Equity and its discontents: students’ education and The Evergreen State College

Readers of Works in Progress will likely know that The Evergreen State College closed at the end of May because of an anonymous caller to Thurston County Communications who said, “I’m on my way to Evergreen University now with a .44 Magnum. I am gonna execute as many people on that campus as I can get a hold of.” The caller, and others like him, were responding to Evergreen professor Bret Weinstein’s claims that the college “had descended into madness” by requiring all white people to leave campus for a day. Weinstein first brought his claims to national attention by appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show segment, “Campus Craziness.”

In her June 17 New York Times editorial entitled The Media Brought the Alt-Right to My Campus,  Evergreen student Jacqueline Middleton explains that “that coverage hit our campus like a hailstorm. It may not have been his intention, but Mr. Weinstein’s many interviews effectively became a call to arms for internet trolls and the alt-right. Online vigilantes from 4chan, Reddit and other forums swarmed to unearth Evergreen students’ contact information. They have harassed us with hundreds of phone calls, anonymous texts and terrifyingly specific threats of violence that show they know where we live and work.” Middleton continues:

“Mr. Weinstein’s story about Evergreen’s regressive campus culture fit neatly into many misconceptions about the “new left,” so it seemed to go unquestioned. However, for many students, staff and faculty at Evergreen, the harassment that came after the negative coverage of the protesters was a shocking and bitter twist. It is not lost on us that students of color are the ones who have been disproportionately targeted.”

I agree with Middleton’s statement that Weinstein’s story about the college fit right-wing constructions of the so-called “new left.” Additionally, I would argue, at the heart of Weinstein’s move to vilify Evergreen students who demonstrated and the faculty and staff who support them, particularly the faculty and staff of color, is his rejection of the principles outlined in Evergreen’s new Equity Strategic Plan.

Evergreen’s new equity plan, an object of scorn in the right-wing media thanks to Weinstein’s tweet and talks, was presented to the campus last November, six months before the demonstrations as well asWeinstein’s national media campaign and the campus closures. Contrary to the narrative Weinstein has been promoting, the Equity Plan outlines the college’s commitment to equity and recognizes that the experiences of students of color and white students on predominantly white campuses are different. The plan asserts that race has meaning in the US. Weinstein, who is white, claims to be comfortable with discussions of race when they are framed through a scientific/evolutionary lens (campus email, March 15). Evergreen’s Equity Plan, however, addresses race through historical, sociological, and educational perspectives. That’s the real rub.

Taking on color blindness

  1. Richard Milner IV, director for the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburg, has developed what he calls “an opportunity gap framework” to be used by teachers and scholars across the U.S. to identify strategies for creating more equitable learning opportunities for all students. This framework, Milner argues, can be used as a heuristic to help teachers reflect on their practices, given their aim to help all their students succeed. The first element in the framework identifies color-blindness—the degree to which white educators in particular refuse to “see color”.

In “Beyond a Test Score: Explaining Opportunity Gaps in Educational Practice,” published in Journal of Black Studies in September 2012, Milner writes: “Research is clear that when educators adopt color-blind beliefs, ideologies, worldviews, and consequently, practices (Chapman, 2007; Howard, 2010; Johnson, 2002; Lewis, 2001; Milner, 2010), they can run the risk of consciously and subconsciously avoiding, missing, and overlooking an important identity characteristic of students:  race.  When educators pretend to be color-blind, they are, in effect, constructing and enacting curriculum and instructional practices for students they see as incomplete rather than the complete beings students are (Johnson, 2002).” Race is part of everyone’s identity, and Evergreen’s Equity Plan acknowledged this.

The Equity Plan was a response to findings that identified what Milner would describe as opportunity gaps at Evergreen—not all students experienced the same levels of support and recognition as learners. As the plan put it, “a review of our quantitative and qualitative institutional data, including student voices (most recently, the formal requests of Trans and African American students) makes clear that equity gaps persist. In order to close these gaps, the Council suggests that the College move from a diversity agenda focused on intercultural understanding, to an equity agenda, an agenda that recognizes the existence of equity gaps and strives to close them.” A concrete example given was an assessment of Academic Statements submitted by Evergreen graduates to their transcripts—a new Evergreen requirement.  In a blind reading conducted in January 2016, low-income students and African American students had statistically significant lower scores on measures of written English than did white students and students from families that were not low-income. The central goal of the Equity Plan was to “substantially improve the experiences of underserved students on our campus so that we close equity gaps in student learning and student success.”

Weinstein objected to this goal.

Dissent Among Faculty

As part of a string of emails he wrote to the whole campus voicing concerns about the Equity Plan, Weinstein wrote on March 7 that he had two concerns about Evergreen: “The first is a precipitous slide away from an inclusive, diverse and horizontal college, to a lopsided, hierarchical, authoritarian one.” As evidence of this slide, he pointed to the creation of new administrative positions, including a new vice-president/vice-provost for equity and inclusion, and to the Equity Council’s declaration that through the Equity Plan, the college was affirming its commitment to helping all students meet Evergreen’s expectations for graduates—Evergreen’s equivalent of other colleges’ general education outcomes, which are required in order to be accredited.

Until the Equity Strategic Plan, academic administrators and faculty at Evergreen had managed to keep separate their expectations about what graduates should know and be able to do, from expectations about what faculty would teach. For example, all Evergreen graduates are expected to be able to “communicate clearly and creatively.” However, Evergreen students have no guarantee that they will find opportunities to learn to communicate clearly and creatively—it’s the luck of the draw in terms of which programs or courses they choose, and whether faculty in those programs and courses have both the skills and the desire to help them develop those skills.  The launch of the Equity Strategic Plan foretold a change, a change that Weinstein objected to.

In that same all-campus email,  Weinstein asserted that the other thing he objected to in the Equity Plan was the discussion of equity and equity gaps. He wrote: “the proposed remedies for these gaps are either entirely inappropriate, or spectacularly ill advised, depending on whether Evergreen is seeking equality of opportunity (an honorable and viable objective), or equality of result (a concept with a deeply dubious history, that cannot be logically defended in the context of a public institution on a limited budget). If we accept such analyses and prescriptions as normal, we have no business claiming to be an educational institution.”

In the spirit of debate, I wrote back to Weinstein (not to the whole campus) to say I disagreed with his position and explained why:

Across the country, faculty, staff, and administrators at public colleges with limited resources are embracing the challenge of doing their level best to ensure that the quality of the degrees earned by students on their campus means something. “Quality of degree” signifies more than credit earning—it refers to the knowledge, skills, and abilities that graduates have when they leave the institution. The best work on creating equality of opportunity is always linked to an assessment of “results”—what students are actually learning. That’s how campuses can tell, for instance, that their math sequences aren’t working for students, or that classic “weed-out” courses are functioning as “weed-outs.”

No other course of action can be logically defended within public institutions, especially those, like ours, like most regional public four-years, with relatively non-selective admissions. Campuses with integrity not only take students’ money, encourage the taking on of debt, but faculty, staff, and administrators also work their tails off to try to make sure that those students leave with a good—as in measurable and describe-able by non-reductive measures—education.

I concluded my email by saying I would be glad to share resources and talk further. Weinstein never responded. Instead, as became clear, he found another way to make his point of view heard.

Students’ Right to Dissent – Students are Right to Dissent

Meanwhile, as Weinstein was saturating the campus with emails expounding on his views, students were growing increasingly angry. For more than a year, students—and particularly students of color—had been demanding that the college do something to address racists incidents that were occurring, from encounters with campus police to awkward or embarrassing moments in classes. Faculty, they said, needed some training to be better teachers.

Students were right to take their concerns outside of normal channels, because ironically, at a college known for being progressive, students’ perspectives on their experiences of learning have very little standing. At most colleges, students fill out end-of-term evaluations of their courses. Especially at teaching-centered colleges, those student evaluations play a role in determining faculty tenure and promotion, and faculty raises. This is only partly true at Evergreen. While students’ evaluations of new full-time faculty and all adjunct faculty are reviewed by an academic dean (annually, or every two years), once faculty have Evergreen’s equivalent of tenure, those reviews only happen every five years. No written records are kept.  No matter what students say in their evaluations of faculty, those evaluations have no impact on faculty raises. Everyone gets the same raise every year, regardless of performance.

An unintended consequence of this once-innovative evaluation system is that, in order to make their voices heard—to be taken seriously as stakeholders in their own learning, students need to work outside normal channels. Weinstein’s objection to the Equity Plan, and to the newly forged link between faculty teaching and student learning, was that it would limit his freedom. Freedom, he said at a faculty meeting, was really all an Evergreen faculty member had—the freedom to teach whatever they wanted. Beginning to examine the relationship between how faculty exercised that freedom and whether and how students were learning—including which students were learning what—he implied, was the beginning of the end of the college. The students who marched to Weinstein’s program were fed up with his insistence that the college policies and practices center on him, and not them.

Fair Play and Hierarchies of Power

This year’s Day of Absence has been widely caricatured in the media as the day when all white people were asked to leave campus. Weinstein and his brother happily trumpeted half-truths across social media. In fact, for the fifteen or so previous years, when people of color were invited to leave campus to talk about issues of diversity and equity, Weinstein said nothing. Only when it was suggested that white people could choose to leave campus for a day to talk about equity and inclusion did he speak out.

When Weinstein sought a louder microphone with Fox news, he consciously aligned himself with the far right at a time when hate crimes committed against people of color are on the rise (Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report). Not only that, but Weinstein publicly identified a staff person—a person of color—who makes about half the salary Weinstein makes, implying that that individual was behind the whole Day of Absence program. Not only were his claims untrue, but they precipitated the torrent of death threats and hate mail Middleton described in her op-ed. Weinstein’s insistence that he, and not the faculty, staff, and students of color receiving these threats, is the true victim, is an effort to cover up the larger issue here.

What is the role of an educator today?

What happens when a teacher, most of whose salary comes from student tuition, insists that his freedom to teach what and how he wants surpasses the basic obligations of a college to provide equitable learning opportunities to all students? What rights do students have when the institutions they attend aren’t working very well? The Evergreen students who demonstrated this spring, including the students who marched on Weinstein’s classroom, were claiming their rights to a quality education in the context of an institution that historically has valued faculty freedom more than student learning. Change is afoot—necessary change, well-deserved change—and the process is messy.

Contrary to what the right wing and even mainstream media are saying, this is not a story about a faculty member being silenced. Rather, it’s about the students’ demands for equity and the opposition to those demands. The purpose of teaching is to facilitate learning, and that belief animates Evergreen’s new Equity Plan. It’s exactly that relationship Weinstein resists, insisting instead that white educators remain free to indulge in practices that serve the interests of some, but not all, students.

References:

Chapman, T. K. (2007). Interrogating classroom relationships and events: Using portraiture and critical race theory in educational research. Educational Researcher, 36(3), 156-162.

Howard, T. C. (2010). Why race and culture matter in schools: Closing the achievement gap in America’s classrooms. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Johnson, L. (2002). “My eyes have been opened”: White teachers and racial awareness. Journal of Teacher Education 53(2), 153-167

Lewis, A. E. (2001). There is no “race” in the schoolyard: Colorblind ideology in an (almost) all White school. American Educational Research Association Journal, 38(4), 781-811.

Milner, H.R. (2010). Start where you are, but don’t stay there: Understanding diversity, opportunity gaps, and teaching in today’s classrooms. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Emily Lardner served as a long-time adjunct faculty member at TESC and directed the Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education, a public service center of The Evergreen State College.