Former Provost: There are lessons to learn from the meltdown at Evergreen College

Michael Zimmerman, former provost and vice president for student affairs at Evergreen State College, wrote a lengthy piece for HuffPost Sunday describing how the school developed into a place where students felt comfortable calling professors racist and demanding they resign. Zimmerman argues there are important lessons from the Evergreen meltdown which other college administrators can learn from lest their schools wind up where Evergreen has:

The Evergreen campus has become a place where identity politics takes precedence over every other aspect of social intercourse. It has become a place where it is acceptable for colleagues to levy personal attacks on colleagues in response to differences of opinion and even in response to calls for dialogue. It has become a place where it is acceptable to shout down those with whom you disagree. And it has become a place where the administration watches from the sidelines, apparently fearful of antagonizing anyone.

Zimmerman points out that the blow up we all saw on YouTube, with students confronting biology professor Bret Weinstein actually started building months earlier when Weinstein asked to discuss a new plan created by the college’s Equity Council:

The Council created a plan without any public input and scheduled a meeting in the middle of November to present it to the campus community having announced that it had already received the blessing of President Bridges. The plan, as presented, was built on a statistical analysis of retention, achievement and graduation data and proposed to make significant changes to faculty hiring practices as well as to the structure of the curriculum. The meeting offered no opportunity for open discussion of the plan and was structured as an opportunity to celebrate the plan’s creation. Building on the region’s Salish culture, the meeting concluded with attendees being asked to metaphorically climb into a canoe to embark on a journey to equity. The implication was that if people failed to board the canoe, they would be left behind. Indeed, the sentiment was expressed by some that if you were unwilling to get on board, perhaps Evergreen was not the place you should be working.

Weinstein politely asked for a chance to have an open discussion of the plan. His unwillingness to climb aboard the “equity canoe” led to him being labeled a racist by another faculty member:

A faculty member who sat on the Equity Council explicitly called him a racist in two different faculty meetings. When Professor Weinstein asked for an opportunity to defend himself, he was told that a faculty meeting was not the appropriate venue for such a defense. When he asked what the appropriate venue was, he was told that no such venue existed because he was a racist. Neither the president nor the interim provost interceded to make it clear that leveling such charges against a fellow faculty member was unacceptable within the college community. When Professor Weinstein spoke privately with both of those administrators about these incidents, they both acknowledged the inappropriateness of the behavior but each said that it was the responsibility of the other to do something about it. Neither administrator took any public action in response.

Meanwhile, a group of like-minded students had been acting out all year with no repercussions for their egregious behavior:

Fast forward to the day following the 2016 presidential election. Two campus events were scheduled for that day: a board of trustees meeting; and the dedication of the newly remodeled and renamed Purce Hall. Students upset by the election surrounded the trustees and berated them for their racist attitudes. The meeting was cancelled and hours later the building dedication was similarly disrupted – despite the fact that Purce Hall was named for Evergreen’s immediately preceding president, an African American who served as president for 15 years. Despite the chaos associated with both events, no students were brought up on disciplinary charges.

Fast forward to the installation of Evergreen’s new police chief, Stacy Brown, herself a graduate of Evergreen, early in winter quarter. This event, too, was disrupted by students and during the disruption the vice president for student affairs was pushed and a microphone was wrestled from her hands. She was almost knocked to the ground by two students. Because of the way the vice president was treated, disciplinary proceedings commenced against the two students who pushed her. No other student faced disciplinary consequences for the disruption.

The details of this latter incident came to light last month when Thurston County Chief Deputy Dave Pearsall told state lawmakers what he witnessed as Chief Stacy Brown was being sworn in. “Several students, I think there was probably 20 or 30 students there, decided that they were going to get up in front and take over the entire event, with noisemakers, and drums, and horns and the PA,” Pearsall said. He continued, “They actually went and took one of the microphones out of, I believe it was the vice president’s hand, just jerked it out of her hand. They were cursing, saying all kinds of things. It just went on and on. It was complete chaos.

“It got to the point where, after about 15 minutes President Bridges decided that the ceremony wasn’t going to happen. I personally watched some of these students go up to Chief Brown, right up to her face, and call her all kinds of names, cursing at her. As well as, she had her young children with her who were fearful of what was gong on.”

President Bridges claimed three students were put on probation, but most of the students involved in these incidents faced no consequences at all. That’s how you wind up with a mob that feels comfortable marching to Bret Weinstein’s class, calling him a racist, and demanding his immediate resignation. They had been trained that this was acceptable.

As Zimmerman concludes, Evergreen College is “a place that has allowed extremists to dominate and discussion to die.” Indeed, they were eventually telling their own college president they didn’t have time for homework because they were busy occupying his office and making demands. And because no one ever stood up to the mob, when they finally encountered, in the form of Professor Weinstein, an adult who refused to back down at the first mention of racism, they were stunned. It wasn’t their own behavior that was surprising by that point, it was his.

The lesson to other schools should be obvious: Treat the left-wing mob as you would any other group screaming at professors and administrators. Expect them to behave themselves, just as you would any other group of adult students. And when they cross the line, punish them for it. All it takes to avoid Evergreen’s fate is leadership willing to show a little backbone.