Summer heat leaves University of Montana French professor Michel Valentin without a scarf to flip across his shoulders, as he so often does to punctuate whatever criticism du jour he's hurling at campus administrators. On a recent morning, Valentin was instead wearing a thin, white sportcoat over a v-neck T-shirt. The jacket highlights his wispy white hair, and on its lapel he's pinned an image of the O'odham peoples' creator god, I'itoi, traditionally depicted as the "man in the maze."
He doesn't mention it, but the man in the maze is à propos of Valentin's present quandary. While the labyrinth is a metaphor for life's trials, I'itoi himself is said to have retired, as a little old man, to a mountain cave. For the last five years, Valentin has been the fiercest defender of liberal arts education at UM, protesting budget cuts at every turn while accusing UM and state officials of a coordinated assault on the humanities. Should they try to shut down the French program, or oust him through retrenchment, Valentin is the professor who would be expected to handcuff himself to his desk. He would never go willingly, or quietly.
Except he's doing precisely that. The morning we met, July 17, was Valentin's last day of 30 years as a UM professor of French and critical theory. He did not wait for the guillotine so he could sing hymns upon its scaffold. Valentin, 70, is taking a buyout, one of 20 professors over age 60 who have agreed to retire this summer in exchange for six months' salary so the university can save costs. Their positions, Interim President Sheila Stearns has said, will not be replaced.
- photo by Parker Seibold
- If more faculty were willing to speak out, Michel Valentin says, UM wouldn’t be in such dire straits today.
Valentin is aware that his enemies may see irony in UM's most intransigent political dissenter agreeing to take a buyout—or, in his words, "sell out." And he has created plenty of enemies with a political style that polite Americans might chide as divisive, which this reporter once described as "bomb throwing," and which he calls "loud-mouthed." Valentin is a member of the UM Advocacy Coalition, a group of faculty that has resisted academic budget cuts since the early days of the university's lengthy enrollment crisis. Their approach has elicited rebukes from student government, faculty leaders and administrators alike, who have tended to see the coalition has too alarmist, too aggressive and too loose with facts. "Faculty members that are upset with the current situation should attempt to work constructively with UM students and administration moving forward," read a student government resolution from 2013, as the coalition was staging its first rallies. Valentin himself was called a hypocrite by Vice President Mike Reid during a public meeting in 2015 for complaining that officials were slow to respond to the crisis while simultaneously protesting budget cuts. And when, during an emergency faculty union meeting earlier this year, Valentin suggested they go on strike, none of his peers spoke in support.
"I appreciate the vigor of their conviction and think they have the university's best interests at heart," says professor Liz Putnam, while declining to comment on Valentin personally. "I just disagree with some of their methods."
Valentin knows his style of protest has been out of sync with the majority of his UM peers. That's because the academy, he says, has become a "pathetic, petit-bourgeois ghetto" overtaken by conformists and capitalists, and where dissenters are dismissed as radicals.
In this environment, liberal arts education requires an impassioned defense, even a reimagining, to survive, yet UM is paralyzed, he says. Valentin variously taps his fingers on the table, contorts them into shapes—a rhizome signifying capitalism, a tightrope for his own predicament—to punctuate his points. He sweeps his hands in circles as he sketches his vision for a reimagined liberal education, in which fields such as French are embedded in academic clusters instead of stand-alone degrees.
But Valentin will not be around to make that case. With Valentin gone, he says, UM's already shrinking French section will be down to two and a half faculty, and administrators will forge ahead with "program prioritization," a euphemism for the bureaucratic process he has equated with faculty slitting their own throats.
"That bothers me a lot, but what can I do?" he says.
Valentin says there's no martyrdom behind his decision to retire, no attempt to spare younger faculty the axe. He's just fed up, demoralized and disoriented, as indicated in a private "testimonial" he distributed to friends to explain his departure. The letter is four pages long and includes more than a dozen footnotes, including one reference to Hitler.
"When those who try to save the Humanities are accused of burning academia," he writes near the conclusion, "it is time to go to the mountain."