The next few days are critical for the future of Evergreen State College.
The public state college near Olympia has become a national caricature of intolerant campus liberalism in both the New York Times and Fox News. At least one professor has been harangued and classes disrupted by shouting mobs of students accusing the famously progressive campus of “systemic racism.”
That coverage apparently has incited anonymous threats of mass murder, resulting in the campus being closed for three days. In the critical last week of school, students have been deprived of learning by extremes on the left and right.
But Evergreen faces a deeper, and more long-term threat. It is the only state four-year higher education institution to see enrollment drop steeply since 2011 despite wide-open admission standards. At about 4,080 students, it is about 300 students short of the Legislature’s funded enrollment target.
The two problems are now entwined. Evergreen President George Bridges and his administration need to assure future students and their parents that academics come first — and not acquiesce to the 200-or-so student protesters at the expense of the 4,000-student campus. Without safety, there’s no learning, and without learning, Evergreen will wither into irrelevance.
Evergreen has a long history of campus protests since it was founded in the 1970s as an experimental college. But protests this year have been focused inward and unusually aggressive — with students hijacking events beginning with the convocation in September and a board of regents meeting. They took over the administration offices last month, and Bridges patiently heard them out for hours with campus police calling every half-hour to check on his welfare. Most recently, they took over professor Bret Weinstein’s class because he questioned calls for white faculty and students to leave campus for a day.
Evergreen’s board of trustees, in a statement, criticized “the lack of tolerance and respect displayed by a few.” Bridges, in a meeting with the Seattle Times editorial board, described a flawed student discipline process that left little apparent accountability for those incidents. Bridges said that flawed process was being updated, with discipline imposed if student conduct crosses a line that Bridges himself described: “To what extent do actions of others impede the education of students.”
The situation at Evergreen is an amplified version of a story playing out at campuses across the state, including recently at Western Washington University, Seattle University and the University of Washington — and across the nation.
Since the corrosive 2016 presidential election, Americans increasingly comprise a nation with citizens sealed in ideological bubbles; college campuses are often the most hermetically sealed of bubbles. When Weinstein, the professor, asked a yelling mob of students if they wanted to hear his answer, they shouted “No!”
For Evergreen, the chaos of the 2016-17 school year should become a case study in the First Amendment and the aching need for better civil discourse. The funky, nontraditional college has a unique role in the state higher-education system. But for it to survive, Evergreen must impose consequences when a student protest hijacks other students’ learning.