As political tension continues to rise in the United States, the tensions between free speech, hate speech and personal safety are being tested across college campuses, which have traditionally been centers of radical ideas and discussions.
This month, Evergreen State College professor Bret Weinstein was at the subject of a large controversy that garnered national attention.
In the spring of 2017, it was announced via email that Evergreen’s Day of Absence program, designed for faculty, staff and students of color, would happen on campus this year, while the program for allies would take place off campus. In other words, white students and faculty were asked to participate in workshops off campus.
The following day, Weinstein replied to the email by saying, “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles, and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.”
Weinstein continued to explain himself in the email, saying that he will formally protest the new structure by staying on campus on the Day of Absence. In the wake of these emails, conversations and demonstrations regarding race began to heat up on campus.
The tradition draws inspiration from Douglas Turner Ward’s play, “Day of Absence,” in which all of the African American community members in a small town collectively decide not to show up to town in order to demonstrate the vital role that they play in the community.
Evergreen’s Annual Day of Absence began in the 70s. Over the years, it began to grow as more students and faculty attended, eventually becoming a campus tradition that was an integral part of discussions of race, diversity, unity and equity on the campus.
This email came in the wake of what one Evergreen student, Jasmine Gilroy, described as an administration with a “general stagnancy around questions of equity, faltering support services and consistently ignoring students when they profess their needs, or claiming to listen but not following up with action.”
Weinstein’s open opposition to the event prompted a group of students to confront him during his class on May 23, 2017. During the heated conversation, campus police and the county sheriffs were called in order to protect Weinstein. Students formed a protective ring around the students confronting Weinstein, but the police forced themselves through.
The following day, students occupied the President’s office in order to conduct a meeting regarding student concerns and demands. University President George Green told campus police to “stand down” and listened to the student concerns.
In the following days, Weinstein exacerbated the controversy even further by appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, which brought national attention to the issue, including violent threats from white extremists.
In the wake of these events, Weinstein felt as if the administration had done little to protect him from violent threats, and he was eventually forced to teach his class in a public park.
As a result, Evergreen recently reached a $500,000 settlement with the now former professor, and the college sanctioned about 80 student protestors for breaking the student code of conduct. Penalties for these students ranged from written warnings to suspensions.
Gilroy, also the Editor in Chief of the student newspaper at Evergreen State College said that the settlement has been poorly framed. She said that the students were not protesting Bret Weinstein in particular, but rather expressing disapproval of the university administration’s response.
These events echo what occurred at Seattle University with the Matteo Ricci College Coalition two years ago. In both cases, the administration and university governance failed to address student concerns before they grew into demonstrations and direct actions.
Seattle U Political Science professor Erik Olsen said that these types of issues are often governance issues.
“The first thing you’ve got to do is make sure you have opportunities to listen to students,” Olsen said. “That’s why it’s a governance issue again, that’s why it always goes back to that.”
Though the issues with Weinstein have been resolved in court, issues surrounding race and gender are not. College campuses will continue to serve as flashpoints for these issues, and administrations will continue to work towards creating more diplomatic avenues for students to voice their concerns and be heard.
Lukas may be reached at