Why Nick Mitchell Is Returning the Chancellor’s Achievement Award for Diversity

February 21, 2020

Mitchell's award left on the doorstep of the Chancellor's office.

Dear Chancellor Cynthia Larive,

Last year I received, from your predecessor George Blumenthal, the 2019 Chancellor’s Achievement Award for Diversity. I was proud then to accept the award. I took it to represent UC Santa Cruz’s continued recognition, not of me in some narrow fashion but to the collective worlds that made me possible. Those worlds included a decade of work by undergraduate and graduate students, staff, and faculty over the past decade to build the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) Program.

I am proud of our work in CRES. When I arrived here in 2015, we had seven majors. Five years later, we have over 150, fueled by a vibrant undergraduate culture and skilled teachers among our graduate Designated Emphasis students. We have done so by being bold and fearless in a political context in which we might well have recoiled. When white nationalists, emboldened by the ascent of the current White House inhabitant, began flyering on this campus, we in CRES did not cower. Rather, we increased our enrollments, understanding well that doing so increased the likelihood that one of those nationalists might land in one of our classrooms. We prepared to contest the lethality of their rhetoric, and tried not to worry too much that the lethality of their ideology has been enforced by firearms. 

We did so knowing that one of those nationalists had already threatened one of our faculty members. We did so knowing that white nationalists were invading Ethnic Studies classes on other UC Campuses.

And did so while the cost of living was rising. Meteorically. Every quarter we have multiple students—graduate and undergraduate—experiencing food and housing insecurity. Every quarter we have students who are evicted. We built CRES knowing that people teaching subjects that are more prized and better resourced on this campus walk into their classrooms with none of these concerns.

Today, along with this letter, I am returning the Chancellor’s Achievement Award. My reason for returning the award is simple: your administration’s reckless and harmful response to the graduate workers’ Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) campaign raises grave concerns as to the way UC Santa Cruz values diversity. As one of a scarce few black faculty members at UCSC, witnessing this response has been disturbing, to say the least. If you only value diversity insofar as it smiles but sweep it aside when it expresses its grievances in public confrontation, your commitment to diversity is shallow and superficial at best. At worst it is exploitative and opportunistic.

Know this: when you respond to a protest against the socioeconomic conditions that fuel hunger, eviction and insecurity with tear gas cannons, handcuffs, batons, guns, and tasers, you are sending a clear message to the black and brown members in the university community: this is a campus where safety is enforced by the institutions and the instruments that endanger our lives. This is the case regardless of the race of the person at whom those cannons and batons are pointed: we know—and this is an historically informed knowing—that they will eventually be pointed at us. Yours appears, in other words, to be a definition of safety experienced by many of us as terror. This is not a fact that you appear to have considered in advance, if your comments at the recent (2/19) meeting of the Academic Senate are any indication.

Because of your lack of foresight on those matters, I am engaging in the time-honored and exhausting practice engaged by black folks who gain some degree of privilege in white-run power structures: namely, trying to save you from making a grave and hubristic mistake. If you fire the graduate students who are withholding grades—upon many of whom you rely to teach those classes that fulfill your diversity breadth requirements—there will be consequences. You see yourself as disciplining insubordinates. Others will see you as destroying the human infrastructure that minoritized students and faculty rely upon to survive. Many will perceive this firing as a continuation of the institutional racism expressed in the daily deployment of 50-100 riot-gear clad police (at the cost of over a million dollars) to cast their pallor over a peaceful protest. 

They will not be wrong.

Since you have pledged to fire graduate students at midnight, you still have a small window of opportunity to alter this perception. You still have an opportunity to take leadership in addressing head-on the very inequities that this university claims to—at least when that claim suits its branding purposes.

But if you insist on firing the striking workers, I have some small requests for you.

First, I would request that you not plead ignorance if and when underrepresented student-of-color matriculation to UCSC plummets. Do not create diversity initiatives in which you offer yourself occasion for self-congratulation in remedying a problem that you could easily have avoided fueling.

Second, I request that you kindly refrain from feigning surprise when this institution begins to hemorrhage faculty and students of color, or when it struggles mightily to recruit and/or retain them. When they go elsewhere, please don’t write it off as some natural consequence of the market. When you can change the course of hundreds of lives with a few strokes of the pen, you, Chancellor Larive, are the market. You have elected to wield the market forces of punishment and intimidation against those who are demanding better access to goods that our vulturine housing market and socioeconomic conditions offer at best difficult or unstable access. We recognize that the COLA campaign is one that aims to make it possible to sustain the work that we do here, and to bring more people into it in the future. 

Third, please do not mistake your staff, students, and faculty for fools. We understand that the mass firing that you are poised to enact has been conducted with the machinery of institutional racism. We recognize it. We’ve known it all our lives, and we know that the struggle to trust and name what we see has been a hard-won one.

Emblazoned across the barn at the base of campus where you stationed dozens of officers to monitor and harass picketers is a banner. It announces the yearly convocation UCSC dedicates to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. From the picket line one could see riot helmets imposing themselves on the visage of a man whose most famous piece of writing was issued from a Birmingham jail cell.

I take particular exception to the fact that your attack on workers occurs during Black History Month. When King’s life was stolen, he was in Memphis, where he had traveled to support sanitation workers who were fighting for less lethal working conditions against violently arrayed state forces.

They, not unlike our students today, were conducting a wildcat strike.

I am leaving my Chancellor’s Award at the front desk of Kerr Hall. You should expect other past recipients of the award to soon express their intentions to follow suit.

Nick Mitchell
Associate Professor
Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Program
Feminist Studies Department