Uniting a Campus in a Divided Country

These are critical days for the future of The Evergreen State College, as we build a stronger campus against the backdrop of a fragmented nation.

With its 50-year-old tradition of vigorous debate, free-thinking faculty and dedicated focus on students, Evergreen has educated more than 40,000 graduates who thrive and prosper.

They are the measure of our success. As business leaders, Oscar-winning filmmakers, members of Congress, scientists, physicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and public servants, they make their mark in Washington and across the country.       

And yet, we must change.

Over recent weeks, Evergreen’s normally quiet, wooded 1000-acre campus in Olympia has been rocked by loud protests, sit-ins and abusive speech. Unlike protests in the 1970s, however, there was no tear gas, injuries or arrests.

Evergreen has always been a place that takes on difficult issues in sometimes raucous fashion. The activism this year was different, though. As campus groups debated racism and free speech, there was a level of fear, emotion and invective we’ve never seen here.

Although activism on campus was only part of the story, it was distorted, amplified and endlessly repeated via social media and cable news. As we took steps to de-escalate conflict on campus, Twitter feeds blew up with misinformation.

This small liberal arts college was then hit with a tsunami of hateful harassment targeted at staff, students and faculty. Anxiety rose, and there were confrontations on campus. Threats to Evergreen from outside the college compelled us to suspend classes twice on advice from law enforcement.

Students have completed their courses and we have finished the school year. On June 16 we will celebrate our thousand new graduates, holding commencement off campus for the first time ever, to ensure security.

We are focused on our future as a college community, as a catalyst for businesses, jobs and prosperity in the region, and as an integral part of the state’s higher education system. How do we change and adapt to thrive in this era of national polarization?

Some steps we must take are clear. To preserve freedom from discrimination and of expression for all at Evergreen, we must have greater accountability and consequences for those who would deny those rights to others.

Freedom of speech belongs to all. Freedom to threaten does not. I am talking with Evergreen faculty and students, alumni, legislators and others about how we can strengthen and clarify the rules for conduct.

Since the disruptions, which took place on campus in late May, students are being investigated for violations of the student conduct code, and their cases are currently under review.  If they are found to have violated the code, sanctions range from a written reprimand to expulsion.

We also cannot rely solely on the lean public safety presence that has been the tradition on campuses in our state. The safety of all students, faculty and staff must be paramount if we are to succeed at our core job: teaching and learning.

Our hard-working campus law enforcement officers need training to ensure their continued ability to protect all. I will be asking the Legislature to grant us additional resources to meet the modern challenges of campus safety.

Finally, we must ourselves change. We must all listen to each other to understand, not just to reject. We also need a diversity of people, attitudes, orientations, politics and views on campus. Problems of racism and inequity are real and must be discussed in a campus environment that offers security for all.  

After hearing student concerns, I have increased the college’s equal opportunity staffer to full time, boosted annual training for campus police officers, expanded a new equity and multicultural center, and raised the staffing budget for multicultural advising services. Evergreen will soon hire its first vice president for equity and inclusion, a college leadership position now common on campuses across the U.S.

At the heart of Evergreen’s future is sustaining a visionary model of learning established in the 1970s, which focuses on understanding big issues from different perspectives and with complex ideas. This Evergreen model, emulated by colleges around the nation, continues to attract veterans, community-college transfer students, non-traditional students, and those who are the first in their families to attend college. Their success as graduates is proof the model works. 

As we work to strengthen our campus, Evergreen will renew its commitment to what we do best: help students acquire an extraordinary college education that prepares them to lead, excel and prosper. 

This opinion piece was published by The Seattle Times on June 15, 2017.