A woman walks past signs posted at The Evergreen State College campus in Olympia on Thursday, June 1, 2017. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com
A woman walks past signs posted at The Evergreen State College campus in Olympia on Thursday, June 1, 2017. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

News Columns & Blogs

Matt Driscoll: If you’re going to talk about Evergreen, at least get your facts straight

June 05, 2017 06:50 PM

UPDATED June 07, 2017 02:08 PM

The Evergreen State College story has officially become transcendent.

It has — to reach into my bag of clichéd, pop-culture references — jumped the shark.

And it has been elevated to a status that we in the news media all tightly cross our ink-stained fingers for: It’s a trend piece.

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Listen to threat that shut down Evergreen State College

A man tells Thurston County dispatch that he will "execute as many people on that campus"

Tony Overman and Lisa Pemberton toverman@theolympian.com, lpemberton@theolympian.com

Oh, and what a trend piece it is — the kind that allows pundits and opinion writers to prove their objectivity by taking a hard line on the political left.

But here’s my plea to those who have written, or will soon write, about the ongoing turmoil at The Evergreen State College:

At least get it right.

Because from what I’ve learned, the tensions we saw in those now-viral videos of protests at Evergreen are the result of at least a year’s worth of simmering frustration.

What you are seeing is months and years of being ignored.

Cooper Point Journal contributor

The Evergreen story is much more than an open-and-shut example of the left “turning” on its own, as an opinion piece in The New York Times offered. It is more than simply a troubling case of campus intolerance.

In fact, nothing about what has happened at Evergreen is clear cut, open-and-shut or simple. To use only broad-brush strokes to paint it that way all but erases the nuance of what’s currently transpiring.

Almost everything you’ve read so far about what went down fails to do justice to what actually happened, and, importantly, how we got there.

Over the weekend, I spent time corresponding with two writers who contribute to Evergreen’s student newspaper, the Cooper Point Journal, to try to gain a better perspective.

They’ve covered racial unrest at Evergreen all year, and they know the story goes beyond how the rest of the media has largely portrayed it: as race protests spontaneously erupting at the school and the lone biology teacher with an opposing view caught at the center of it all.

Both requested anonymity, due to fears of retaliation, including online harassment and intimidation, and threats of physical violence.

Stressing that they spoke as only contributors to the newspaper and not on behalf of protestors, both described a situation at Evergreen that’s far more complex than one professor’s email and one group of students’ response to it.

As a starting point, they pointed to a series of protests and demonstrations, stretching back to at least September.

The concerns, they said, are varied.

Issues range from a strained relationship between students of color and local police and campus police — similar to tensions between communities of color and law enforcement across the country — to accusations of unequal punishment for white students versus students of color.

Most of all, they said, there’s mounting anger over what’s viewed by some as a lack of action from the school’s administration to deal with a number of longstanding issues of racial equity.

“There has been meeting after meeting with the administration. For years students of color, trans and queer students and other minorities have been asking, then demanding, for mandatory equity training for staff and faculty,” one told me, by way of example. “What you are seeing is months and years of being ignored.”

There has been meeting after meeting with the administration. For years students of color, trans and queer students and other minorities have been asking, then demanding, for mandatory equity training for staff and faculty.

Cooper Point Journal contributor

As for Professor Bret Weinstein, they made it clear that problems with him went beyond the email he wrote about the school’s annual Day of Absence, an email that was seized upon by some media outlets to cast Weinstein as a sympathetic figure.

“The ‘Day of Absence’ email,” one contributor told me, “was actually one of many emails that (Weinstein) had sent over the course of the year.”

Some students of color, they told me, view Weinstein’s written words — taken in total — as “tone deaf.”

But both writers expressed a desire to “move the narrative” away from the him and instead discuss the broader issues that brought the school to this point.

All of this, of course, provides plenty of fodder for rational, respectful, and even impassioned debate. That’s one of the things the college experience is supposed to be about.

Do some Evergreen students have valid critiques of the school’s dedication to equity and its timely response to concerns?

Are there issues that need addressing with campus police?

Does Weinstein have a point about the school’s Day of Absence and other issues he’s confronted over the course of the school year?

And, perhaps most timely given the growing list of campus-intolerance trend pieces I’ve read: Is what’s happened at Evergreen an alarming example of voices being aggressively silenced in the name of an increasingly rigid set of militant, liberal ideals?

Again, rational voices can debate these questions.

I generally bristle at the idea of some columnist in Tacoma telling students of color just how angry they’re allowed to be over issues of inequity and injustice. But I acknowledge it’s hard to watch some of the actions at Evergreen and not view them as problematic, even intolerant.

Which brings me full circle.

Pundits and opinion writers, including the one penning this column, have an important role to play in all of this: To get it right, in all its complexity and nuance.

You can reach the conclusion that something went terribly wrong at Evergreen, but you can’t be intellectually honest about it without telling the full story. That’s what every story deserves.

Getting it wrong, or reducing it to base simplicities, has the potential to be even more dangerous than what we’ve seen on viral videos posted to YouTube.

Need proof?

Look no farther than the phoned-in threat that closed Evergreen last week.