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UC Berkeley Students Threaten Hunger Strike to Reinstate Professor Suspended for Stalking

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a Latina woman with long hair and glasses stands in front of a whiteboard
Professor Ivonne del Valle speaks during a student-led town hall meeting to discuss progress and future actions to reinstate the professor at the University of California, Berkeley, on Oct. 25, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This story contains a clarification.

A growing group of UC Berkeley students has been staging a months-long protest campaign demanding that the university bring a suspended Spanish and Portuguese professor back to campus. They’ve shared testimonies highlighting how influential Ivonne del Valle has been both as a mentor and as a leading scholar at a school with few Latinx faculty.

“Professor del Valle isn’t just any faculty member, she’s the top expert in colonial studies,” said Emily Chamale, a second year UC Berkeley student, at a protest last month. “The question that haunts me is: If someone as respected as her is going through such things at Berkeley, what might the future be for the rest of us?”

But records obtained by KQED paint a troubling picture of what led to del Valle’s suspension. Over three investigations, which looked into behavior that began in 2018 and continued through 2022, the university found del Valle had repeatedly harassed, stalked and retaliated against Joshua Clover, an English and Comparative Literature professor at UC Davis, and then violated orders not to contact him.

Clover declined to comment on the record.

Student supporters contend del Valle was acting out of desperation, believing that she is actually the victim of harassment and online stalking. They are preparing to disrupt the Cal football game against the University of Southern California in an undisclosed manner on Saturday.

“We want Ivonne back,” said Christián González Reyes, a Ph.D. student studying comparative literature, who is organizing with the campaign. “We’re not going to be silent anymore.”

The supporters say del Valle is beloved at the university, where she is the only first-generation Mexican woman among faculty in the school’s Spanish and Portuguese Department.

If del Valle is not reinstated, a group of students plan to stage a hunger strike.

signs posted on a school door
A poster says, ‘Justice 4 Ivonne’ outside of a student-led town hall meeting to discuss future actions to reinstate professor del Valle. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In an interview with KQED, del Valle acknowledged some of the behavior described in the investigative reports, including keying Clover’s car, vandalizing the area outside his apartment door, contacting his friends, posting an image of his partner online and leaving messages outside the home of his mother. Those messages included one that said “I raised a psychopath,” according to the university’s investigative reports. She has also acknowledged in the report calling Clover’s office phone line at least ten times within 90 minutes.

Throughout each official investigation, del Valle maintains that her actions were the result of being hacked, and that she was not receiving the support she needed.

“I did write outside his door, ‘Here lives a pervert.’ I did that. And again, I’m not proud,” del Valle said. “If I had the opportunity to do things differently, I would do them differently.”

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Del Valle said that she regretted visiting the mother’s home, but disagreed that the message towards Clover’s mother was a threat or that any of her behavior was sexual harassment.

She said she had been trying hard to get the attention of anyone who could help her.

“I never received help from anybody,” she said.

A UC Berkeley spokesperson, Janet Gilmore, declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing privacy laws.

“This means that the university may not publicly disclose confidential information or correct the record if others choose to share — or misrepresent — information related to a private matter,” Gilmore said.

Gilmore added that faculty misconduct allegations are not unilaterally handled by the administration, and that if the Academic Senate’s Privilege and Tenure Committee determines that it is more likely than not in sexual harassment cases that misconduct occurred, then the committee forwards a disciplinary recommendation, up to and including termination, to the chancellor.

However, termination of a tenured faculty member then requires approval by the UC Board of Regents, Gilmore said.

Three investigations find misconduct

The first investigation, which was completed by UC Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination in 2019, found a preponderance of evidence — determined to be more likely to be true than not — that del Valle violated the university’s provisions against stalking and sexual harassment and retaliated against Clover.

“The evidence additionally demonstrates that Respondent monitored, followed, observed, and threatened Complainant, both electronically and in person, and interfered with his property,” the 2019 investigative report concludes.

Del Valle, who has been at UC Berkeley since 2009, said that she was attempting to defend herself when university officials and police all failed to take her concerns that she had been hacked seriously.

KQED could not substantiate del Valle’s allegations that her devices had been hacked by Clover or anyone else. She provided documentation of an analysis of her laptop and cell phone, which found the phone had been compromised, but the computer showed no evidence of hacking or cyber attack. The analysis falls short of proving that any particular person, including Clover, illegally accessed her devices.

In the 2019 investigative report, the UC Berkeley Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination found there was “insufficient evidence to support a finding” that Clover had “engaged in any hacking of Respondent’s electronic devices and is harassing or stalking her online.”

Del Valle says after writing messages to friends or family members on her phone or computer, tweets from the professor on similar topics would appear. However, documentation provided by del Valle does not prove that anyone has eavesdropped on her messages.

She provided KQED 261 pages in multiple documents that she addressed to a UC Berkeley administrator and review committee. The documents include several dozen instances of why she believes she was hacked. For example, she cites writing a message to a relative in April 2019 mentioning trucks, and then a Twitter account she claimed belonged to Clover tweeted about “similar trucks” that same day.

The investigator also wrote that substantiating the hacking claims was outside their scope and did not “negate the preponderance of the evidence” that del Valle’s conduct “would cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety or suffer substantial emotional distress.”

The earliest investigated complaint goes back to May 2018, when del Valle, who met Clover after he gave a talk at UC Berkeley, began sending him Twitter messages saying someone was bothering her and calling her names, according to the investigative report.

In December that same year, del Valle acknowledged in the investigation knocking on Clover’s apartment door and telling him she “was not leaving until he opened the door and explained what he was doing by hacking her.”

While sitting outside Clover’s apartment, according to the report, del Valle slid a note under his door that said, “If you make me leave, it’ll be worse” and then later left him a voicemail, saying, “I can do whatever the fuck I want piece of shit” and “You need to still call me and apologize or you’ll see what I’m going to do.”

Soon after that, del Valle vandalized Clover’s car and residence, investigators found. Del Valle also acknowledges those actions in the report.

Clover told investigators he moved out of his apartment building in large part because of a “persistent sense of and considerable lack of safety.”

He said in the report that the whole experience has been psychologically destructive. He described a hyper vigilance that is “accompanied by an anxiety that is similarly corrosive. It’s miserable and I don’t think it will ever go away.”

In a settlement agreement in 2020, del Valle agreed not to contact Clover or any of his friends, family, relatives or students. But the following year, del Valle violated that agreement, according to the second investigation conducted by UC Berkeley in 2021, when she left messages outside and near the home of Clover’s mother, among other violations.

“I do understand it’s hard to side with me in that moment, and I was punished for that without salary and benefits,” del Valle said.

Following that violation, Del Valle was suspended for nine months beginning in November 2021. In its third investigation, the university then found she had again violated the no-contact order in 2022. She said that in the most recent violation she was asking for help from the police on social media, and that she had shared a photograph of Clover’s partner online.

Del Valle said since the suspension in the fall of 2021, she has not been teaching at UC Berkeley and has been living out of two suitcases because of the uncertainty around her future. She said she could accept an 18-month suspension UC Berkeley offered as a settlement, but has no plans to do so. If she doesn’t accept that outcome, the case could instead be brought before the university’s Privilege and Tenure Committee, and she could lose her tenure and be fired.

“My life is completely destroyed,” del Valle said. “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.”

Clover has stirred his own share of controversy. He was widely criticized for a 2014 tweet saying he was thankful that all living police officers “would one day be dead.” He later advocated killing police officers, and suggested the easiest way would be to shoot them in the back. UC Davis’ chancellor condemned those statements in 2019 but said they were protected free speech.

The campaign to bring del Valle back

Those involved in the push to reinstate del Valle and who have testified to her character say the university should have thoroughly investigated her claims of electronic hacking and provided institutional support.

The campaign has been publishing written, anonymous testimonies on social media about the positive impact del Valle has had on the academic and personal lives of students and alums. Nearly 30 letters posted so far describe how del Valle made her students feel welcome, inspired them to study colonial Latin America and shaped the course of their academic careers.

“Ivonne’s vast knowledge of Hispanic culture was not the only thing I was immediately shaken by; it was also her professional, humble, and welcoming attitude toward us first-year students,” one letter says. “She was doubtlessly wise and an extremely ethical, politically engaged, and ethically committed professor.”

Alejandra Decker, a Ph.D. candidate studying Mexican literature and culture and organizer with the campaign to reinstate del Valle, said the outcrying of support shows how missed del Valle is at UC Berkeley.

“Our department is missing an entire field of study, so we have no one that is an expert on colonial studies,” Decker said. “And so no one is coming to Berkeley right now to study colonial studies because we have no one to advise them.”

Decker began her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley in 2018, and del Valle would soon become her primary faculty mentor in the field of Mexican Studies. She took every single graduate and undergraduate class with del Valle that she could, she said, and saw her as a “gem” of an academic advisor who welcomed students, checked in on whether they needed help and offered to write them letters of recommendation before they even asked.

When del Valle was suspended in 2021, Decker says students were concerned and began seeking answers.

“And for this entire time, there was never any official communication from our department, which was very hard for us,” Decker said. “Had we not had these conversations with Professor Ivonne, we really would have just thought that our professor had disappeared and no one could tell us why, which takes the rug out [from under] your feet and makes you feel really unstable.”

A person speaks into a megaphone in an outdoor setting in front of a large group of young people.
Students rally on Sept. 21 at the University of California, Berkeley, calling for the reinstatement of Ivonne del Valle. (Holly McDede/KQED)

She said she and other students have read the records describing del Valle’s behavior. But she says organizers still stand by del Valle, and that it’s not her place to judge a woman’s actions when in turmoil and isolated.

“Those reports — anyone who reads them, I think we can all admit that they are difficult to read because they paint Professor Ivonne in a way that personally I’ve never seen,” Decker said. “It’s a woman’s actions in her biggest moments of survival.”

The hunger strike

Decker is not alone. More than 275 people and more than 15 organizations have also signed an online petition calling for her reinstatement. Supporters have begun preparing for this Saturday’s football game and the hunger strike to follow.

In their Oct. 11 letter announcing the plan, students reference Berkeley’s long history of activism, including the 1999 Ethnic Studies Strike. That strike led to the Multicultural Community Center and the Center of Race and Gender on campus.

“We reiterate, how far are you willing to go before you fix an injustice?” the letter says. “Are you willing to risk students’ lives over this?”

Del Valle has said that if she does lose her job at UC Berkeley, she plans to return to Mexico.

But for now, she does not want to give up on staying at UC Berkeley.

“It is my university. They are my students. I obtained a job here that I deserve,” she said. “I’m a good teacher, the service I’ve brought to the university, I think it’s significant.”

Oct. 28: UC Berkeley initially described the standard of evidence applied by the Academic Senate’s Privilege and Tenure Committee as a clear and convincing standard. After publication of this story, a university spokesperson clarified that in sexual harassment cases, the standard of evidence is a preponderance of evidence. The story has been updated to clarify this.

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