Bertell Ollman has been talking about Marxist politics for some 20 years without ever creating a public controversy.As of yesterday, without setting foot in Maryland, he became an issue in the young gubernatorial race.
It began with Acting Gov. Blair Lee 111 volunteering that hiring Ollman, a Marxist professor to head the government and politics department at the University of Maryland, would not be a "wise idea."
After Lee, the front-runner, criticized the potential Ollman appointment, it was only a matter of days before the other candidates criticized Lee.
Democratic candidate Theodore G! Venetoulis issued an official campaign statement last night criticizing Lee for publicly questioning the wisdom of hiring a Marxist to head a university department.
But Venetoulis wasn't the first to go after Lee. Steny Hoyer, another Democratic candidate, had told a Baltimore candidates forum Tuesday night that he had faith in the university to hire the best professor for the job. "I wouldn't make off-handed remarks like the acting governor did," Hoyer said.
Wally Orlinsky, another Democratic candidate, offered a similar opinion. "Politicians ought to keep their noses out of academic institutions. When I heard what Lee said, I said to myself: 'Blair, why do you keep doing this to yourself"
In the words of a Venetoulis aide, Ollman is a "golden issue." Academic freedom and, Lee's right to make such eremarks have been debated at Baltimore forums and Montgomery County coffee klatches all this week. The gubernatorial race has found its first real controversy.
"I'm surprised at the intensity of this," Ollman said yesterday. "I do think they're making more of a fuss than the situation warrants . . . As a political scientist I'd like to interview Governor Lee some day. Maybe I'll have a chance."
The sudden introduction of an unknown professor into a gubernatorial campaign miles away from his New York City home could easily be a theme of Ollman's own courses.
Ollman introduces his students to the world of politics with a day of political nonsense. He tells them about "proportional thought" and throws out equations and abstract notions that add up to nothing. At the end of the lecture, Ollman asks for his papers to see how many realized that his lecture was nonsense.
"I tell them to question. I begin all my courses by telling my students that I'm a Marxist. I also tell them to seek out the views of their other teachers," he said. "I am not neutral, no one is neutral. I would like to be thought of as objective."
It started last Thursday, at Lee's regular weekly press conference. Ollman's selection as the leading candidate for the university post had just become public and Lee was asked how he felt about the matter.
"We are dealing with a state-supported university and there is, I think a question of whether it's wise to make such an appointment," Lee answered. "It occurs to me that it may kick up quite a blacklash of sorts among citizens, legislators, everybody else."
The backlash came from other quarters, and Lee, not Ollman or the university, has been the one who felt it. Venetoulis, the Baltimore county executive, spent yesterday morning drafting his statement on the matter.
"Blair Lee should stop interfering in the appointment of college professors . . ."the statement read. ". . . That means, among other things, allowing universities the right to choose its faculty free of political influence. The only legitimate role the Maryland governor plays is to ensure that right."
For Ollman, professor at New York University, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Wisconsin, a Marxist who holds a doctorate from Oxford University, this controversy has its brighter side.
"In some ways I'm glad this has blown up now because if they do accept me and know what I'm about, if we win this thing, it'll be a victory for all of us. I think the deparment will be stronger."
Ollman's appointment rests with university president Wilson H. Elkins. On Friday, Elkins met with Lee in Annapolis. The two touched only lightly on the Ollman appointment, according to Lee's press secretary. Lee assured Elkins he would not interfere in the selection of a new department head.
Then two days ago, Lee went to the campus. Already, the American Association of University Professors had chastised the acting governor and promised to file suit if Ollman did not win the position.
Lee stood on his First Ammendment rights to voice his own opinions. "Everybody seems to agree and I agree that I have no direct function in the matter of selecting university personnel. . . Since that is the case I don't see why I'm not entitled to an opinion, just like anybody else," he told the students. "Nobody's going to impose any gag order on me."
In response to this statement. Heyer later commented, "Everyone has the right to express an opinion but it's another thing to interpose yourself in the process. As governor, to interpose has a chilling effect."