In 1932. an energetic, feisty campus newspsaper editor named Reed Harris was booted from Columbia University after publishing an article charging that a lucrative dining room contract had been quietly awarded to the university president's sister.
Now, nearly five decades later, Harris wants to graduate.
At 71 and in failing health at a suburban Washington nursing home, Harris wants to receive a diploma at Columbia's commencement May 13. His family says this may be the last graduation he will ever see since he suffers from a progressive brain disease.
For Harris and his friends, especially former CBS News president Fred Friendly, getting Harris that diploma has become an important symbol.
Besides his controversial career at Columbia, Harris also was the first government official bold enough to challenge and criticize Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy during the peak of his political power.
During five days of intense testlimony in 1953, McCarthy accused Harris of being a Communist. Harris, then a high-ranking State Department official, responded with charges that the Wisconsin Republican was using innuendo and half-truths to smear innocent people.
Harris' testimony was so powerful that CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and Friendly later featured it in Murrow's 1954 "See It Now" expose that helped turn public opinion against McCarthy.
The diploma would be a tribute, explains Friendly, who now is on Columbia's journalism faculty, to a life-long renegade who spoke out against injustice when most others were silent.
"Reed is something of a saint to me," says Friendly. "History gave Harris a raw deal. I want to help do something about that."
Harris was subpoenaed by McMarthy's committee in 1953, because he was the State Department official who decided to curtail American news broadcasts in Hebrew to Israel. Harris said the Hebrew broadcasts were a waste of taxpayer's money. McCarthy argued Harris was secretly aiding Communists.
"They were evil [men]," Harris recalls. "During the hearing, I wanted to pick up a chair and throw it at McCarthy. That's how angry I was."
McCarthy spent hours attacking Harris. He implied Harris had never undergone a background check. Harris proved he had passed government security clearance at least six times through the years. McMarthy countered that anyone checked six times had to be suspicious.
"Mr. Chairman, I consider that a most unfair innuendo," Harris retorted. "Your are casting innuendoes and aspersions here. It is not fair . . . It is my public neck you are very skillfully trying to wring."
The crowded chambers broke into applause. A few seconds later, McCarthy held up a thin book called "King Football" which Harris had written 21 years before -- a few weeks after he was forced to resign from Columbia. That book and Harris' ouster were "evidence," McCarthy charged, that the witness before him was a Communist.
Harris did not look like a rebel during his college days. Articles at the time, described the bespectacled man as a "serious student" who looked like a "fraternity man with good credentials" not a newspaper editor. But Harris was "the Columbia Daily Spectator's first real editor," Friendly says.
He stripped the paper of puff features and boring social notes. He printed investigative exposes and began swinging his editorial scalpel at such sacred cows as Columbia's beloved football team. But his charge that the then-president of Columbia, Nicholas Murray Butler, had awarded a sweetheart contract to his sister was his final expose.
Harris was expelled, but reinstated a few days later after a one-day student strike, organized, in part, by several campus Communists. Harris and President Butler agreed on a compromise: The editor's expulsion would not be listed on his transcript if Harris resigned Voluntarily.
A short time later, Harris wrote "King Football," which accused Ivy League schools of caring more about athletes than academics and which advocated "full academic teaching rights" for political activists, including Communists.
McCarthy zeroed in on that book, and Harris told the Committee that he regretted writing "King Football" and no longer held many of the views he expressed 21 years earlier.
After the hearings, Harris was forced to resign. Washington society blackballed him. He earned a living by printing brochures for trade associations.
Eight years after the hearings, President Kennedy appointed Murrow director of the U.S. Information Agnecy, and Murrow gave Harris the same government job he had been forced to leave.
"I want that diploma," Harris says today. "Not for me, but for the young journalists of today. I want them to know that they will not be punished for speaking the truth and printing what is right."
A Columbia spokesman said President Michael J. Sovern is investigating the Harris case, but that it is unlikely Sovern will make a decision before commencement. Officials also said Harris' old transcript shows he does not have enough credits to graduate, a claim Harris says is untrue.
"Why should it matter?" demands Friendly, who originally suggested that Columbia give Harris his diploma. "Alumni who give money to schools get degrees all the time, even if they flunked out. This guy didn't give money. He gave something more important. He gave his life fighting for freedom."