Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Letter To The Cynic, the University of Vermont's Student Newspaper

           I am a grandson of Paul A. Moody, who was a professor of zoology at the University of Vermont from 1927 to 1973. In 1953, Grandpa served on a UVM committee that was charged with deciding whether Alex Novikoff, a Medical College faculty member, was a communist and should therefore be fired. UVM fired Novikoff. My grandfather dissented.
           Were he alive today, Grandpa would be disappointed, if not sickened, to hear that the university has dismissed economics Professor John Summa.

For six years, starting in 1997, 11 years after his death, I researched the life of my grandfather. The so-called ``Novikoff affair’’ and his role in it was the main target of that research.
In Vermont, the troubles for Novikoff, a Russian Jew who migrated to the United States with his parents,  began after it was learned that he had, in the 1930s, joined the Communist Party of the United States while on the Brooklyn College faculty. He was a leader of the faculty union there.
 In 1953 Novikoff was subpoenaed to testify the before U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Invoking the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, Novikoff declined to answer several questions. 
 Mired in the reactionary spirit of the McCarthy Era, a substantial part of the general public was willing to interpret ``pleading the Fifth’’ as an admission of guilt.
Yet in a written statement from May 1953, Grandpa wrote that he was convinced that Novikoff did so
``to protest against what seemed to him inquisitorial methods of investigation, and infringement upon personal liberty and individual freedom.’’
Nowadays academia is the target of the political right wing; likewise, Novikoff was a man marked by political-fringe McCarthyism. In her book, ``Dark Money,’’ Jane Mayer says that by 2014, the libertarian Koch brothers had funded 283 pro free-market programs at four-year colleges and universities.
Grandpa, born in 1903, was no leftist. He opposed the repeal of Prohibition and denounced the New Deal in the letters section of the Burlington Free Press. He voted Republican in every presidential election until 1976, when he voted for Jimmy Carter.
But when it came time to pass judgment, Grandpa disregarded his biases to focus on the facts as he saw them. He asserted that Novikoff had not been a communist at UVM, he would not try to influence students toward communism and that he did not pose a security risk to the United States.
Comparing immigrants to ``we rather complacent Americans of native birth,’’ he said they are perhaps
``the more worthy spiritual descendants of…the founding fathers whose first-hand knowledge of the suppression of individual rights prompted the writing of the Fifth Amendment…’’ 
References to immigrants, complacent Americans and democracies falling into authoritarianism bring to mind the unmistakable new wave of  xenophobia and acts of hatred in the United States. My country's respect for civil political discourse is fading. Suppression of intellectual freedom will do nothing to make things better.  
          In 1997, I interviewed Merton Lambden, a retired UVM professor of biochemistry. Lambden was a contemporary of Novikoff’s at the university. He told me that the political atmosphere at UVM during the Novikoff affair bothered him so much that his gut felt tight.

All of us should consider the politically motivated hiring and firing of faculty to be, at the very least, gut-wrenching.

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