Letter to the Editor: How the Task Force invented an anti-Semite

By Ian Maitland, who teaches in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

The report of the task force on building names heaped astonishing invective on the memory of Edward Nicholson (“Dean Nick”), the University’s first dean of student affairs who served from 1917 to 1941. Nicholson Hall is named for him, and the task force recommended that his name be stripped from the building because of his moral depravity. The accusations made by the task force include the following: “Antisemitism drove significant aspects of his conduct in office;” he “often target[ed] Jewish and Black students whom he labeled ‘communists;’” he “played a significant role in institutionalizing antisemitism in his official actions;” he displayed “personal bigotry;” he “played a major role in providing [a Republican politician] with detailed information about ‘Jew Reds’ at the University of Minnesota;” and his policies were “built on strains of … racism that were deep seated in Minnesota and the United States.” That is just for starters.

In this note, I show that the task force’s case against Dean Nicholson is based on a case of mistaken identity. The task force’s theory stands or falls depending on the correct identification of a single piece of evidence. That evidence is a three-page document that seems to have been created around 1939 (he retired in 1941). It is titled “CONFIDENTIAL. NOTES ON RADICALISM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA” (“Notes on Radicalism”). You can find a copy on the website of the exhibit “A Campus Divided“.

“Notes on Radicalism” has attracted a well-deserved notoriety. It consists of short biographical notes on six students who were leading radical activists on the University campus during the 1930s as well as information on several leftist political organizations. The most jarring thing about the document is that it irrelevantly identifies four of the students as Jews. Here are two entries:

Lester Breslow. Communist leader and agitator. Presided at so-called Armistice Day exercises in Burton Auditorium November 7, 1934 where 10-Point Communist program was distributed. Former member of Young Communist League. Son of — Breslow, druggist, across the street from the N.W. Hospital. Russian Jew. Debated pro-Communist side with Practical Pacifists before Minnesota Council of National Defense in St. Paul. Interne, U.S. Public Health Service, Marine Hosp. Stapleton, New York, 1938-39. Applicant for commission in U.S.P.H.S., 1939. Against American government.”

Sherman Dryer. Jew. Communist. Agitator and publicist. Dominated Daily, Formm, and WLB (radio). Dictated editorial policy of the Daily without any official connection therewith. After graduation— ghost writer for Governor Benson and chairman of 5th Dist. F.L. Party.”

“Notes on Radicalism” was not discovered in Dean Nicholson’s own records at the University. Rather, it turned up in the files of Ray P. Chase. Chase was a larger-than-life former Republican congressman and a well-connected political activist and lobbyist. Chase ran a business, or hobby, called the Ray P. Chase Research Bureau. One of its many activities was what, in politics, is called “opposition research” — digging up “dirt” on political opponents. Chase was a pack rat who never threw away a scrap of paper. We know this because his papers in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society occupy 44 boxes.

I said that the document was discovered in Chase’s files. It bears no markings indicating who created it. Presumably, it was prepared either by Chase himself or by one or more of his many informants. Notwithstanding the uncertainty about its source, the task force unhesitatingly — and without offering any justification — attributed the document to Dean Nicholson.

The probability is overwhelming that the task force is wrong. The curator of “A Campus Divided,” professor Riv-Ellen Prell, disagrees with the task force. She says that the document was created by Chase with input from Nicholson.

One reason why it is improbable that Nicholson authored the “Notes on Radicalism” is that, despite the fact that the subjects are former student radicals and left-wing organizations, most of the information in it relates to off-campus matters. The contents are not the product of any supposed clandestine campus surveillance (another far-fetched theory of the task force). Consider, for example, the information that Lester Breslow was the “[s]on of   Breslow, druggist, across the street from the N.W. Hospital.” Why would a dean of student affairs have been in a better position to obtain that off-campus information than Chase himself, when information was Chase’s business? The same applies to the information that the Socialist Club’s off-campus headquarters is “headed by Vincent R. Dunne, who spent last summer in Mexico with Trotsky and is prominent in 544 Labor Union.”

A second reason is that much of the information was in the public domain or could easily be acquired by a good gumshoe.

A third reason to question Nicholson’s authorship of “Notes on Radicalism” is that the tone and tenor of the document are quite different from the other (extremely small) correspondences between Nicholson and Chase in the Chase files. Nicholson was gracious and courtly. His letters routinely brought up personal matters. The tone of “Notes on Radicalism” is far more consistent with what we know about Chase. He appears to have been brash, outspoken and controversial. As I noted previously, he was a compulsive gatherer of information who could not let go of the tiniest scrap of information.

Why does it matter whether Nicholson authored “Notes on Radicalism”? It matters because, if Nicholson was not the author, the task force’s entire theory of Nicholson’s anti-Semitism collapses. To see why, consider the following cases:

The task force report accuses Nicholson of using the derisive epithet “Jew agitators” to describe students and faculty in reports to Chase. But I have been unable to verify that anyone, least of all Nicholson, ever called anyone “Jew agitator.” The task force report does not offer any examples. Rather, the slur seems to be loosely based on “Notes on Radicalism,” which, as I showed, Nicholson most likely did not write. In “Notes on Radicalism” (see above), the unknown author refers to Sherman Dryer not as a “Jew agitator” but as a “Jew. Communist. Agitator and publicist….” In other words, the original phrase appears to have been embellished in order to increase its shock value. The same goes for the task force’s accusation that Nicholson used the epithet “Jew Reds.” Once again, the task force does not point to a single document where Nicholson (or anyone else on campus) uses the term “Jew Reds.”

Another accusation is that Nicholson “specifically targeted Jewish students with a presumption of political radicalism based on their racial identity rather than any particular actions or expressions of political beliefs.” If the accusation is accurate, then presumably it should be possible to cite instances where Nicholson wrongly identified one or more Jewish students as communists or radicals, simply based on the fact that they were Jewish. The task force report does not do that. Nor have I run into any examples. And while Professor Prell says that Nicholson’s “accusations of who was a Communist were most often wrong,” she does not offer a single example to back up her claim. It is also worth adding that the task force report does not cite any case of a Jewish student or a radical campus leader suffering any retaliation from Nicholson or the University.

Perhaps the most incendiary accusation in the task force report is that Nicholson, in a communication with Chase, referred to Sherman Dryer as “a ‘Jew. Communist. Agitator and publicist’ and former campus radical who ‘looked like a typical Jew….’” By now, the phrase “Jew. Communist. Agitator and publicist” should be familiar. It is a direct quote from the entry on Dryer in the contentious “Notes on Radicalism” report (again). But it gets worse. Look more closely at the words the task force attributes to Nicholson. This time, the quotation from “Notes on Radicalism” has been doctored to include the explosive phrase “who ‘looked like a typical Jew.’” You will not find that anywhere in “Notes on Radicalism”. That leaves us with two possibilities. Either the phrase was fabricated out of thin air or it was improperly hoisted out of some other context and spliced to the original phrase in order to sex it up.

Essentially, all the accusations I reviewed are based on just one document — “Notes on Radicalism.” But there are no grounds for attributing that document to Dean Nicholson — and none are given. Accordingly, I conclude that the task force’s outlandish accusations about Nicholson’s anti-Semitism — and, by extension, the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s — are based on a case of mistaken identity. I request that the task force authors retract the part of their report dealing with “Dean Nick” and give him his good reputation back.

Ian Maitland teaches at the University’s Carlson School of Management.

This letter to the editor has been lightly edited for style and clarity.