I keep getting asked to explain my position on the mess at Evergreen College. I’ve abstained so far because I roll my eyes at both sides. But OK, here goes…and here’s the background.
A bit of background: The “Day of Absence” is an Evergreen tradition that stretches back to the 1970s. As Mr. Weinstein explained on Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal, “in previous years students and faculty of color organized a day on which they met off campus — a symbolic act based on the Douglas Turner Ward play in which all the black residents of a Southern town fail to show up one morning.” This year, the script was flipped: “White students, staff and faculty will be invited to leave campus for the day’s activities,” reported the student newspaper on the change. The decision was made after students of color “voiced concern over feeling as if they are unwelcome on campus, following the 2016 election.”
Mr. Weinstein thought this was wrong. The biology professor said as much in a letter to Rashida Love, the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles,” he wrote, “and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.” The first instance, he argued, “is a forceful call to consciousness.” The second “is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” In other words, what purported to be a request for white students and professors to leave campus was something more than that. It was an act of moral bullying — to stay on campus as a white person would mean to be tarred as a racist.
Stop telling me that Weinstein is a wonderful progressive leftist. He talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk. What I see here is a situation where, for decades, students and faculty of color have borne the burden of demonstrating their significance while everyone gives ’em a thumbs up and cheers and waves little equality flags. This time, the supporters were asked to do a little more, that they take on the effort for one day of actually demonstrating their support in a more concrete way, and Weinstein refused to do that.
His basic message was that he was a shitty ally. He wasn’t willing to do one thing that his minority colleagues had been doing for years.
His letter made it worse. He tried to claim the moral high ground, that his refusal was a principled stand against bullying. Nonsense. It was a statement that you people might have an interest in fighting racism, but he had no interest in making any small accommodation to join in that battle. He was the personification of the passive white middle class that allows racism to persist, and I can understand how people would be outraged at hearing that bullshit from a person who had presented himself as supportive.
But the protesters went too far after that. You don’t get to demand someone be fired for being a shitty ally — there are people who are much, much worse working on college campuses. Protest, yes; scorn the guy, yes; take him off your list of friendly, supportive faculty for sure. But nope, it’s not a firing offense. It is also not grounds for threatening violence, or even worse, threatening violence to his students.
I’ve thought about what I would do in Weinstein’s position, and it would be an easy decision: I would have joined in the protest, and announced it to my classes for that day. Professors do have responsibilities, though, which might have made me hesitate, and I’d have had to do some calculations to figure out what to do to accommodate the students and keep the class on track, and it would have involved extra work on my part, but this is something for which there is precedent and almost certainly a procedure at Evergreen.
I occasionally have to miss class. I missed three days this past year to give a talk in China, and conferences and invited lectures happen all the time for almost every faculty member. The policy here is that I have to give written notice to my administrative head, including my plan to cover the coursework for the students. That typically involves asking another faculty member to give a guest lecture (I’ve reciprocated for my colleagues), or a description of readings or other assigned work for students to do in my absence.
Doing that is routine and trivial. I have to do it several times a year (if these turned into frequent extended absences, of course, I’d have some ‘splainin’ to do and would be getting dressed down by the administration and my peers), and I’m sure Weinstein has been in similar situations himself. If we’re willing to do that for a science meeting, I have to wonder why Weinstein couldn’t do it to support students of color for a day. Priorities, I guess.
So, shitty ally exposed. Do protest and make your opinions of the guy known. Do not, however, demand his head on a platter and harass his students. I’m more on the side of protesters, but a few of them crossed a line I can’t support.
P.S. I have a fondness for Evergreen, and when I was looking for teaching positions it was high on my list. I even got to the point of having a phone interview with their biology committee about 18 years ago, but didn’t make the final cut — I was coming from the traditional Big State College and didn’t have the kind of interdisciplinary/small classroom experience they wanted (they said, or maybe I just sucked). I was disappointed, but finding a job at a small liberal arts college right after that made up for it.