Posted on April 12, 2021

A Professor Pushed Back Against ‘White Fragility’ Training. The College Investigated Her for 9 Months.

Jesse Singal, Reason, April 5, 2021

Elisa Parrett, a newly tenured 38-year-old professor of English at Lake Washington Institute of Technology, the only public technical institute in Washington state, realized last June that she had some qualms about the approach her university—which is located in suburban Seattle and has about 6,000 students—had taken to diversity and inclusion.

Her concerns about the campus climate had been mounting for a while. “I wasn’t exactly open about my political positions at work, but I didn’t exactly keep them a secret either,” says Parrett, whose heterodox politics led her to vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein in 2016 and for Donald Trump last year. “I simply avoided bringing politics up and avoided mentioning my views unless they seemed relevant to things other people had already said.” She didn’t like the rise of the concept of “safe spaces,” or certain aspects of what she calls “capital-A anti-racist pedagogy,” which she views as being distinct from mere opposition to racism.

But what most concerned her was an upcoming diversity training in which faculty and staff would be divided into white and nonwhite “caucuses.” In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the protests that then erupted all over the country, LWTech had, like so many other educational institutions, embarked on a large, highly visible attempt to make itself a more inclusive, less racist place. The session was a part of that. It was called Courageous Conversations, and it was scheduled for June 19.

The stated goal of such events is to allow people to talk about race and racism more openly, but the decision to have the races meet separately made Parrett uncomfortable. “Racial segregation of that kind seems like a throwback to the pre-1960s and not a good way to create any kind of cooperation or collaboration,” she says. She wasn’t the only one disturbed by the idea of a racially segregated anti-racism training. Her friend Phil Snider, another English professor at LWTech, said in an email to senior administrators that a “conference based on segregation by skin color does nothing to build a community of belonging.”

Nonetheless, a June 18 all-college email noted that the school’s president, Amy Morrison, had “made clear the expectation that all full-time employees attend Friday’s Courageous Conversations” unless they had conflicting teaching responsibilities. Parrett decided to express her qualms about the training during the training itself.

What happened over the next nine months was both bizarre and oppressive. Because of a brief disruption that easily could have been brushed aside or handled with a warning not to do it again, LWTech went to war against a tenured faculty member, launching a cartoonishly over-the-top disciplinary process that included the hiring of a private investigator, dozens of interviews, and claims of widespread trauma.


Once Parrett decided she wanted to speak up at Courageous Conversations, she drafted a statement. She ran it by Snider, who provided her with some editing suggestions; another friend took a look at it too.

Parrett should have had every reason to believe she could ask questions and express points of disagreement without fear of professional retribution. For one thing, as an employee of a public college, she has robust First Amendment protections that do not generally apply in private workplaces. For another, she had recently earned tenure. “The principal purpose of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom, which is necessary for all who teach and conduct research in higher education,” explains the American Association of University Professors. “When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech, publications, or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge.” {snip}

Courageous Conversations was influenced heavily by the diversity trainer Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, a bestselling but controversial book focused on the difficulty white people have talking about race. Among other recommendations, DiAngelo calls for race-specific codes of etiquette and behavior: In her trainings, white people are instructed not to defend themselves from accusations of racism, even ones that appear to be tendentious or to stem from mere misunderstanding. While it is OK for black people to cry during the sessions, white women are asked to leave the room if they feel themselves tearing up since, according to DiAngelo, this might make black people think of lynchings that began as a result of white women’s tears. {snip}

I was leaked an audio copy of the full two-hour Courageous Conversations event. About an hour and 20 minutes in, Parrett said, “Hi, I would like to speak, if I may.” The moderator replied, “Mm-hmm,” indicating that she could go ahead. Parrett then explained that she had noticed something she was hoping to point out to the group and asked if she could have five minutes to read a statement she had prepared. The facilitator didn’t respond to this (at least not audibly), and a beat later Parrett continued.

“Over the past couple of weeks, a lot has happened,” Parrett began. “Protests have occurred, riots have broken out, people have been killed. And across the United States, companies, organizations, and schools have proclaimed their support of a movement called ‘Anti-racism'”—here Parrett was referring to the capital-A variety. Parrett went on to complain about the segregated setting of the training and what she saw as the generally closed-minded nature of the nation’s post-Floyd discourse. “Democracy thrives on conversations, but what we are seeing happening right now in the United States is not a conversation,” she read. “It is a coup. Everyday Americans of all colors, creeds, backgrounds, and beliefs are being held hostage. Zealots are telling us, ‘You’re either with us or against us, and if you’re against us, you’re an evil bigot.’ They are telling us, ‘You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem.’ They are telling us that all people may be classified into two sides: us or them, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, people of color or white, righteous or bigoted, oppressed or privileged. I don’t accept such false dichotomies, and I don’t accept the ad hominem implications that come with it. Too often, words like ‘privileged,’ ‘defensive,’ and ‘fragile’ are just ways to dismiss what another person has to say. Too often, words like ‘racist’ are just a way to intimidate someone into silence.” Parrett argued that people should work together to solve “real problems like wealth disparity, poverty, job insecurity, unemployment, the high cost of living, or the fracturing of the nuclear family, whatever form that family takes,” but are waylaid by those who claim the “real problems” are “racism, sexism, transphobia…[and] hateful words.”

“Thank you, Elisa,” said the facilitator, cutting Parrett off about three minutes into her remarks. “No, you don’t get to cut me off—I’m going to finish what I have to say,” she responded. “I’m going to ask that you share the platform with the rest of the 200 nearly people who are here today,” replied the facilitator. But Parrett continued for about another minute, telling the all-white attendees of the mandatory, segregated conversation that universities should be places where “ideas could be discussed, explored, debated, and assessed”—and that “this is not that.”


From there, things got heated and a bit of a pile-on ensued. The group seemed unhappy Parrett had injected such a skeptical and defiant note into the proceedings—a fair amount of cross-talk and accusation ensued—though she says a number of other colleagues thanked her (mostly privately) for speaking up. Soon the facilitator moved on, and the rest of the event proceeded without interruption.


Despite the minor uproar during the event, the initial response from LWTech’s administration appeared positive. Suzanne Ames, LWTech’s vice president of instruction, called Parrett after the training and asked her if she was OK. “It seemed supportive,” says Parrett. “I thought that she was just trying to be nice.” But five days later, on June 24, Parrett received an email from President Morrison with the subject line “The fall-out from your actions last Friday.”

It began, “In the seven years I have served as president and twenty years in the community and technical college system, I have never before sent such a serious email to any faculty member, let alone one newly tenured.” She wrote that as a result of Parrett’s statements, “many of [your colleagues] spent hours trying to decompress with their respective supervisors.” The only choice was an investigation: “Because of your egregious behavior which has led to substantial harm to hundreds of colleagues on campus, I have asked Dr. Ames, Dean Doug Emory, and [executive director of H.R.] Meena Park to meet with you in the next few days to have a serious conversation about how successful you can possibly be on campus in the future.”

From there, LWTech’s disciplinary apparatus—both formal and informal—ramped up quickly. Two days after Morrison’s email, an administrator informed Parrett that she was being placed on paid administrative leave for the summer quarter because of “allegations of a serious offense.” She would immediately lose access to her LWTech email and to Canvas, the college’s online learning platform. The nature of the offense was not specified.

That same day, Morrison devoted the entirety of her regular all-school email update, sent to thousands of people, to denouncing Parrett by name. “This email is a dramatic departure from the typical Amy’s Updates,” the 1,600-word message started. The incident at the training session, Morrison argued, “was so damaging that I asked the Executive Cabinet, EDI Council, and the Bias Response Team to assist me with this college-wide message.”

Morrison wrote to her community that she was “stunned, disappointed, angry, and shocked” by Parrett’s dissent during the training. Parrett was being removed from her teaching duties, she explained, to ensure “students are protected from conduct of the likes that she displayed last week.” In addition, LWTech would be establishing a new anti-racism task force and Morrison would be holding meetings with LWTech’s black employees. “We will continue race-based caucusing over the summer,” she assured her college, “for as long as it is needed.”


The same day that email went out, Parrett received the sole official disciplinary complaint this incident has generated. It was filed by Suzanne Ames, the administrator who had given Parrett that seemingly supportive call. The complaint accused Parrett of “insolent, insubordinate and disruptive behavior” that was “downright scary, startling, and bewildering as she yelled a diatribe,” and it said she had used her “new positional power [as a tenured professor] in a very corrupt, insolent and insubordinate manner.”


In addition to being Parrett’s friend and colleague, Phil Snider is her union grievance officer and has been serving as her advocate since the Courageous Conversations event. He says that LWTech’s pursuit of Parrett hasn’t followed the disciplinary procedures laid out in the college’s contract with its employees. Instead, Parrett and Snider claim, Morrison has appointed an ad hoc group of administrators to run an investigation that wasn’t following any established procedure. “This has become ridiculously complex,” Snider told me fairly early in the process. “The whole intent, this whole time, has been to get rid of Elisa Parrett, a tenured instructor, by whatever means possible,” he said.

But there’s an even bigger issue with the college’s investigation: Whether or not Parrett’s acts were “insolent, insubordinate and disruptive,” there’s only the thinnest case that she has even violated any rule. “Not any that they’ve been able to point out to me,” says Parrett. Indeed, there’s a strong argument that LWTech’s investigation has violated both its own internal guidelines (Snider pointed me toward multiple relevant clauses in the union-negotiated employment contract) and Parrett’s rights as an employee of a public university.

From the outset, it’s been clear that it would be difficult for LWTech to legally punish Parrett. As noted above, an employee of a public college benefits from strong First Amendment protections. Lindsie Rank, a program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), described the disciplinary process that Parrett was subjected to as “viewpoint discrimination” in a letter of concern the organization sent to LWTech last September. While requiring professors to attend diversity trainings is not generally seen as a violation of their free speech, public colleges “generally may not force faculty to conform to a political orthodoxy, or compel them to express political viewpoints, under the guise of diversity training,” another FIRE staffer told Inside Higher Ed in a story about a different controversy.

Parrett and Snider successfully argued that after Morrison had sent her denunciatory all-campus email, there would be conflict-of-interest issues if the “official” investigation wasn’t carried out independently. So the law firm Ogden Murphy Wallace prepared a 115-page set of draft findings on behalf of the school. Parrett sent me this, along with a second, 105-page collection of interview notes in February. According to these documents, the investigation was based on dozens of interviews with witnesses as well as “Relevant Evidence from the Zoom Chat, Texts, and Comments”—a Herculean effort to understand a four-minute interruption and its aftermath from every conceivable angle.

The documents describe Ames (“Complainant”) as having been viscerally disturbed by what happened. “During the event, the impact of the Respondent’s conduct on the Complainant personally was that it was a truly out-of-body experience,” the notes explain. “Their ears were ringing, and they were sweating, and their heart was racing. It was super-stressful.”


{snip} On March 26, LWTech sent Parrett a note informing her that the final punishment had been determined: a written reprimand, paired with guidelines pertaining to her future behavior.

Well, it was mostly over. That document’s language is strange in some of the same ways the draft report’s language was strange. Snider isn’t happy, for example, that the reprimand dictates that “Professor Parrett must not interrupt or undermine College efforts to fulfill the 2021-2024 Mission Fulfillment Plan…[including] Address[ing] and dismantl[ing] structural racism” (emphasis in the original). The fuzziness of this language could put Parrett at risk, since she has myriad disagreements with her college about how to fight structural racism and since she has every right to “undermine,” within reason, a goal she doesn’t agree with. Snider is on it, though: “I’m preparing a protest and yet another possible grievance requesting the references to topics Elisa may not discuss be eliminated,” he says.