Students and Allies Honor Will Miller
by Kevin Kelly, Seven Days
Will Miller is facing the specter of death just as he faced all his challenges in a life devoted to radical activism. "The task was to not get depressed about the possibility of dying, but to organize to fight against it," declares Miller, 64, a newly retired University of Vermont philosophy professor.
A smoker for 30 years who quit 18 years ago, Miller was diagnosed with lung cancer last July. "It's a type of cancer that moves very quickly," and has since spread to his liver and lymph nodes, says Miller's wife Ann Lipsitt.
In characteristic fashion, however, Miller is fighting back, with a combination of chemotherapy, acupuncture and herbal treatments. He's "doing really well right now," Lipsitt says. "He's been stoking the stove and helping feed the sheep" on the couple's Westford farm.
Perhaps just as important, an online outpouring of love and support from colleagues, former students and political allies is helping Miller defy his seemingly stronger opponent, at least temporarily.
"It's been a huge morale booster for me," Miller says of the unusual website -- www.willmiller.org -- which contains more than 80 testimonials from friends in Vermont and around the country. The site also features photos of Miller and some younger rabble-rousers at recent demonstrations he attended or organized.
The idea for the website came to Lipsitt and longtime friend Jay Moore from a similar electronic tribute designed for a Stanford University psychologist Miller knew. "It seemed like a good way of letting a person know before he dies what would be said at his funeral," Lipsitt explains.
In messages posted on the site, fellow left-wing activists such as Ellen David Friedman and Michael Parenti recall a few of the epochal battles Miller waged at UVM during his 35 years as a faculty member.
Friedman, an organizer for the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, remembers the grueling but ultimately triumphant effort to unionize the university faculty. "Will was the engine for that movement," Friedman says in an interview. "Will had the clarity, the tenacity and the ferocity to keep moving us ahead even when things looked pretty bleak."
Friedman also acknowledges, as do other Miller associates, that his unyielding commitment to Marxist principles alienated some potential allies. She agrees that Miller could at times be "irascible" in his approach.
But "Will's irascibility I adored, personally," Friedman adds. "I saw how deeply connected he is to that sense of principle. It's what makes him unique in this culture."
Parenti describes Miller as his staunchest ally in the early '70s, when he was the focus of a bruising controversy over UVM's treatment of radical teachers. Miller himself managed to get tenure, Parenti says, "largely because there had been such an uproar the year before over the failure to renew my contract. Will had a lot of popular support on campus."
But Miller "was made to pay," adds Parenti, who now lives in Berkeley. He points out that Miller was denied promotion throughout his 35 years at UVM and for most of that time was kept at a salary below that of a first-year instructor.
Miller's departure will leave "an enormous gap at UVM," Parenti says. "Just look at the love and appreciation expressed by so many of his friends and admirers, of whom I am one."
If academic standing were based only on a professor's ability to provoke and inspire students, then Miller would have to be honored as one of the most outstanding figures in UVM's 225-year history.
"There were a lot of people who became very devoted to studying with Will," says Scott Campitelli, a 1982 graduate who now directs the RETN public television station in the Burlington area. "A lot of students took him as a mentor."
Miller made heavy demands of those who enrolled in his philosophy survey lectures. "There was an intense and amazing amount of reading along with consistently eye-opening discussions in class," remembers Campitelli, a communications major who took several philosophy courses with Miller.
"I knew Will's classes would go well beyond the course description," Campitelli continues. "He fostered enlightenment in the broadest sense, and he led me to become a lifelong learner."
As other former students also note on the testimonial website, studying with Miller did not mean enduring overdoses of left-wing propaganda and indoctrination. "What was talked about in class was always rooted in the curriculum," Campitelli says. "It wasn't three hours of listening to Will's radical ramblings on current events."
Miller's classes were always conducted in a spirit of openness and tolerance, Campitelli adds. "Many students thought Will was really out there and they would argue with him in class. He never demeaned them. He always treated their views with respect. It was never an ego thing with Will. You didn't have to agree with him, because he wasn't belligerently narrow-minded."
Miller continues to practice in his own life what he has taught his students. He notes that his Introduction to Philosophy course included a section on death and dying, in which he described the end of life as a natural occurrence -- a boundary that helps give form to what lies on this side of it.
"I assume that in the sense one lives on, it is in the memory of friends and community. It's certainly not in any pie-in-the-sky location," says Miller, an atheist.
Looking back from his present vantage point, does he have any regrets? "My main regret is not being able to stay involved in the fight much longer," Miller says, his voice firm and clear. "I also regret that the revolution hasn't happened yet."
And is it ever going to happen?
"It better," he replies. "If it doesn't, we're not going to have much of a future as a species."