Evergreen State College board speaks out about campus’ racial tensions, unrest

Students gather in Red Square for a protest on May 24 at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Organizers say they were protesting what they consider institutional racism at the school. The college’s Board of Trustees issued a statement Saturday about the recent actions on campus.
Students gather in Red Square for a protest on May 24 at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Organizers say they were protesting what they consider institutional racism at the school. The college’s Board of Trustees issued a statement Saturday about the recent actions on campus. lpemberton@theolympian.com

After weeks of unrest and a two-day campus closure due to a mass-killing threat, the Board of Trustees for The Evergreen State College in Olympia released a statement Saturday morning.

The statement was penned by Board of Trustees chairwoman Gretchen Sorensen, who is an Evergreen alumnae.

“During the last week, the conduct of a small percentage of Evergreen’s community members exhibited unacceptable behavior that is completely contrary to Evergreen’s values,” she wrote. “Although almost all of the students continued to attend classes and receive the extraordinary education that Evergreen delivers, the lack of tolerance and respect displayed by a few during these recent events and disruptions is indefensible.”

Escalating racial tensions at the public liberal arts college, which serves about 4,000 students at its main Olympia campus, hit the national spotlight last week. Then on Thursday morning, a threat was called into Thurston 911 Communications that local law enforcement believed was serious enough to evacuate the campus and cancel classes on Thursday and Friday, college officials say. The campus reopened and classes resumed Saturday morning.

Brewing tensions had come to a boil May 24 when hundreds of students participated in a protest that began in Red Square and turned into a brief occupation of the college’s Library Building. Students surrounded college president George Bridges’ office, and several entries of the building were blocked with furniture in preparation for an interaction with police.

“This institution is really (messed up) and racist,” Evergreen freshman Shayna Clayton told The Olympian during that protest. “We shouldn’t have to deal with that.”

Before the protest, a group of students had sent the following statement to The Olympian: “What started out as anti-black comments on social media has turned into the dismissal of the rights of students and femmes of color, physical violence by police, and false sentencing of students protesting. Black trans disabled students are actively being sought out and confronted by campus police constantly, police are refusing to explain their actions and harassment. Students will not stand for this anymore, as students of color have never felt comfortable on campus and have not been treated equally.”

The group signed its statement “Expose Evergreen.”

A day earlier, a group of students had confronted faculty member Bret Weinstein, demanding an apology and saying they believe he should be fired for an email exchange in which he questioned the idea of changing the format of the campus’ annual Day of Absence/Day of Presence. Traditionally, students of color leave campus for the day to demonstrate their contributions, while white students have discussions about diversity. This year it had been suggested that white students who choose to do so could leave campus for the day and talk about race issues, and minority students stay on campus for diversity events.

Weinstein, who later appeared on FOX News and wrote a column that was published in the Wall Street Journal, said he felt the new format was “encouraging” white people “to go away” and was “an act of oppression itself.” The evolutionary biology teacher was a supporter of Occupy Olympia.

Some students have demanded Bridges fire Weinstein, and the college’s chief of police and other employees, saying they believe they have demonstrated discrimination and racism. After the protest, Weinstein said he was told by Evergreen Police Services that he was no longer safe on campus, so he held his class off campus.

Last week, several videos were released on social media showing students screaming and cursing at administrators. On Wednesday, Republican state Rep. Matt Manweller introduced a bill to privatize the college and called for an investigation to see if the college has violated civil rights. The Eastern Washington lawmaker was particularly upset about the Day of Absence event.

“I think that when a public university sends a message either directly or indirectly that you’re not welcome on campus based on your skin color, you have crossed the line,” he said.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, has introduced a companion bill in the Senate that would phase out state funding for The Evergreen State College and ultimately sell the institution at fair market value.

“What I see is an institution dedicated to indoctrinating kids into being perpetual victims,” Fortunato said in a statement issued Friday. “We saw videos of students disrupting classrooms, bullying administration, blocking police, and intimidating those around them and the response from the college president was to thank them for it. It is unbelievable.

“The student protesters claim Evergreen is a horrible, oppressive place,” he continued. “To those of us watching the behavior of these students and their intolerance of differing ideas, Evergreen looks like a horrible, oppressive place. So we come to the same conclusion for different reasons — Evergreen is a horrible place, so let’s stop putting public money in it.”

Evergreen officials say the conversations and actions on Evergreen’s campus reflect ones that are taking place all over the country.

On May 30, Bridges released a statement, which in part read: “To respond to what you might have read or heard on Fox News, Bret Weinstein remains a member of the Evergreen faculty. White students have never been required to leave campus, for Day of Absence/Day of Presence events, or any Evergreen activity. Discrimination of any form is not acceptable or tolerated at Evergreen. Everyone on our campus has the right to feel safe. Free speech must be fostered and encouraged. Every faculty member, student, and staff member must have the freedom to speak openly.”

The Olympian asked Bridges how he felt when students surrounded his office during the protest.

“It was a long, intense and useful conversation with students in my office on Wednesday and throughout the week,” he said. “We were all there by choice. And it was helpful to learn more about student concerns. Under no circumstance did I feel trapped or unsafe. And our conversations will continue.”

The Board of Trustees’ statement echoed Bridges’ earlier statements, and noted that officials are committed to ensuring that Evergreen provides a civil and safe campus environment for all of its students, staff and faculty members.

“The tumultuous events of the last week have revealed the need to delve further into issues of diversity and equity at Evergreen,” it stated. “Going forward, the college will take a measured approach, which is crucial to ensure that we respond appropriately, rather than reactively.”

The college launched an Equity Council last fall, and is in the midst of hiring a new vice president for equity and inclusion, officials say.

“Freedom of speech, civil discourse and open debate has been a cornerstone of our country’s history — and Evergreen’s history,” Sorensen wrote. “In difficult times, these pillars become even more significant. Intellectual inquiry, freedom of expression, tolerance and inclusiveness are core tenets of Evergreen’s philosophy and approach to education. Anyone who prevents Evergreen from delivering a positive and productive learning environment for all students has, and will continue to be, held accountable for their actions and face appropriate consequences.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton

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