Umbrage in Catonsville

January 19, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- It's reassuring for us paranoids here in the outback to know that the University of Maryland Baltimore County isn't threatened with Marxism after all.

On January 5, I wrote about a lawsuit brought against that institution by an instructor of German, who asserted that she was denied tenure because her politics were insufficiently Marxist. I didn't take the lawsuit very seriously, but I did use it to poke fun at those campuses where Marxism retains an intellectual stature it has lost everywhere else in the world. And I suggested UMBC was one of them.

I should have known better. I should have been more respectful. For no sooner was the column in print than major umbrage was taken. The Sun soon published salvos from the president of UMBC, Freeman A. Hrabowski III; the chair of Modern Languages and Linguistics there, Thomas T. Field; the provost, history professor Jo Ann E. Argersinger; and Don Himes of Baltimore.

No doubt others, on campus and off, were upset as well. As the intent of the column was to share some mild amusement over the lawsuit, and certainly not to inflame such eminent academics, it was obviously a failure. When that happens humble apologies are called for, and in this case it's a pleasure to provide them.

Here's one to President Hrabowski, who wrote that I ''impugned the integrity of UMBC's faculty -- indeed, of the entire higher-education community -- and assailed the character of our institution.''

What I said was that if faculty members actually opposed tenure for someone on the basis of her insufficiently Marxist politics, they must be dim bulbs. But it's an undeniable fact that they could be dim bulbs and still of the very highest integrity. I should have pointed that out. Sorry.

President Hrabowski explained that the Department of Languages and Linguistics ''is certainly not an enclave of Marxist or any other ideologically based scholarship,'' which it was certainly a relief to hear. And he put me in my place by revealing many little-known facts about the UMBC faculty and student body.

I now know that many faculty members have received national awards, that many UMBC graduates go on to illustrious institutions for advanced degrees, and that one out of every four freshmen this year had a SAT score above 1200. Nothing dim about those bulbs, I guess.

Chairman Field of the Department of Languages and Linguistics, who agreed with me that the tenure-seeking litigant's complaint was entertaining if nothing else, denies that ''most of us'' in the department are Marxists. He cordially invites me to come to UMBC for a visit. I'd like to do that, as soon as my cows finish calving.

Professor Argersinger, the provost, observes that ''a writer who describes himself as a farmer'' shouldn't use phrases such as ''bush league'' and ''back country'' pejoratively. Catonsville's no more backwoodsy than Havre de Grace, she points out -- and she's absolutely right.

She too has some impressive facts about UMBC to pass on, including its description by Money magazine as ''very selective.'' She notes that its faculty members have won honors at the Kennedy Center, published books with university presses and received prestigious awards. If I'd known all that stuff when I wrote the offending column, I would surely have put it in. Sorry again.

That brings me to Mr. Himes, who thought I had accused UMBC ''of being controlled by 'Marxists','' and who doesn't see how somebody from Havre de Grace could make such an outrageous determination anyway. He says I attacked UMBC with ''the zeal of a Joe McCarthy,'' and raps me for my ''obvious ignorance concerning Marxist thought and theory.''

Mr. Himes recommends that such a dangerous person ''should confine his writing and his thoughts to farming'' -- forcibly if necessary, I presume.

For allowing my mind to wander off the reservation, I think it prudent to apologize to Mr. Himes too. I think UMBC is a wonderful place, an ornament to the state of Maryland. I think Catonsville, a fine community, is lucky to have such a splendid institution there. I think the UMBC faculty is collectively brilliant, the administration sensitive and the student body well-selected.

As for my earlier remarks about Marxism, well, I sure don't want to give offense. Some of my best friends are Marxists, or at least used to be. Red's one of my favorite colors. I recognize the need for our society to develop a less hurtful outlook toward those who may be differently politicized.

While I'm glad there aren't many Marxists on our local campuses any more, they'll always be welcome in my neighborhood, as long as they keep their lawns mowed and don't throw noisy parties every May 1.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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