Once again the Evergreen State College in Olympia has surpassed its usual role as the perennial butt of Almost Live jokes and become the focus of a Jerry Springeresque controversy with state legislators and the public.
A committee dominated by students invited Mumia Abu-Jamal, a writer imprisoned on death row since 1981 on charges of murdering a police officer, to give a recorded address at last month's graduation ceremony.
Weeks before the ceremony, state and national politicians were decrying the invitation. Police organizations and the widow of slain police officer Daniel Faulkner mounted a campaign to stop the Abu-Jamal speech. A similar campaign in 1995 succeeded in removing Abu-Jamal as a National Public Radio contributor.
State Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney (D-Seattle), Democratic cochair of the House higher education committee, says she heard from a dozen constituents on the controversy. "Everything was against it. It's certainly a touchy situation."
Gov. Gary Locke had accepted an invitation from Evergreen students to be the keynote speaker at the commencement, but canceled because of the controversy.
Abu-Jamal's 13-minute speech at Evergreen's commencement was motivational and revolutionary in a classic '60s style: "Out of the many here assembled, it is the heart of he or she I seek who looks at a life of vapid materialism, of capitalist excess, and finds it simply intolerable." Both supporters and detractors of Abu-Jamal staged silent demonstrations while his recorded speech was played.
Sen. Pam Roach (R-Auburn), who attended the graduation as part of a protest contingent, says, "I will defend free speech always, but at a commencement address, you should have an individual who can impart to students wisdom for the challenges of the future. Instead we get a convicted cop-killer." Roach castigates Evergreen administration for allowing the student invitation of Abu-Jamal to go forward: "Where is the guidance?" She adds that Abu-Jamal "should have been executed years ago."
Craig McLaughlin, director of college relations at Evergreen, sees things differently. "We stubbornly took a principled stand rather than tell students they couldn't do it." He acknowledges receiving many negative letters and calls from around the country.
McLaughlin attributes some of the negative reaction to simplistic coverage by the media. Associated Press wire stories on the issue were printed in dozens of major dailies nationwide, and many headlines referred to Abu-Jamal simply as "cop-killer." Although the term is factual in light of Abu-Jamal's conviction, many believe he was framed by a corrupt Philadelphia legal system.
Such high-profile bodies as Amnesty International, the European Parliament, and the African National Congress have supported a retrial.
Besides, cop-killer credentials were not why Abu-Jamal was invited to speak, explains McLaughlin. "Since he's been in jail, Abu-Jamal has used his time to become a major voice about black liberation, the death penalty, and how the death penalty is used disproportionately for people of color."
But Rep. Mark Schoesler (R-Spokane) says he was "disgusted" that the college "took no actions despite the public outrage." Together with Rep. John Koster (R-Snohomish), he sent protest letters to Evergreen and others in the state Legislature. Schoesler admits, "I've never been a big supporter of Evergreen. It's always been on the fringe of credibility."
The last Evergreen public relations nightmare was in 1991 during the Gulf War, when many Evergreen students noisily occupied the state Capitol building.
Although the antiGulf War action was in no way sanctioned by college administration, Kim Merriman, an assistant to the president at Evergreen, says that many legislators "believed that college administration should have had some control over that." There were calls to reprimand the college and cut its budget.
"We have a challenge of geography," notes Merriman. She says that if Evergreen were situated farther from Olympia, "I think we would be under a different level of scrutiny."
After the Republican Revolution took place, a group of legislators in 1995 attached a provision to a budget bill that would have singled out Evergreen for a 28 percent budget cut and a tuition hike to make up the difference. The provision was eliminated before the bill passed.
It remains to be seen if any punitive action will be attempted when the state Legislature reconvenes next year.
One reason that unhappy legislators will have a hard time punishing Evergreen is that the school is so effective. Evergreen is like a talented student who thumbs a nose at conservative authority and gets away with it. The college has earned top or near-top grades from a number of national raters, including Fiske Guide to Colleges and Princeton Review. Evergreen four-year grads in recent years have had almost 100 percent placement in jobs or graduate schools within a year after their graduation.
Sen. Roach sees the key to changing Evergreen as replacing the trustees who govern it. "These people were all appointed by liberal governors," she says. "What I see is a need for a change in the executive office." She doesn't, however, see the state Republican party behind her in vigorously pressing the issue.
Conservatives have seen some results already from their criticism: Evergreen president Jane Jervis has assured them that the process of selecting graduation speakers will be changed, but assistant Merriman insists that any changes will be made "in consultation with students."
As cochair of the House higher education committee, Rep. Don Carlson (R-Vancouver) says he "doesn't anticipate" any legislative action against Evergreen in response to the Abu-Jamal uproar. "People make a choice to agree or disagree, then they should move on with higher education."