The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Threat shuts down college embroiled in racial dispute

Evergreen State College. (Shauna Bittle)

Evergreen State College, which has been in the national spotlight after protests over race boiled over last week, closed Thursday after receiving a direct threat.

The school of about 4,500 students in Washington state posted this warning: “College closing immediately. In response to a direct threat to campus safety, the college is closing immediately for the day. All are asked to leave campus or return to residence halls for instructions.”

A spokeswoman for the school wrote in a text message Thursday afternoon that a threat had been called in to local law enforcement and that the president decided to close the school temporarily out of an abundance of caution.

Bret Weinstein, a professor at Evergreen State University, had returned to work Thursday, a little more than a week after he was confronted by an angry group of students who converged on his classroom calling him a racist and demanding his resignation. That incident and a protest the next day — in which students surged to the president’s office at the small liberal arts college in Olympia — were captured on video and shared widely on social media, touching off the latest conflagration in on-campus culture wars.

In March, Weinstein, who is white, wrote that he disagreed with an administrator’s suggestion that white people might consider avoiding campus one day during a “day of absence” protest. The “day of absence” has been a tradition on campus since the 1970s, a symbolic demonstration designed to raise awareness about the contributions of people of color and an opportunity for them to gather and discuss racial issues.

This year, the school suggested that white students and faculty stay away from campus that day. Weinstein, a biology professor, wrote a letter to organizers saying that he would not stay away from campus, noting, “On a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color.”

Some of those who protested Weinstein last week saw the response to their demonstration as evidence of overaggressive policing and society’s inability to understand the way people of color are treated. Others, however, saw a place where white people were singled out and opponents could effectively cut any debate short by labeling other points of view as racist.

Racial tensions have been simmering at the school all year. The academic year began with protests over race, with students interrupting convocation in September. In January, according to the student newspaper the Cooper Point Journal, some students grabbed a microphone from an administrator during a ceremony welcoming the new police chief and chanted “F— cops!”

Student protest leaders did not immediately return messages seeking comment Thursday.

Weinstein had raised objections by email in November to an “equity action plan,” saying he did not think it would benefit students of color, sparking an extended debate.

The school is 75 percent white, a school spokeswoman said. But the enrollment is diverse in many ways, including students from many races, a large percentage who identify as LGBTQ, and a number of military veterans, the school’s president, George Bridges, said Thursday, leading him to seek ways to unify and support students.

In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, Weinstein explained his objection to the equity action plan:

The plan and the way it is being forced on the college are both deeply authoritarian, and the attempt to mandate equality of outcome is unwise in the extreme. Equality of outcome is a discredited concept, failing on both logical and historical grounds, as anyone knows who has studied the misery of the 20th century. It wouldn’t have withstood 20 minutes of reasoned discussion.
This presented traditional independent academic minds with a choice: Accept the plan and let the intellectual descendants of Critical Race Theory dictate the bounds of permissible thought to the sciences and the rest of the college, or insist on discussing the plan’s shortcomings and be branded as racists. Most of my colleagues chose the former, and the protesters are in the process of articulating the terms. I dissented and ended up teaching in the park.

As tensions continued to mount this spring, protesters confronted Weinstein and college leaders more directly, yelling at the professor and calling him racist, while angrily presenting demands to George Bridges, the president, the following day that included firing several people. At one point, as Bridges gestured while making a point to the crowd, shouts can be heard on video ordering him to keep his hands down at his sides.

On social media, some complained that student protesters had been shoved against a wall by overly aggressive police.

But to many watching the videos of the protests, or following coverage on sites including Fox News, the campus looked out of control and irrational, with students yelling and not listening to responses.

On social media, many people reacted with outrage, calling the protesters racist for asking white people to avoid campus, accusing the school administration of pandering to extreme demands, and ridiculing what they saw as liberalism run amok.

“Virulent anti-White racism on full display at Evergreen State College,” another person wrote.

The story resonated well beyond the Evergreen campus, Weinstein said in an interview, because readers and viewers believed that free speech was being shut down.

“It turns out that one thing that does seem to unite people is the sense that there is something abhorrent about shouting people down,” he said. “Especially on a college campus, where one should be able to listen to opposing viewpoints.”

Last week, Bridges, the school’s president, rejected demands that the staff members be fired. But he agreed to many of the students’ concerns and announced that the school would begin mandatory cultural competency training for all faculty and staff. On Thursday, he noted it will be expensive do that, since the school has about a thousand employees, but that the college is committed to making it happen.

He said there would be additional training for police, emphasizing deescalation techniques and working with different populations, and additional support for students who are minorities.

On Tuesday, Bridges issued a public statement asking everyone to recommit to empathy, dignity and respect. It read, in part:

On college campuses across the U.S. and here at home, conversations about equity and free speech will continue. These are incredibly complex and sometimes emotional issues to navigate. We at Evergreen have the courage to try. With tolerance and respect, my belief is that we can succeed, and continue to learn from each other.

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On Thursday, Bridges said, “The activism and disruption we’ve witnessed  … really, I believe, is symptomatic of much of the intense disruption and disaffection we’re seeing across the country, not just on college campuses, but across the country.”

He said he thinks that’s driven by increasing economic and racial inequality in the wider society, dissatisfaction with institutions including the government, and concern about the future of the country. He said if people can “listen to understand,” it will help them come together as a community.

“Evergreen has always been proud to engage in difficult social issues on our campus. That is something we do well, and we’ve done well since the 1970s.”