It’s been almost a year since violent student protests erupted at Evergreen State College—enough time for the “non-traditional” Olympia, WA university to draw useful lessons from a fracas that made it a byword for campus identity politics run amok. Unfortunately, a report from an Independent External Review Panel, tasked by college President George Bridges with finding ways to attain closure on the events of last Spring, provides scant hope this will happen.
On April 12, 2017, Evergreen observed a “Day of Absence,” during which white members of the school community were “invited” to leave the campus as part of an exercise designed to “explore issues of race, equality, allyship, inclusion, and privilege.” In the run-up to the event, an Evergreen professor of biology, Bret Weinstein, wrote an email in which he expressed opposition to the idea that self-segregation was a useful exercise. Weinstein became a target of student protestors, and at one point was forced to avoid campus while they searched for him in parked cars. He and his wife, Heather Heying, also a professor of biology at Evergreen at the time, sued the college for failing to protect them. As part of the half-million-dollar settlement, both resigned from their teaching positions.
This month’s report summarizes the unraveling of campus life in the aftermath of Weinstein’s email. But in regard to analyzing why all of these events transpired, the report’s authors double-downed on the same narrative originally peddled by the university. Overarching blame is placed on nebulous factors such as “racial tensions,” “social inequities,” and “the speed and potency of social media.” The authors also victim blame, complaining that Weinstein “took advantage of this situation to make a national news story out of it through high-profile interviews with national media, including the FOX News Network.”
The authors exhort the college to “require all faculty and staff to participate in on-going educational programs on cross-cultural awareness, implicit bias, institutional racism, harassment, and discriminatory behavior.” They also urge “a comprehensive reform and restructuring of the curriculum that makes the academic experience more ‘student-ready’” (whatever that means).
It seems that the trio who authored the report—a retired judge, a former college trustee, and an expert in higher education—are overthinking things. Most onlookers to last year’s events at Evergreen were simply horrified to see that an academic institution would permit the shaming and mobbing of a tenured faculty member—instead of defending his right to voice a politically incorrect (yet by all means reasonable) opinion.
As we saw in the exchange last spring between President Bridges and a mob of students holding him physically captive in the library, the inmates essentially took over the asylum. (At one point during the chaotic meeting, students actually forbade him from using the bathroom.)
Now, the college is set to capitulate further to the fits of the mob, with “lists of student demands prepared by various groups” having been integrated into the report’s findings.
One wonders if Evergreen would have descended into mayhem if Bridges had acted like a true leader, and implemented a measure of discipline on campus, rather than playing the role of passive hostage. In the past, the Bridges has stated that he might be a white supremacist, simply by dint of his skin color. How can someone so consumed with inappropriate guilt exercise a leadership role?
Also missing from the report is any expressed concern that Evergreen had lost two of its top professors. And while there is much fretting in the report about the emotional “environment” on campus, the authors seem unconcerned about the actual quality of students’ education—including, specifically, whether students learn critical thinking or other useful skills that might be applied toward productive employment.
Perhaps the most appalling part of the report is the claim that students and educators had collectively experienced a “trauma”—a term more typically reserved for survivors of wars and natural disasters. Indeed, at some points, the campus is depicted in maudlin terms, as if it were a fire-charred city targeted for carpet-bombing: “While time has healed some wounds, the scars remain and the underlying issues are perceived by many as largely unaddressed. As a result, the campus has [endured] a legacy of uncertainty and vulnerability.”
The only Evergreen protagonist to whom these words might accurately apply is Weinstein himself. During the events of Spring, 2017, he was savaged and demagogued by faculty and administrators with whom he’d worked for 15 years. Campus police told him they couldn’t guarantee his safety, leaving him with no choice at one point except to teach his class in a public park, days after being harassed and detained by students secretly armed with mace. Weinstein has also faced accusations of encouraging alt-right campus harassment, which is a particularly disturbing and distasteful accusation in light of his Jewish ancestry.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Weinstein for an episode of Wrongspeak, a soon-to-be-released Toronto-based podcast I co-host with Quillette editor Jonathan Kay. Weinstein presented himself as exactly the rational, well-spoken figure who appeared on YouTube videos, a year ago, trying to reason with the protestors who had disrupted his class. And he emphasized that in his political views, he remains a liberal. Not a surprise, given that the infamous email Weinstein wrote in Spring, 2017 was based on a bedrock liberal idea: “On a college campus, one’s right to speak—or to be—must never be based on skin color.”
Only one other professor at Evergreen (from amid a total faculty of 223), a fellow professor of biology named Mike Paros, had the nerve to speak publicly in Weinstein’s defense. Many other would-be defenders likely believed that they could avoid similar persecution by staying silent. But the frightening truth is that what happened to Weinstein could happen to just about anyone. In an environment where mob behavior is tolerated, anyone can become a target, and it is usually the victim who ends up going into academic exile, not members of the mob.
The authors of the Evergreen report—its full name is Report of The Independent External Review Panel on The Evergreen State College Response to the Spring 2017 Campus Events—note that over the last year, the college has “seen staff turnover and suffered substantial declines in applications, enrollment, and retention.” But the effects have not been confined to Evergreen. Indeed, one of the reasons why Weinstein’s story struck a nerve nationally, and even internationally, is that many of us who have recently passed through higher education can relate, albeit at a smaller scale, to what he endured.
I chose to leave the field of sexology because I found that the number of acceptable research questions one could pursue was growing increasingly smaller by the semester. Colleagues in my field—including tenured professors whom I know to be open-minded, empirical, and liberal—live in fear that they will be targeted by an Evergreen-style mob if they make some misstep in a lecture or social media post; or if they include some true but unfashionable scientific result in a published article.
Within the text of the Evergreen report, one finds muddled acknowledgment of the need to preserve “freedom of expression” and viewpoint diversity on campus. But there is no systematic effort to explain how this battle can be won in the face of increasingly intolerant student and faculty activists, who regard heterodox opinions as a form of violence. One of the prescribed changes is an “ethnically, intellectually, and ideologically diverse faculty, administration, and staff.” But if the mob could successfully target Weinstein, a liberal whose only sin was to protest a day celebrating the racial segregation of Evergreen’s campus, how could the school possibly attract a legitimately “ideologically diverse” academic staff?
Evergreen is emblematic of a larger intellectual disease plaguing college campuses everywhere. And Weinstein’s treatment is symptomatic of a social-justice ideology that, however well-intentioned in its original form, has mutated into an extremist creed that radicalizes students and university administration. This report presented an opportunity to authoritatively diagnose the problem, and perhaps even prescribe first steps for fighting it. Instead, it repeats old clichés, and offers no fresh ideas. The only question now is who will the Evergreen mob target next.
Debra W. Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science of sex, politics, and culture. Follow her at @DrDebraSoh.