An internal investigation by Clark College didn’t corroborate Steve Wallace’s claim that he was denigrated by a guest speaker, but the Vancouver man is taking his case to court
VANCOUVER — A 63-year-old Vancouver man is asking for $500,000 in damages from the state after alleging he was called a “white supremacist spy” by a visiting speaker while taking a women’s studies course at Clark College last year.
A Clark County Superior Court judge denied a request by the state attorney general’s office to outright dismiss the claim during a hearing last week, but the judge did ask Steven Wallace, who is representing himself in the case, to clarify the factual and legal basis for his claim against the state before returning to court.
Wallace, who is retired from the insurance industry, says he is seeking to extract financial damages for what he considered to be an unprovoked attack by a class speaker last November, one that he believes to have been an act of discrimination and harassment based on his age, race or gender. He also claims that when he sought to bring the matter to the attention of his instructor, he was forced to profess that he was not in fact a spy and that subsequent efforts to file a complaint with the college were needlessly delayed or ignored.
According to a March 2 investigation report completed by the college in the months after Wallace’s claim, the Vancouver man had been taking the class through the Gold Star Program, which allows seniors to sign up for classes that have not reached capacity for a nominal fee, provided they receive the permission of the professor.
Wallace said he would have preferred to have taken a class focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but that those classes had no openings.
The incident in question occurred Nov. 7, 2017, in the classroom of faculty member Dian Ulner, who was hosting a Women of Color panel as she routinely does.
Wallace claims one of the speakers, Juliet McGraw, “pointed directly at him using both hands and said, ‘Some white supremacists have gone so far as to plant spies in classrooms,’” according to the college’s report on the matter.
Wallace said he was singled out because he is an older, white male.
“I’m the only old, geriatric white guy in the crowd,” he said. “I just sat there. I didn’t say a word.”
Ulner and McGraw both had different accounts, according to the report on the investigation of his subsequent complaint with the college. Ulner said McGraw was speaking in response to a student’s question regarding how women of color are impacted by right wing politicians and that she didn’t recall the term “white supremacists” being used.
After not responding to a couple of Wallace’s emails following Nov. 7 because she expected to discuss the matter before or after class, Ulner said she spoke with him after class participants from that day and a student stayed behind.
“Well, are you a spy?” Ulner asked him according to the report, saying that she was attempting to use humor in the situation.
“Is that your response?” Wallace responded.
The exchange was repeated twice, according to the report, before Ulner finally said, “I’m kind of thinking you are not a spy. I am wondering why you are taking this so personally.”
“I stand out like a sore thumb in class,” Wallace reportedly responded. “I am white, male and old.”
Ulner said she thought McGraw was speaking about people in general and not Wallace specifically and that she was trying to make a point, but Ulner recognized the matter had made Wallace very angry during their after-class exchange.
McGraw, described by the college as an indigenous woman from the First Nation, told the college after the complaint that she doesn’t think she would use such a phrase and that she would never point, adding that culturally she considers pointing to be an aggressive gesture.
Other students and a speaker interviewed by the college said they didn’t specifically remember the incident.
McGraw said she did remember white supremacy coming up as part of the discussion in one of the three classes she spoke in Nov. 7. She said it was in the context of discussing her belief that it was not unusual for confrontive students to “come into or infiltrate” a women’s studies class to find out what was being taught. She said some are even paid to be there.
Four students selected by the college to be interviewed in the matter said they didn’t recall the words “white supremacist spy” being used, but Wallace said he stands by his claim and doesn’t have much faith in the outcome of the college’s internal investigation.
He agreed with those who said he would often attempt to refute teaching he believed to be incorrect, but he said he was never combative about it and was simply speaking his point of view.
For example, Wallace claims an instructor taught that the word “picnic” arose from a time when families and friends would gather for lynchings and therefore shouldn’t be used in modern times. Additionally, as another example, he said the word “Hispanic” was frowned upon because it contains the word “panic” and rose to prominence during the Nixon era, purported facts he adamantly disputes.
“It’s oppression theory 101,” Wallace said. “It has nothing to do with women’s studies.”
While Wallace said he would often confront the instructor with information and facts countering those and other arguments, he’s not sure if that approach in some way led to a guest speaker allegedly referring to him as a “white supremacist spy.”
He said he’s never been party to a lawsuit and had no other goal than to learn what was being taught when he signed up for the class.
If the college hadn’t delayed response to his complaint, as he claims it did, he said it would have never ended up as a legal matter. In the college’s report, it acknowledges that short-staffing and the holidays led to a slow response to his complaint, adding that changes have been made to correct the shortcomings.
Additionally, the college committed to developing a procedure for informing guest speakers of the college’s harassment and discrimination policy, though the report concluded that Wallace was not the victim of discrimination based on his age, race or gender.
“I’m not an activist,” he said. “I took the class just because I was curious.”
While eschewing the activist label, Wallace did admit that the case involving an Oregon bakery that was fined and brought into court for refusing to serve a gay couple did serve as motivation for his decision to file a claim against the college and the state.
Ultimately, though, he said he has one main motivating factor.
“Money,” Wallace said. “Lots and lots of money.”