TO GET INTO this business about the University of Maryland and its attempt to hire what is sometimes called an "avowed Marxist," I will admit that in college I flunked philosophy. I would like to think that I flunked the course because the teacher was dull and the class met shortly after dawn, or at least before 9 a.m., but the fact of the matter is that on the transcript it says only that I went down in flames with an F. That is how I came to be taught by a Marxist. Hw was unavowed. He had to be.

He was my next philosophy teacher. He was an old man, white-haired and mustached. I think, but I cannot recall his name. He would pace around the room, his hands clasped behind his back, and he would teach his philosophy with a delight in the subject that was catching. He was not above a little theatrics, and his best performance was Socrates before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In his class you could imagine that small, muscular Athenian in the witness chair, asking questions of the committee in a way that later was to be called the Socratic method:

"Mr. Chairman," he would bellow, "just what is an un-American activity?" It was fun and it was educational and philosophy the second time around was a delight. But the teacher was something of a mystery, ready to retire, but less than a full professor, an associate, I think. When some of us asked why he had never been promoted we were told it was because of politics. He was a Marxist. Those were the days when those kinds of things could happen.

Now we come to an attempt by the University of Maryland's politics and government department to hire Bertell Ollman as its chairman. Ollman is currently at New York University and is considered a first-rate scholar. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Wisconsin and holds a doctorate from Oxford University. He is published widely and he is, among other things, a Marxist, which is a way of looking at the world that Ollman would be glad to explain, he said, in 10 or so lectures. Suffice it to say that he is no Communist but suffice it to say also that even if he were it would not change matters any.

At any rate, the appointment of a Marxist to a university faculty is a relatively rare event and reporters got busy. They called members of the board of regents who must ultimately approve the appointment, and they also asked Acting Gov. Blair Lee III his opinion of the matter. Here's where things started to get out of control. First the regents.Some, like Peter O'Malley, said they would treat this appointment as being no different than others, but there was one regent, Samuel Hoover, who not only said he was against the appointment of a Marxist, but put a large foot in his mouth by adding, "we have too many of those kinds of people from up in New York down here now," I think I know what he's talking about and I think he ought to apologize. Now on to the governor.

The governor of Maryland has absolutely no role to play in the appointment of a university faculty member except one - he can stand firm for academic freedom. Blair Lee did nothing of the sort. Instead, he began wondering all over the place - wondering if the appointment was wise, wondering if the legislature would be happy, wondering if the university budget would be cut. It was a performance that would have put Hamlet to shame and all it did, in the end, is keep the controversy open and give members of the legislature the opportunity to pop off.

"It's an interesting problem," Lee said. "If this were Harvard that we were running, there'd be no big problem. It's a private institution and here we are dealing with a state-supported university and there is, I think, a question of whether its wise to make such an appointment. It occurs to me that they may kick up quite a backlash of sorts among citizens, legislators, everybody else." A bit later on in his news conference, Lee finally passed judgement. If Ollman were truly a Marxist, he said, then hiring him would not be "a wise idea."

Well, there you have it. There you have one standard of academic freedom enunciated of Harvard another for the University of Maryland. There you have a governor failing to back up the university, issuing a clarion call to remember the politics fo the situation, and finally concluding that if the man really "embraces a Marxist philosophy, boasts about it," then his appointment may not be "a wise idea."

So there is Ollman still in New York waiting for Maryland to decide and there is Lee in Annapolis wringing his hands over the situation and at the moment everyone has a job and no one is getting hurt. But it is a dangerous thing to judge a man by his politics to hire and fire and promote by this standard, and if the concept of academic freedom means nothing to you, then think instead of people. I knew one once who was a marvelour teacher, a gentle man who got no where in his chosen and beloved profession because of his politics. He retired poorer than he should have. He was a Marxist, but unavowed.

He had to be.