My first analysis piece on the events at Evergreen College was titled "Nothing Unusual is Happening at Evergreen State University." In hindsight, that looks very prescient.
Despite becoming a meme and a laughingstock in its spring semester, despite becoming a target of alt-right hate and a display case of lefist excesses, despite disproving the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity …
… Evergreen only saw a decline in enrollment this year of 4.5% (according to the Chronicle of Higher Education), and attempts to defund it in the Washington State Legislature have gone nowhere. While its campus police chief has resigned (apparently out of frustration, though it’s hard to be sure), and Professor Bret Weinstein and his wife have received a $450,000 payout and left campus, the administration remains largely intact, and under the command of Evergreen’s much derided president, George Bridges. A few students have been disciplined for vandalism. Life goes on.
Even by the standards of impervious bureaucracies, that’s impressive. It turns the question from “what happened?” into “what didn’t happen?” Did all that sound and fury actually signify anything? Was it all, after the dust settled, a demonstration of institutional inertia?
Yes, sort of, but there are actually very specific reasons for that, which make all the difference.
Peaceful Protest is Peaceful
The first reason – something that has to be make clear every time the events at Evergreen are brought up but which almost never is – is that even now, a full semester after the mass attention, there are still no reports of any student violence during the protests. Not one. Despite a tense and heated situation, despite yelling and screaming and crying and marching and chanting and expressed anger, there is still not a single report of any violent action on the part of the student protesters.
The national media kept treating these as though they were violent protests, or that violence was going to break out any minute, or at least was likely to break out any moment now … and yet here we are. The school’s police department said that it could not guarantee Professor Weinstein’s safety on campus … and yet he was never actually threatened by a student, only told that students were a threat by others.
(This is not to suggest Weinstein shouldn’t have felt threatened, I can very well understand why he did, or to suggest that the police department was wrong to say that it could not guarantee his safety – that’s probably true. But with the benefit of time, surely the fact that there were no actual threats against Weinstein, let alone attempts at violence, is a significant point here. )
There was an estimated $10,000 of vandalism, but it came at a time when the student body was actually being threatened by alt-right agitators who said they were going to come onto campus and show those snowflakes what for. I don’t in any way mean to excuse vandalism, but to focus on it rather than the fact that even under such stressful circumstances there was no violence against persons is to utterly miss the point.
Do we expect an administration to fall because there was $10,000 worth of vandalism? Frankly that sounds more like a line-item for any university with an active Greek system, the kind of thing that when corn-fed white kids do it is written off as high spirits after the big game.
The point here being that while the students were verbally aggressive, and confounding, they in fact behaved in exactly the way we would want student protestors to behave. They attended meetings, they conducted sit-ins, they held rallies. They shouted, but they never hit anyone.
Which, not coincidentally, is what the Bridges administration (aside from its security chief) said was going to happen.
They're All On the Same Side
Which brings us to the second point: the overwhelmingly ironic fact that for all the confrontations, the students and the administration had almost identical goals.
If you take out all the things that a college president and administration really can’t do (“Make us safe now!” “Stop racism!”) and all the things that no administration ever would do (eliminate campus security), and then imagine a college president that would give the students everything they wanted, you would get George Bridges.
Long before the protests, Bridges had been developing plans to expand the size and power of Evergreen’s various diversity efforts, including faculty hiring. It was happening at the slow and dissatisfying pace of academic institutions, but the students were already getting everything they wanted that it was realistically in his power to give them.
So while the students had adopted a hostile posture towards the power structures of their college, on a practical nuts-and-bolts level they were getting their demands met before they’d even made them. This is the kind of thing that can easily get lost in the heat of a protest movement that is fundamentally about how the protestors feel, but that becomes very apparent when given a little time to think about what it is you’re really asking.
The student protests didn’t lead to significant administrative change because substantively, if not stylistically, the students already had the administration they wanted – and the administration sees no benefit in punishing the students who are in fact its natural allies. Indeed it is unlikely that an administration as radically progressive as Bridges’ could exist on a campus without such a radically progressive student body, and that a student body as radically progressive as Evergreen’s would ever find a more willing water-carrier than Bridges. The protests of Spring 2017 were, as much as anything, a colossal refusal to take “yes” for an answer.
Likewise it seems apparent that whatever the merits of his arguments, and whatever people may say when no one is listening and it really doesn’t count, Weinstein did not represent a movement among faculty. Far from leading to a groundswell of support, his protestations left him increasingly isolated. The Evergreen faculty are, broadly speaking, on the same page as the administration and the students.
To the extent that the protesters’ goals were to get rid of Bret Weinstein, they succeeded roundaboutly in having the university buy him out for $450,000 (plus his $50,000 in legal fees). Everything else they had already gotten before the first slogan was chanted. It just wasn't happening very quickly because things in academia don't happen very quickly.
They Got the Community They Chose
And before we all roll our eyes at this as some kind of flash exercise in futility, let us pause to acknowledge the degree to which this highlights just how functional Evergreen is: it might not be the right community for you or me, but the students, faculty, and staff who are there do in fact largely share the same values and agenda, and are all working towards it peacefully. Isn’t that a good thing?
And while I can only hypothesize about the reason Evergreen’s enrollment dip was so small, I would suggest that it is precisely because there are prospective students out there who are seeking a community like this one, and in fact know it when they see it. I would actually be very curious to get a detailed enrollment breakdown from last year to this and find out both who has newly arrived and which students have transfered out, and why. In the absence of such data, however, it’s best not to speculate too much.
What all this suggests is that the events at Evergreen are not actually about the same “culture war” that much of America has drafted itself to fight. It touches on it, obviously, many of the same themes are there, but that’s far more about any given narrative being pressed into service than it is the events on campus themselves.
No, at this point Evergreen strikes me as a useful (and frightening) study of the way in which a community that fundamentally is in agreement with itself can still convulse over unconscious currents, misunderstandings, and questions of power and style. Especially when the world is a pressure cooker. America under Trump has created enormous pressure and stress for communities that value what Evergreen values. That pressure has to go somewhere.
Maybe something just snapped. Sometimes these things just happen, and they don’t actually mean much. Right now it looks like Evergreen’s stability, not its boiling point, is the relevant issue.