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.
Parrett is far from a perfect victim. While she was under investigation, she became convinced that the election had been stolen from Donald Trump. She and her husband eventually attended the infamous "Stop the Steal" rally on January 6, 2021. (The two insist that they protested peacefully and did not enter the U.S. Capitol or participate in the riot.) Some people will likely discount her story because of her participation in an understandably reviled political demonstration, but that would be a mistake. What happened to Parrett, while not common, is part of a trend toward an intolerant approach to political differences—one in which disagreement on mainstream political issues is reframed as a form of harm.
'I Have Never Before Sent Such a Serious Email to Any Faculty Member'
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." In other words, if you want academics to engage in quality thinking, they have to be allowed to think out loud without fear of being fired if they say something that makes someone angry.
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. (I was very critical of White Fragility on the podcast I co-host, Blocked and Reported, and my co-host Katie Herzog has interviewed a woman who went through a DiAngelo training that she found cultlike and humiliating.)
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."
The whole thing took closer to four minutes than the five Parrett asked for, but it did undeniably disrupt the event and change its tenor. According to Parrett, the chat sidebar lit up during and after her statement, with many of her colleagues saying they were disturbed by what she was saying—sentiments they then expressed vocally after Parrett finished her address. "Yeah, that was awkward," said one colleague. "It would be wonderful if you could help us with processing that," another participant told the facilitator. The facilitator in turn referred everyone to an "emotion slide" that the group had been using to indicate what emotions its members were feeling.
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.
Before we go further, we should note two things about Parrett's statement. First, one could very reasonably argue that asking for five minutes of time from a group of 200 people—especially to read a statement written not in response to the particulars of the event, but to express more fundamental disagreement about its existence and raison d'être—is uncivil or tone-deaf or both, even in the context of an event titled "Courageous Conversations." We don't have to pretend that what Parrett did is exactly the same as simply disagreeing with a peer on a specific point in the flow of a specific, ongoing conversation.
But, second, nothing in the content of what Parrett said is anywhere outside the mainstream of American political debate. It's the sort of thing one could find any day of the week in a David Brooks column, for instance. Some of the ideas she expressed, like a preference for focusing more on class and less on race, are being loudly debated even in many leftist spaces.
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."
'Insolent, Insubordinate and Disruptive Behavior'
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."
When I emailed Ames for more detail about the complaint, she responded: "I observed the college's operations effectively stopping after the training and [Parrett's] interruption because colleagues needed to process what happened, and meet with supervisors to talk through the effect it had on them, personally." In this telling, a large cohort of professors and academic administrators were so emotionally devastated by hearing someone raise concerns about White Fragility–style diversity trainings that they could no longer do their jobs. In both my response to Ames and a follow-up with a university spokeswoman, I asked if I could speak with any of these alleged victims. I was never put in touch with any.
In her email to me, Ames doubled down on her claim that Parrett's behavior in the meeting had been frothingly out of control, writing that Parrett had "started aggressively yelling at folks in the meeting." At the time, Ames didn't know I had access to the leaked audio, in which Parrett does occasionally raise her voice to be heard but never comes across as anywhere nearly as aggressive or bullying as Ames described. When I sent Ames the audio file and asked her to point me to where Parrett yelled at anyone, a university spokeswoman who was on the thread jumped in, writing that "The audio speaks for itself but does not reflect Elisa's visible anger." Apparently, Parrett was "aggressively yelling at folks in the meeting" but it was the kind of aggressive yelling that doesn't show up on audio.
I was also curious about Ames' claim that she found Parrett's conduct "downright scary," so I asked her about that as well—whether she herself was personally scared or felt some sense of physical threat. Ames responded that she was scared on behalf of hypothetical marginalized students Parrett might teach. "If I wasn't able to fully comprehend her in that meeting when she was yelling, then knowing what she thought after I read her speech, how could I expect our most vulnerable students to sit in her classroom knowing how she felt?"
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."
The draft findings represent a private investigator's efforts to determine whether there was "a preponderance of evidence"—enough for the case to move forward—that Parrett's behavior qualified for six fairly subjective descriptions that matched what Ames charged in her complaint. For example, the investigator evaluated whether Parrett engaged in "Insolent and disruptive behavior" and exhibited "Visible anger, yelling, and [a] divisive manner." The connections to actual, codified school rules are thin; at one point the investigator pulled some language from the "Faculty Teaching Handbook" to evaluate whether Parrett violated it.
"In 15 years at the college, 10 of which I have been involved in grievance resolution and contract bargaining, I have never seen or heard of [the handbook] being referenced as authoritative," Snider says. "The last two times it was revised, the revisions were done by administrative staff, not by faculty. The pamphlet has been without weight in labor-management discussions in the last 20 years." Elsewhere, the findings focused on whether Parrett violated the "values" of the college as "listed on its web page." It seems almost too obvious to point out that if a faculty member is deemed to have violated the "values" of their institution, but that "violation" doesn't map onto an actual disciplinary infraction, it has little disciplinary meaning. And yet the findings seemed fixated on such minutiae. Overall, more than 200 pages of documents built only a thin, circumstantial, and potentially constitutionally fraught case against Parrett.
According to Parrett, the college's campaign against her disrupted what would have been, COVID-19 aside, an enjoyable period of her career. Gaining tenure "gave me a sense of stability," she says. "I loved the school where I worked, I loved my students. And I was really excited to settle down, to have a job I knew I was going to stay at a place where I was really happy. We actually had [a] baby because I was on a tenure-track position." But during her investigation, she felt her life was "completely up in the air."
During that period, Parrett also started to slide down a conspiratorial rabbit hole, which ultimately led her to attend the "Stop the Steal" rally with her husband. I couldn't help but wonder whether this would have happened if she hadn't been so suddenly cut off from a full-time job, and in a way that would likely spark or exacerbate some of the grievances Trump is so skilled at stoking. That might have made for a tidier, more satisfying story, but Parrett insists it wasn't the case—she says she went to the rally partly because her husband said it was important to him. (Plus, the fact that she voted for Trump in 2020 means that, statistically speaking, she likely would have been susceptible to his claims about a "steal" no matter what.)
The Parrett investigation was very expensive for the college. In December, Parrett forwarded me an email from Meena Park, LWTech's executive director of human resources, in which Park noted that "the bill for the investigation is nearing $80k." That was just the cost of the investigation itself; according to Snider, it didn't include the other associated costs, like replacing Parrett in her virtual classroom or the labor various administrators have poured into this cause. In December, Snider estimated a much higher total: "I think we're closing in on a quarter of a million dollars so the administration can find an excuse to fire a tenured instructor," he told me. By now the total must be significantly higher. (LWTech did not respond to a request for comment about the price of the investigation.) This comes at a time when, as the Washington state–focused outlet Crosscut reported, the state's looming budget cuts "could dwarf those of the Great Recession."
'I Think It Caused an Incalculable Amount of Pain and Trauma'
Then, suddenly, the whole thing was over. 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.
It is fairly remarkable that such a costly and convoluted investigation led to a written reprimand. I don't think anyone keeps stats on such matters, but it wouldn't be surprising if this were one of the more expensive written reprimands in community-college history. If LWTech had proposed this outcome back in June, in lieu of suspension and the protracted investigation, Snider says he would have encouraged Parrett to take the deal.
She likely would have agreed. "I would have accepted a written reprimand at the start of this process if it had been offered," she says, "but I do not think I ever could have accepted a demand that I stop voicing my dissent publicly." It didn't matter, because no such deal was offered anyway. (LWTech did not respond to a request for comment about why it did not present Parrett with such an offer before embarking on its investigation.)
The drive to punish people for political disagreement is a human thing, not a liberal or a conservative thing. Illiberal crackdowns on speech flow from right to left and vice versa. In 2018, for example, I reported on an incident in which a CUNY student was investigated for a comment about Zionism that a pro-Israel student said she found traumatic. Were it not for the intervention of the legal-aid organization Palestine Legal, he could have faced institutional consequences for what was clearly an act of protected speech. In that case, as in Parrett's, administrators intimidated the accused without clearly stating what rule he had broken. More recently, some conservative state legislators have sought to ban diversity trainings that make certain "divisive" left-wing claims—Iowa legislators, for example, are seeking to ban the claim that Iowa itself is fundamentally racist. Whatever you think of that opinion, making it illegal to state it during a training represents a clear attempt to stifle political speech during diversity trainings.
But despite the fact that "both sides do it," stories like Parrett's arguably represent a worsening issue in progressive communities. This isn't something that can be easily measured, leading to disagreement about whether it's a problem worth focusing on at all—hence the common claim that anti–"cancel culture" pundits are just stringing together scattered anecdotes and have some ulterior motive, like a desire to be able to spew bigotry without censure. Perhaps the best way forward is to table that sub-debate and focus instead on the specific features of these blowups. We can discuss whether these features are worrisome without coming to a full agreement about frequency or trendlines.
In parts of academia and media, it appears to be increasingly common for left-leaning people to make inflated claims of harm when they are exposed within their community to opinions that might rate as blandly center-right or even center-left in a broader context. In other words, the victims of these inquisitions are often accused of having perpetrated a level of harm that would strike a reasonable observer as a profound exaggeration of what occurred.
Parrett's case is drenched in harm claims. According to the LWTech administration, hundreds of her colleagues were rendered so distraught by her words they couldn't even do their jobs. She also needed to be punished, according to Ames, for the harm she could commit against a hypothetical student from a marginalized background.
In progressive communities threatened by illiberalism, this hysterical style of accusation is now commonplace. Take the story of David Shor, the young data scientist fired by Civis Analytics after tweeting a link to a study suggesting nonviolent protest is more effective than its violent counterpart. After his tweet, Shor was accused, as his chief antagonist Ari Trujillo Wesler put it, of committing an act that "reeks of anti-Blackness." Then, as Jonathan Chait reported, he was kicked off an important professional listserv because, as the moderators of that listserv explained to thousands of his colleagues, he "encouraged harassment that led to death threats instead of choosing to learn and grow from his mistake." No evidence was provided for those charges.
Similarly, in 2017 the philosopher Rebecca Tuvel was accused by a fellow professional philosopher of "enact[ing] violence and perpetuat[ing] harm" via a controversial paper she wrote on "transracialism" (though in that case, while she endured an alarming ransacking of her reputation, she wasn't fired or deplatformed). And just last month, when The New York Times covered the fallout from a Journal of the American Medical Association podcast in which the concept of structural racism was mildly criticized, the article included a quote from a physician who described the podcast in terms one might reserve for the drive-by shooting of a toddler. "I think it caused an incalculable amount of pain and trauma to Black physicians and patients," she said. "And I think it's going to take a long time for the journal to heal that pain."
Some people are likely, again, to write these examples off as meaningless anecdotes. But many intellectuals have been noting this tendency toward inflated claims of harm on the left for a while now. In 2016, the Australian psychologist Nick Haslam wrote a key paper, "Concept Creep: Psychology's Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology," that critiqued several examples from his own (overwhelmingly liberal) field. That in turn was picked up by Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, whose article "How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm" included plenty of non-ivory-tower examples. Other thinkers, on very different parts of the left, have noticed similar developments: That same year, Sarah Schulman wrote a book called Conflict Is Not Abuse that critiqued overstated harm claims in leftist communities. When an Australian psychologist, a heterodox American liberal, and a lesbian feminist activist are all criticizing the same phenomenon from different angles, perhaps it would be premature to write that phenomenon off as the fears of a bunch of old crusty white guys with outmoded views.
In this worldview, everything is a harm. There is no such thing as legitimate political disagreement, because we (the progressive in-group) already know the correct answer to every question (even if the answer can sometimes change overnight), and anyone who disagrees clearly—clearly—does so not because of some well-founded political or philosophical difference but because that person wants to harm the innocent people we are righteously hellbent on protecting. There is literally no other explanation for such a difference of opinion, and it doesn't matter whether the opinion being denounced is held by the majority of Americans.
It is simply toxic to treat mainstream disagreement about political issues as harmful and worthy of discipline. Yet in some circles, this style of zealotry is not just present but escalating.
"Dr. Morrison is ideologically committed to defeating systemic racism," says Phil Snider. "Heaven knows there's nothing wrong in the world with defeating racism wherever you find it. The problem is she has only one perception of how that's to be pursued, and anybody who suggests—Hey, there might be another way; can we talk about this?—is going to catch what Elisa has caught."
It would be nice to imagine that what's going on at LWTech is restricted to one cartoonishly out-of-control college administration. But that's just not true.