular opinions or express skepticism about vague concepts like “social justice”, “white privilege” and “systemic racism”. Doing so will draw immediate calls for punishment and demands of special privileges to atone. Luckily a growing number of people of all races, genders, incomes and political persuasions agree with Prof. Professor. Being an adult means acknowledging words are very different from actions, and people should be treated first and foremost as unique individuals with their own thoughts.

    • Hello there! I am married to a “native” person with “native(ish)” children and I live in Oklahoma (the native state) with large numbers of other Native Americans. My question is, how is your life threatened? Because our lives are never ever threatened over identity. Seriously, your post appears to be a cut and paste job taken straight from This is very very disappointing reading this perspective from a Native America where honor and dignity are everything. We’re warriors and have NEVER EVER been scared, intimidated or frightened of anything! We ride straight into the battle and choose death over submission. Not sure what tribe your from but I don’t recognize your post as any warrior tribe I’ve ever heard of or want to know.
      Where’s the stoic warrior who sits quietly witholding superfluous words? Don’t buy into the University Identity politics bull crap. Native people do not need safe spaces, nor do we need incubators to speak of our ideas. Ugh! This is cultish behavior down to the letter.

  17. The market place is a wonderful thing.

    If poor ideas can not be defeated through debate– and in Evergreen College there seems to be little opportunity for that — then let students and faculty vote with their feet.

  18. Ms. Aguilar-

    I appreciate you commenting in a antagonistic setting. Let me give you a window into how this whole situation was perceived, from my right-libertarian low income POV.
    What your students showed last year was abusive, terroristic behavior. As a socially liberal libertarian, I was deeply dismayed to see trans/POC/queer/etc people acting this way. They played into every stereotype the Alt-Right talks about (and I do my best to steer people away from). Those videos only make it harder for people like me to advocte to my more conservative fellows. Not to mention that the far-Left oppression-oppressor model only deepens the partisan divide between Left & Right leaning folks.
    As a member of the working poor, it’s also deeply troubling to imagine that one of your reparations-to-fix-oppression Leftist grads in my HR dept, when I have to feed my family on my income. If I don’t fit the Leftist oppression-checklist, then will I get hired/promoted/raises? Do you want that kind of fear in the workplace?
    Finally, as a fellow vet’, hopefully you remember working alongside people of every race, sex & creed. I do. I was an Infantry grunt, so I was told where to go & shoot. Maybe you did something else. Regardless, every serviceman had a mission set for us, and any differences between us were less important then the mission. I took that principle to heart. Please don’t continue the rhetoric & acts that only deepened divisions based on our born conditions, or let the past hold us back from greater success. This is America! We can do better than this.


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  21. Jeff says

    It’s funny-sad that no one at Evergreen could see the reputation risks coming.

    It’s a trivial fact of life and business that it takes years to build a reputation but seconds to destroy it. This is what every cheater learns in marriage or long term relationship. This is what every business learns with it’s product brands and why one must be fastidious in protecting them.

    Respect is always ONLY earned and never granted freely. No one is “owed” respect or reputation. And it takes more time to create respect than to destroy it. By factors of 1,000s to 100,000s ratios of time.

    It seems the people in charge of Evergreen are completely tone-deaf to this universal and ageless fact of human behavior. Of course I’m sure they imagine and wish it were merely a social construct but it’s not; it’s repeatably biological because the creation and loss of reputation and respect in EXACTLY this way are essential to group dynamics and evolutionary success of any primate group including humans.

    I fully expect Evergreen to lose far more students. Eventually the legislature will react and sweep things clean. What a waste of time, money and people’s lives! A generation of useful idiots under the sway of social justice warriors may now be unfit for any serious role in society.

    But, of course, because Marxists.

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