Fall classes are scheduled to start Monday at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, offering a fresh start for the public liberal arts college where racial tension exploded into protests, threats and unwanted attention from around the country just a few months ago.
“I have worked with a lot of the new students, and there’s a lot of excitement,” said Helen Kong, 39, a senior who is studying elementary education and is coordinator of the student mentor program. “…The energy is really positive.”
Freshman Kia Peters said she heard about last spring’s protests, but they didn’t factor into her decision to attend Evergreen. She said she chose the school for its art program, affordability and closeness to home.
“I know a lot of my family members were worried, but this is kind of what Evergreen is for — standing up for what you believe in,” said Peters, 18, of Olympia. “I know some of the things may have gotten a little out of hand, but the school recovered well.”
Araminta Little, 18, of Bremerton, said she loosely followed the protests, and registered for Evergreen’s sustainable agriculture program without hesitation.
“I was raised in this very hippie, farmers market, festival-going type of family, and it just really fit into what I wanted to do,” she said.
Right away, Little knew she was in the right place.
“I get here for registration and I was a little nervous, and I started looking around and I realized everybody looks like a weirdo, like me,” she said. “And it was just very homey. It’s lovely. It’s absolutely lovely.”
As of Tuesday, total enrollment at the liberal arts college was 3,823, down from 4,034 last school year, and 4,190 during the 2015-16 school year.
The number of Evergreen freshman coming from Thurston County is up 22 percent, according to college spokesman Zach Powers. The number of students who hail from out-of-state has dropped by about 200, he said.
Many of the students who arrived last week were excited to be moving into the dorms, participating in orientation events, and experiencing college, said Jadon Berry, director of New Student Programs at Evergreen.
He said he didn’t have many students ask him about the protests.
“Some parents have been a little more concerned, but for the most part it’s kind of business as usual,” Berry said.
However, some returning students aren’t as optimistic as the new students.
“I honestly have no idea how the school year is going to go,” said Rachel Plentywolf, 21, who is at the end of her sophomore year. “It’s scary. It could be hit or miss. It could be a really great year for the school, or it could be really awful.”
Plentywolf, who is Native American, said many students of color were doxxed — a term for being harassed online — and threatened during the spring ordeal. She said someone drew swastikas and wrote racial slurs in the dust on her car.
“It definitely put a spotlight on us with the alt-right movement,” Plentywolf said. “I’m just going to call them Nazis.”
Sarah-Grace Vasquez, 39, a senior, said she believes there’s still an element of fear on campus that’s being perpetrated by the alt-right. She said she’s seen remnants of swastikas that were spray painted on campus.
“I think what’s getting lost in the story is how people of color and other marginalized groups that are on campus are really still having a hard time,” Vasquez said. “…I feel like mistakes were made by the younger protesters, but their mistakes were met with death threats and rape threats.”
On Sept. 15, Evergreen announced that it had settled a tort claim with Bret Weinstein, the professor who was a lightning rod for the campus tensions.
Weinstein and his wife, Heather Heying, who also was on faculty at Evergreen, filed a $3.85 million tort claim in July alleging the college failed to protect its employees from “repeated provocative and corrosive verbal and written hostility based on race, as well as threats of physical violence.” Weinstein also had argued that the college’s Day of Absence, in which white students were given the option to remain off campus for a day, was an act of reverse racism.
As part of the settlement, the couple were given $450,000 and resigned from their jobs. The college also paid $50,000 toward their legal fees.
“In making this agreement, the college admits no liability, and rejects the allegations made in the tort claim,” stated a college email to its employees about the settlement. “The educational activities of Day of Absence/Day of Presence were not discriminatory. The college took reasonable and appropriate steps to engage with protesters during spring quarter, de-escalate conflict, and keep the campus safe.”
“I was opposing a clearly segregationist policy and I was protested very vigorously,” Weinstein said on Sept. 19 edition of The Rubin Report, a political news talk show that airs on YouTube. “...It was voluntary, but it was very clear that you were making a statement. If you showed up on campus and you were white than you were essentially saying, ‘I am not an ally to people of color.’”
About 200 students participated in the program, college officials say. Vasquez said she didn’t feel pressured to participate in the event, and believes Weinstein didn’t portray it accurately when he talked about it on FOX News and other conservative media outlets.
“I feel like he was untruthful about the situation,” Vasquez said. “He kind of cherry-picked the facts and spun himself the victim.”
As for the settlement, Weinstein told Rubin he and his wife chose “the only good path,” which was to resign from their jobs. Weinstein told him his wife summed it up perfectly when she said they were paid to leave a burning building.
“The college very much wanted us to leave because our presence was very awkward and what they wished to continue doing would have been difficult if we had still been around,” he said on The Rubin Report.
But Weinstein’s departure is just one of the changes that have happened at Evergreen over the summer:
▪ The college’s police chief, Stacy Brown, who became an early target for student protesters, resigned after less than a year at the college. She became a Tumwater Police officer in August. Former Evergreen Police Chief Ed Sorger is serving as the interim police chief until a permanent chief is named, Powers said.
▪ Students who violated the student conduct code last spring were adjudicated. “Of these, some were suspended from Evergreen,” Powers said. “Others received sanctions ranging from warnings to probation, depending on their actions.”
He said he could not provide the specific number of students who were disciplined.
▪ Non-students who were involved in the disruptions were issued criminal trespass warnings.
“One was subsequently arrested and permanently barred from campus,” Powers said.
▪ Two staff members who were threatened and harassed online during the protests — Rashida Love, director of the college’s First People’s Multicultural Advising Services program, and faculty member Naima Lowe, who teaches visual art and media — are on personal leave from the college. Email exchanges between Love and Weinstein over the Day of Absence/Day of Presence activity sparked much of the campus backlash last year.
“Rashida Love is not gone because of the actions of the administration, but because of the vitriolic and racist backlash against the Day of Absence, which went largely unanswered,” Evergreen professor Zoltán Grossman wrote in a letter to faculty members last week.
The letter says Lowe’s reasons for taking a leave were similar and that the “online attacks on her have multiplied through the summer.”
▪ In July, all students were sent a letter articulating and outlining the conduct code, the violations that were committed last spring, and the fact that some involved criminal actions.
Little said the issue was brought up during new student orientation as well.
“They told us to read the rules, but they didn’t go into depth,” she said.
Peters said one of the orientation events she attended featured a student who was involved in the spring protests.
“She told us her whole side of the story,” Peters said. “…She basically said that if you believe in something, you should protest and stand up for yourself.”
▪ College officials are focusing on healing and building community.
“I think there’s a lot of movement that has happened to create a more safe environment and make sure that everyone feels like they are part of the community,” Kong said.
That was part of the theme for a recent faculty retreat, and has been incorporated into new student orientation events, too.
“Our work on campus is to examine emerging social issues,” said faculty member Nancy Koppelman, who teaches American studies, U.S. History, literature, writing and ethics. “People have been working very hard on moving forward, given what we learned from the protests that happened in the spring and the aftermath of that.”
Koppelman said she believes the spring protests were due to a “long-simmering conflict,” and were led by students who wanted to bring change to Evergreen.
She said she credits the administration for keeping people safe, and believes Evergreen is still a great school.
“If anything, it will become a better college because of what happened,” Koppelman said.