Professor fights for his intellectual freedom

by Bei Hu

resh out of college in 1948, Erwin Marquit lost his first job one day after he got it, when his employer found his name on a government blacklist as an active member of the Communist Party.
It took Marquit another five months to find a job. This time he worked as a draftsman installing lighting equipment in buildings, a position that made little use of his background as an electronic engineer.
Marquit eventually became a tenured professor in physics at the University in 1966. But that was after years of difficulty finding work because of his beliefs.
At the University, he has earned a reputation as the physics professor whose passion is Marxism. Marquit said he has had to fight for his right to speak.
“Obviously, I’m not the only one who’s concerned about academic freedom,” Marquit said. “I have appreciated it perhaps more than other people because of the attempts to revoke academic freedom.”
Marquit’s political beliefs date to his childhood. “I was born what they called ‘a red-diaper baby,'” he said.
Marquit’s father Leo received a 15-year jail sentence toward the end of World War I for his refusal to continue fighting in Europe. He had studied Marxism in prison and later became a member of the Communist Party.
Marquit’s mother Edna was arrested at age 17 for participating in labor strikes in New York City.
Marquit himself first joined the Communist Party in 1946, three days after he retired from the Navy. But he soon realized what a costly pursuit it could be.
Having failed to secure a satisfactory job in electronic engineering, Marquit started graduate education in physics at New York University, hoping it would help him escape blacklisting and land him a teaching position.
But that hope again evaporated when he failed the military clearance need to enter the school’s laboratory to work on his master’s thesis in experimental physics.
Marquit subsequently went to Poland, where he received his doctorate in physics from the University of Warsaw. He distanced himself from politics for a number of years after he returned to the U.S. from Europe. But his political enthusiasm was reactivated in the late 1960s with the growth of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
In 1975, Marquit, together with several other University faculty members, began offering an introductory course in Marxism. The class, which began as an experiment, soon won permanent status as an interdepartmental course. It is now taught twice a year.
Soon after it began, the course met strong opposition within and outside the University community. Faculty and students nationwide petitioned the school administration to drop the course.
The Christian Crusade Weekly, an Ohio-based publication, carried an article titled “College credit for enemy indoctrination” in 1979. It asked people to write the University and urge the course’s abolition.
Some University administrators also pitched in and threatened him with salary reductions, Marquit said.
“At one point, we were sponsored by five departments,” Marquit said, “because no one department wanted to do it alone because of the publicity — the negative attention it was getting from the administration.”
Marquit and his co-lecturers also had to advertise the course with their own money. But the course has survived and usually has an enrollment of 15 to 30 students from different academic disciplines.
“They are not generally political activists,” said Marquit, referring to his students.
As he sat in his office, lined on one side with books on physics and Marxism, Marquit said his interest in teaching political philosophy has stemmed partly from his scientific research.
“There are a lot of problems in physics that have to be looked at with a philosophical tool kit,” he said. “Marxism was quite suitable.”
Marquit said his course is distinct from most other college courses in Marxism, which predominately deal with reformist ideas. His has a “Leninist orientation,” otherwise known as revolutionary Marxism.
Marquit describes himself as an advocate of “revolutionary change.”
“The word ‘revolution’ is usually associated with some kind of violence. Revolutionary change may or may not involve violence,” he said.
To this day, Marquit said the possibility to repress unpopular expression still looms large at many universities.
He is a member of the American Association of University Professors. The association has tried to stall the University’s proposed tenure reform, which would allow layoffs of faculty members when their programs are eliminated.
Marquit protested a University attempt to weaken the tenure system in 1973. Recently, he has argued against the Board of Regents’ proposed tenure code reforms.
The merit of the tenure system, Marquit said, lies in the assurance of academic freedom.
“It means you cannot be forced out of the University for investigating areas that might be politically or ideologically sensitive,” he said.
Marquit’s opinion may find support in the Supreme Court ruling in the Lamont v. Postmaster General case in 1965. The court struck down a federal statute requiring recipients of “Communist political propaganda” to indicate their intent to receive such materials before they were delivered.
“This requirement is almost certain to have a deterrent effect,” stated the court’s majority opinion. The court went on to cite non-tenured teaching jobs as an example of “sensitive positions.”
“Public officials, like schoolteachers who have no tenure, might think they would invite disaster if they read what the federal government says contains the seeds of treason,” according to the court.
Speaking from his own experiences, Marquit said, “I would have been ousted very quickly (without tenure).”