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Jim Kenyon: A Radical Departure

Russell Rickford’s job at Dartmouth didn’t require him to swing a hammer, push a broom or wash a dish. Still, the college’s blue-collar workers look at the 38-year-old history professor as one of them.

Last Saturday, they made it official. Rickford became an honorary lifetime member of Local 560 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 500 food service workers, custodians, security guards and employees working in the trades at the college.

“I really appreciate what you’ve done for us,” union President Earl Sweet told Rickford during a brief ceremony at Local 560’s family barbecue at Storrs Pond in Hanover. “You’ve taught students what unions are all about.”

This week, Rickford is wrapping up nearly five years in Hanover. In the fall, he’ll join the history department as a tenure-track professor at Ivy League counterpart Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Rickford’s departure leaves a void for Dartmouth to fill that goes beyond his expertise in 20th century civil rights and black nationalism. Rickford was the rare professor on the Dartmouth campus who ventured to speak out when he perceived a social injustice had occurred, and encouraged students to do the same. He led protests and supported students’ efforts to make Dartmouth’s administration and trustees more accountable when it came to issues such as racism and sexual assaults on campus.

“Dartmouth is not generally thought of as a mecca for activism,” said Rickford after I approached him at the union gathering. Throughout the academic world ­(not just at Dartmouth), he said, “so many of us discuss ideas of justice and social inequality in the classroom, but we don’t do anything about it. There’s no real compulsion to put those ideas into action.

“In recent years, it’s become apparent that there is very little difference between higher education and corporate America.”

Shortly after arriving in Hanover, Rickford locked arms with a small group of students who had started a campaign to help preserve blue-collar jobs on campus in 2010. “Having a faculty member who was that concerned about workers’ rights confirmed to us how important it was what we were doing,” said Guillermo Rojas, now a senior.

After losing $800 million of its endowment in arguably risky investments during the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, the college was looking to cut $100 million in spending. Union jobs were in jeopardy. At a campus rally, Rickford joined history professor Annelise Orleck, who also attended Saturday’s barbecue, in publicly supporting employees on the bottom rung of the college’s economic ladder. A fair number of professors will “come up and say they support us, but only a few are willing to do it in the open,” said Sweet.

In the summer of 2010, the college and the union agreed to no layoffs. In exchange, the union gave up pay raises for two years. After layoffs were averted, Rickford continued talking with students in and out of class about organized labor’s role in corporate America. Local 560 leaders wanted to show their appreciation, so they surprised him Saturday by making him an honorary member. (They also gave him a plaque and a pocket watch.) “The guy has a nose for activism,” said Peter Marsh, who works in the college’s paint shop. “He knows how to inspire students.”

Rickford grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., the son of two college professors. A journalism major at Howard University, Rickford started out as a newspaper reporter. But he figured out fairly quickly that there were better ways to make a living. In 2009, he earned his Ph.D in history at Columbia University and was hired for a tenure-track position at Dartmouth.

He quickly made his presence felt around campus. Dartmouth blogger Joe Asch referred to Rickford as an “old-fashioned radical,” a label that Rickford didn’t mind. “Higher education is one of the last occupations that even maintains the veneer of intellectual objectivity and freedom.”

He used that freedom to urge Dartmouth students to leave their “cocoon” and use their Ivy League degrees for more than just a ticket to high-paying jobs in investment banking and consulting.

“I don’t think I changed anyone’s career path,” he said. But Rojas and junior Melissa Padilla took up Rickford’s invitation to attend the union barbecue and “explore the common ground between students and workers.” Said Padilla, “Professor Rickford really feels it in his heart. It’s an ideology that he believes in and wants to introduce to students.”

Dartmouth treated him well, Rickford told me. But when a tenure-track position opened up at Cornell, he saw it as a “good opportunity for my family.” Russell and his wife, Adrienne Clay, have a daughter entering first grade. Ithaca is surprisingly racially diverse. More than 30 percent of Ithaca’s public school students are members of minority groups.

“It’s unfortunate that he’s leaving,” said Susan Russell, Local 560’s secretary and treasurer. “We need him. We have contract negotiations coming up.”

Dartmouth’s loss is Cornell’s gain.