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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: The hothouse habitat of campus activism
A few weeks ago, our Katie Mangan wrote about a baffling case of faculty-on-faculty harassment in the University of California system. You should read the whole story, but here’s the upshot: Ivonne del Valle, an associate professor of colonial studies in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Berkeley, was found to have serially harassed Joshua Clover, a professor of English at UC Davis (and, incidentally, a Chronicle Review contributor) — keying his car, stalking him, leaving abusive messages by his mother’s house, and so on.
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A few weeks ago, our Katie Mangan wrote about a baffling case of faculty-on-faculty harassment in the University of California system. You should read the whole story, but here’s the upshot: Ivonne del Valle, an associate professor of colonial studies in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Berkeley, was found to have serially harassed Joshua Clover, a professor of English at UC Davis (and, incidentally, a Chronicle Review contributor) — keying his car, stalking him, leaving abusive messages by his mother’s house, and so on. For del Valle’s part, some suspect she is suffering from psychiatric illness. She is currently on paid administrative leave, with the option of taking an 18-month unpaid suspension or else risk tenure revocation.
It’s a sad case, and at first it might appear to be a merely freakish one — intrinsically interesting but without any larger stakes for the university. But in October, 15 of del Valle’s undergraduate and graduate supporters protested her punishment by occupying a football field ahead of a game between the University of Southern California and UC. They were arrested. More bizarrely, protesting students threatened UC Berkeley chancellor Carol T. Christ with a hunger strike, which they presented as part of a tradition of necessary revolt at the University of California. “This will not be the first time,” they wrote to Christ, “that students of color must resort to a hunger strike under your watch” — referring to a series of ethnic-studies protests, including a hunger strike, in 1999 that resulted in the creation of a campus multicultural community center. (Those events are now triumphantly recounted by UC Berkeley’s Division of Equity and Inclusion.) “We reiterate,” the students continued, “how far are you willing to go before you fix an injustice? Are you willing to risk students’ lives over this?” By articulating their threats and demands against the background of the successful 1999 protests, del Valle’s champions position themselves as inheritors of a tradition of activism that has been to some extent ratified by the university itself.
In other words, this isn’t just a story about a perhaps-unwell professor and her victim. It’s a story about campus activism and, depending on your point of view, its promises or pathologies. Del Valle was much beloved by her undergraduate and graduate students. She seems to have been a wonderful teacher. It’s unsurprising that her students would have trouble processing the painful facts the university’s investigations revealed about her. Attempts to protect her from adverse employment consequences might seem noble, or at least understandable. Less understandable is the insistence, in the face of all evidence, that del Valle is the real victim here, sacrificed to a system of racialized injustice thought to infect every aspect of university operations. An open letter from supporters put it this way: Berkeley “needs to start treating our Latinx professors with respect.” Del Valle herself has encouraged that interpretation: “I don’t want UC Berkeley to think that they can do this to a minority woman in order to protect a white, senior professor. It’s not acceptable.”
Students’ immediate recourse to militant protest tactics such as the hunger strike over what is an unpleasant but essentially nonpolitical HR matter reflects, perhaps, a newly dominant culture of activism, one which has achieved a degree of unprecedented autonomy. Radical action has become the default manner of responding to anything students feel unhappy about — or at least, it has come to feel like a highly available option. Or, put differently: Militancy attracts in its own right, and students are on the lookout for occasions to practice it.
Of course, skeptical observers of campus protest have long perceived something like this autonomization of activism as an activity for its own sake. In an essay about the campus revolts of the 1960s, the University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils refers to the “innovation in student radicalism that has occurred in Northwestern Europe and the United States” as a “moral mood,” a certain set toward the world. Some stimuli toward radicalism, Shils acknowledges, are legitimate — he names especially “the war in Vietnam with all its cruelty and its unending ineffectiveness and the menace of conscription into the most individuality-constricting of environments.” But for Shils, Vietnam is the exception that proves the rule: “There are scarcely any other issues … that do not seem contrived by those who are bent on confrontation.”
It would be uncharitable to accuse del Valle’s student supporters of being merely “bent on confrontation.” Their affection for their teacher is valid, and their commitment to her is moving. Still, very few people outside of the hothouse habitat of student activism will feel that a hunger strike is a proportionate response to del Valle’s situation. The intrinsic attractions of militancy in an environment that valorizes activism for its own sake help explain the students’ readiness to go to the wall. In Shils’s acerbic formulation, “It is authority that the radical students wish to confront and affront — and almost any stick will do for the camel.”
- “Like a sensitive Austro-Hungarian clerk in some newly annexed village in the Balkans … I can’t help but be struck by the astounding wisdom of folk-superstitions.” In his Substack, Justin E.H. Smith-Ruiu writes about dead people.
- “Public memory is a political project whose relationship to fact is … precarious.” In the New York Review of Books, Susan Neiman critiques what she sees as Germany’s recent turn toward “philosemitic McCarthyism.”
- A group of over two hundred philosophers signed an open letter asking “fellow philosophers to join us in solidarity with Palestine and the struggle against apartheid and occupation.” The Yale political philosopher Seyla Benhabib explains why she didn’t sign.
- “We’re in a time where objectivity is hard, and that’s not a good thing for historians.” So says Ken Wise, the new board president of the Texas State Historical Association, which, as Henry Gass explains in the Christian Science Monitor, has been in turmoil.
- On Democracy Now, Brown University’s Omer Bartov on the war in Gaza.
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