Say goodbye to Justin Vitiello. At semester’s end, the professor of Italian packs up for a two-year term at Temple Rome for the third, and possibly final, time.
“I’ve pushed my lazy self to be constantly challenged intellectually, to challenge in return, to grow and, I hope, cultivate,” said Vitiello, reflecting on his 28 years with Temple.
When Vitiello departs for Rome, he’ll leave behind a remarkable legacy.
After leaving the University of Michigan in 1973 to come to Temple, following a year off in the woods of Vermont, Vitiello was on the forefront of multi-culturalism, an educational movement aimed at including the voices of oft-ignored minority and oppressed groups. In this vein, he began teaching “Quest for the American Dream” in 1977. The course studies the immigration phenomenon that makes America such a complex culture through the experiences of immigrants themselves.
In the classroom, Vitiello stresses the importance of considering and understanding other points of view. He values freedom of speech and freedom of thought, expecting others to think for themselves.
“If discovering the truth is radical, we should be radical,” he said.
It is with this passion for truth and justice that Vitiello recently encountered a pamphlet published by The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, titled “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It.” The council’s membership includes Lynne Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife.
“Defending Civilization,” published in November 2001, claims that “academe is the only sector of American society that is distinctly divided in its response [to the President’s decision to go to war]” and lists quotations gleaned from speakers across American campuses.
The pamphlet, which tries to stifle opposition or any kind of critical dialogue to or about the war, “attacks those with intellectual integrity [and] scholarly integrity,” said Vitiello.
Such advice as “an eye for an eye leaves the world blind,” credited anonymously to a “student sign at a Harvard rally,” made the list. The editors of the pamphlet failed to realize, as Vitiello pointed out, that this maxim can be traced to Gandhi.
Vitiello interprets this pamphlet as “fundamental academic freedom once again called into question.”
In protest, he submitted his name to the list, explaining in a letter to Cheney, “When I see atrocities being committed, I protest, as I did in Vietnam and the Nuclear Arms Race.”
He made the list, but, unsurprisingly, his name was unpublished. Instead, the editors of the list ignored most of Vitiello’s comments and printed only “I oppose the atrocities of my government,” crediting it simply to a “Temple University professor.”
Vitiello has a long history of activism. He participated in teach-ins and peaceful protests dating back to the Vietnam era, through the Reagan years and the Gulf War.
During Vietnam, for example, he and 500 other peace activists stopped traffic on I-75 in Michigan to talk to people about America’s bombing of Cambodia. After being dispersed by police cars barreling at 70 miles per hour and cops armed with billy clubs, it was a short two days before he was back on the street, protesting against a laboratory that was manufacturing anti-personnel bombs.
In addition to his teaching and activism, Vitiello supports students in campus organizations. He serves as the faculty advisor for Temple’s chapter of Amnesty International; SYSTEM, an anti-death penalty organization; The Temple Progressive Student Alliance; and The Temple Informer, a politically charged newsletter.
Vitiello is also a published poet. He will read samples of his work on Sunday, May 5, at the University of Pennsylvania as part of a Conference of Italian American Culture and on Tuesday, May 28 at Robin’s Bookstore at 108 S. 13th St. These may be his last readings in Philadelphia, as he is considering retirement in Italy.
Richard Charles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org