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Professors Recall Hard Lessons of McCarthyism : Free speech: Some want the University of Michigan to apologize to three professors who were branded as potential subversives because of their former Communist sympathies.

February 25, 1990|JUDY DAUBENMIER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LANSING, Mich. — In 1952, H. Chandler Davis wrote a check to pay for printing a pamphlet criticizing the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy for a "witch hunt" against Communist sympathizers.

The University of Michigan professor believed that was part of his constitutional right of free speech, even during the anti-Communist frenzy of the 1950s. Instead, it made him a target of the committee, and he became a Cold War casualty.

Brought before a subcommittee of the McCarthy panel in Lansing in 1954, Davis refused to answer questions about his political leanings, claiming that his activities were protected by the First Amendment.

The subcommittee cited Davis for contempt, and he landed in a federal prison for six months. The university fired him for insubordination and blacklisted him, he says.

"I've never been able to get normal employment in the U.S. since then," said Davis, 63, who moved to Canada in 1962 and became a professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto.

Now, some want the University of Michigan to apologize to Davis, a former Communist, and two other professors who were branded as potential subversives because of their former Communist sympathies.

Mark Nickerson, then a professor of pharmacology, and Clement Markert, an assistant professor of zoology, refused to testify before the subcommittee presided over by Rep. Kit Clardy, a Michigan Republican.

Unlike Davis, they cited their Fifth Amendment right against incriminating themselves and avoided prison.

Harlan Hatcher, then-president of the university, fired Nickerson and censured Markert.

Now, 35 years later, the Ann Arbor Chapter of the American Assn. of University Professors is asking the university to make amends to the three through severance pay, honorary reinstatement or honorary degrees.

The University of Vermont, Reed College and Temple University made similar gestures to faculty members fired during the 1950s.

University of Michigan spokesman Joseph Owsley says the issue is expected to come before the faculty Senate and university President James Duderstadt will have no comment until then.

Other universities besides Michigan fired faculty members, says Lionel Lewis, who found 126 instances at 57 institutions in researching his book "Cold War on Campus."

"I'm sure there are more," said Lewis, chairman of the sociology department at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The passage of time hasn't dampened the anger of the three Michigan professors.

"They didn't want testimony. They wanted us to prostrate ourselves, to humiliate us in public," said Markert, who sympathized with the Communist Party during the Depression and fought in a Communist-organized brigade in the Spanish Civil War in 1938.

"The only reason they wanted to talk to you was to get other people's names," said Nickerson, a former Communist who said he never considered cooperating with the McCarthy committee.

"There are some things you can do and some things you can't. You don't put somebody else in jeopardy to save your own job."

Markert's department fought hard to save his job. A university faculty committee voted unanimously that he and Nickerson should stay, but Hatcher fired Nickerson anyway.

"There was quite a lot of support that wasn't expressed. Other professors would call me or come in and see me in the evening, but walk right past me on campus," Nickerson said. "The purpose of that era was to scare people, and it certainly did."

Nickerson moved to Canada and took a job at a 50% pay cut. Later, he became chairman of the medical school at McGill University in Montreal and president of the American Pharmacological and Experimental Therapeutics Society.

"I did everything I could have done. It was just harder," said Nickerson, now 73 and retired.

Markert, 72, says he felt few professional repercussions from the committee's effort to smear him. He was granted tenure at Michigan and is now a professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Hatcher, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., declined to be interviewed, but in a videotaped interview about the era, he said his goal was survival of the university.

"McCarthyism was a very destructive force, and the issue was how to preserve the universities in the face of that threat," he said on the tape, "Keeping in Mind."

The videotape was an honors thesis project by former Michigan student Adam Kulakow.

Lewis says some universities chose to protect their faculty members and defend their freedom to hold unpopular beliefs.

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