After weeks of brewing racial tension on campus, hundreds of students at The Evergreen State College in Olympia protested against the college administration and demanded change on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. Lisa Pemberton lpemberton@theolympian.com
After weeks of brewing racial tension on campus, hundreds of students at The Evergreen State College in Olympia protested against the college administration and demanded change on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. Lisa Pemberton lpemberton@theolympian.com

Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: There’s more to race protests at Evergreen than biology professor and viral videos

June 01, 2017 07:00 AM

UPDATED June 02, 2017 09:54 PM

My alma mater — The Evergreen State College in Olympia — has been in the news this week.

Perhaps you’ve heard.

This year’s annual Day of Absence in April followed by tense demonstrations on Tuesday, May 23 and Wednesday, May 24, have raised eyebrows and the ire of many around the country.

What you make of all of this, to no great surprise, depends largely on where you fall on the political spectrum.

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For some, including this admittedly biased columnist, charged protests and important conversations about race are nothing new at Evergreen. They come with the territory, like drum circles in Red Square and year-long poetry immersions.

But for some conservatives, what’s transpired at Evergreen recently is a prime example of what they believe to be rampant and unchecked liberal intolerance.

Conservative media outlets large and small have had a field day with the Evergreen story, because it fits into their larger narrative about everything that’s wrong on college campuses.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, went so far as to suggest stripping state funds from the school and privatizing it. In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of lawmakers skeptical of the school from its very beginnings, including Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, a Democrat, and former state Rep. James Kuehnle, a Republican from the Spokane Valley.

In an email to The News Tribune, Manweller said the state “can’t continue to fund intolerance.”

“And it's not just Evergreen,” he continued. “They just happened to be the worst right now.”

We can't continue to fund intolerance. And it's not just Evergreen. They just happened to be the worst right now. Public universities are funded by public money. And the public has a right to demand some level of tolerance and an environment that is open to everyone.

State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg

But making sense of what’s gone on at Evergreen requires more nuance than that provided by YouTube clips, political grandstanding or a five-minute segment on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, which aired under the header, “Campus Craziness.”

So, first, a bit of background:

According to Evergreen spokesman Zach Powers, the school’s annual Day of Absence started in the 1970s. Inspired by the Douglas Turner Ward play of the same name, the idea is “to address current issues surrounding race at Evergreen and beyond,” Powers said.

As coverage in Evergreen’s newspaper, the Cooper Point Journal, makes clear, there are many “issues surrounding race” that are being grappled with on campus.

These issues largely involve the campus police, who Evergreen students have demanded be disarmed.

Meanwhile, other matters the college paper describes as related to “racism,” and “anti-blackness” have been brought to the forefront, including the need for sensitivity and cultural competency training, the creation of an Equity Center and the need for a permanent staff position dedicated to supporting undocumented students.

Previous to this year, the Day of Absence has involved some students, faculty and staff of color voluntarily gathering off campus for activities related to that cause, while white students, staff and faculty were able to voluntarily participate in related activities on campus.

This year, Powers says, a request was made to change things up to allow participants of color to hold Day of Absence activities on campus, while white participants who chose to participate were asked to remain off campus.

“I think that switch was inspired by a desire to affirm the belonging of students, faculty and staff of color,” Powers told me, while noting that, “Participation in the Day of Absence has always been and always will be entirely optional.”

For perspective, Powers says that about 200 staff, faculty and students — out of roughly 4,800 at Evergreen — left campus to take part in this year’s Day of Absence.

This year’s approach to the annual event is where biology professor Bret Weinstein got involved. In emails that were eventually published by the Cooper Point Journal, Weinstein objected to white students, faculty and staff being asked to leave campus, calling it “a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.”

Which brings us to last week, when demonstrations at Evergreen went viral.

As Lisa Pemberton of The Olympian reported, hundreds of students took part in a demonstration on the Wednesday, May 24. They filled the third floor of Evergreen’s library building and surrounded president George Bridges’ office. To say things got heated and that language not fit for publication here was used probably is an understatement.

Raw video from the previous day shows demonstrators angrily confronting Weinstein on campus. Some call for his immediate resignation. Others refer to him as a racist. None of it was particularly pretty nor constructive.

To take it a step farther, it was a bad look — a flawed approach, and an example of the kind of thing that makes it easy for naysayers to discredit entire movements. You can agree or disagree with Weinstein, but it’s hard to see the point — or the good sense — in singling him out when the issues at Evergreen clearly go far beyond one biology professor and the rationale behind his objections to this year’s Day of Absence events.

The showdown eventually earned Weinstein a seat on the Tucker Carlson show, which is not the outlet I’d choose to thoughtfully air my grievances, but whatever. That’s his right.

So what’s really going on at Evergreen?

Much like your reaction to this story, your take on that question probably depends on your political leanings.

That’s been the case since the school’s experimental creation as a bastion for liberals in what was then a logging town, and it will likely continue long after folks like Manweller find some other example of liberal intolerance to rail against.

But here’s the truth this saga has laid bare: When it comes to issues of race, equality, and social justice, there’s a lot going on at Evergreen — like so many college campuses across the country right now. Dealing with things of this nature is rarely easy, and rarely pretty, but always worth the work. For the most part, Evergreen deserves credit for rolling up its sleeves and attempting to do just that.

Right now at Evergreen, we’re focused on the four thousand students who are working hard to get through the quarter. Serving them and enabling them to reach their dream of a higher education is our top priority. Freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination remain essential values at Evergreen, as are tolerance and respect.

Statement from the Evergreen State College

“Right now at Evergreen, we’re focused on the four thousand students who are working hard to get through the quarter. Serving them and enabling them to reach their dream of a higher education is our top priority,” the college said in a statement to The News Tribune.

“Freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination remain essential values at Evergreen, as are tolerance and respect.”

The way the story has largely been portrayed this week — and jumped on by some seeking to score political points — doesn’t come close to doing the situation justice.

And that is what’s really unfortunate.