The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Washington state college, caught up in racial turmoil, remains closed Friday after threat of violence

The Evergreen State College (Evergreen)

The Evergreen State College remained closed Friday after county officials received an anonymous call Thursday morning from someone claiming to be armed and headed to campus.

The public university in Washington state has attracted national attention in recent days after protests over race erupted and video of the unrest on campus went viral. Last week, students of color confronted a professor who had objected to a request by school officials that white people consider avoiding campus on a day of discussions about race. They called him racist and angrily demanded that he be fired. Demonstrations continued the next day with a standoff with the college’s president and other officials. Video clips and news coverage were widely shared, with intense debate online.

Some were sympathetic to the complaints of the student protesters about racism on campus and the treatment of demonstrators, and students of color, by police officers.

Many were offended by their behavior, seeing the chaos as a symbol that liberal politics so dominate college campuses that civil debates about ideas have become impossible.

On social media, people wrote things such as, “Fascists at Evergreen College Demand Professor Be Fired for Teaching While White,” and shared videos of students shouting at white administrators.

Someone else called for a national no-white-people day so that nonwhite people “can have a day to just be for once.”

The college’s Facebook page is full of posts about the controversy and the protesters. One woman wrote that the college supports racism, and said every student in a video of the protest “should be expelled and prosecuted for a hate crime and the head of the school terminated for allowing this type of action at the school.” A woman writing as an graduate and community member wrote that “even though political tensions can make it a powder keg, I always figured it would explode with a riot, not a terrorist threat. Please be careful, current Greeners.”

Student protest leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

One student wrote on social media that “our movement against police brutality & campus racism got co-opted by an angry white man.”

On Thursday morning, the Thurston County Communications Center received a 911 call from an unknown number with the threat. That afternoon, college officials announced that the school would close, sending people scrambling to quickly leave the Olympia campus.

Students who live in dorms were allowed to remain on campus, along with staff members in dining halls, residence halls and police, but all classes were canceled.

Threats shut down college embroiled in racial dispute

On Thursday, school officials alerted the campus community: “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.”

Law enforcement officers from the Washington State Patrol, Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and Olympia Police Department have been stationed on campus and, after searching buildings, determined that there was no threat, college officials said.

Sheriff’s officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

The public college of 4,500 students has had racial tensions all year, like many campuses across the country.

But those boiled over last week with demands that the school fire several people, including a biology professor, Bret Weinstein.

In the fall, Weinstein, who is white, had launched a debate when he said the school’s “equity action plan” was flawed for several reasons, and would not benefit students of color.

“There is an unwritten rule that when a person with white skin responds in an unsanctioned way to a policy proposal that is nominally about race or equity, that the label racist can be applied to them and will automatically be accepted,” Weinstein said Thursday.

“In fact, it has been stated by a faculty member in one of our faculty meetings that to question a claim of racism is, itself, racist.”

This spring, he angered people again. The school has since the 1970s held an annual demonstration called a “Day of Absence,” inspired by a play, that is meant to highlight the importance of people of color to the community by their absence, and give them a chance to gather to talk about racial issues.

This year, the school suggested that white students and faculty stay away from campus that day. Weinstein objected, telling organizers by email, “On a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color.”

Student protesters burst into his class last week demanding that he be fired. The college’s president, George Bridges, refused to terminate employees based on protesters’ demands, but he agreed to a series of changes including mandatory cultural competency training for all faculty and staff members and additional training for police.

“I think people were putting their personal emotions and feelings into the email,” from Weinstein, said Crystal, a student who had transferred to Evergreen from another college and asked that her last name not be used so she could speak openly about a sensitive topic. She didn’t think the email had racist intent, she said.

As a student of color, she said, she hadn’t personally experienced racism but didn’t question that others had. “He’s a science professor and teaches from the perspective of evolutionary biology,” she said, including the idea that “we tend to gravitate to people who look like us, and that’s something you need to be able to move past. I think that’s where he was coming from with that email.”

She also said she doesn’t want to attend a college where professors worry about teaching well-researched facts because they might offend someone’s feelings.

But she said some of the media coverage had been ridiculously overblown. “There was no takeover of the campus — the kids don’t run the school — it’s not in ruins.” 

After those flare-ups, things had calmed down and classes had resumed this week, until the threat was called in.

“We’ve listened to students, we’ve heard them, we will continue to work with them in the months ahead on some of these issues,” Bridges said Thursday afternoon. “We are an institution dedicated to learning. My hope is that they, and we, have learned a lot from this process, and the college is going to be stronger as a result.”

Weinstein said, “I really believe in Evergreen. Watching it be dismantled is horrifying.”

On Friday afternoon, college officials announced the school would reopen Saturday.

“Public safety at Evergreen is our top priority,”  spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser said. “As we return to normal operations, local law enforcement remains extremely vigilant, and we will respond quickly if the situation changes.”