In the three years since Bertell Ollman found himself spurned for a department chairmanship at the University of Maryland, the self-styled Marxist has marketed a new board game, sold the story of his life to Hollywood and started a book about his misadventures as an entrepreneur in the capitalist world. But all Ollman really wants to do, he says, is teach at the university that first offered him a job and then rejected him in a case that attracted nationwide publicity.
So it is that Ollman has sat in a federal courtroom here for the last two weeks, battling the state of Maryland in a civil lawsuit he filed seeking $300,000 and the job he asserts he was denied because of his Marxist views. Ollman insists the main reason he's here is to win the "challenging job" he was offered and then denied, but the trial before U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Harvey has broader implications for academic freedmon.
"Can a Marxist teach at the University of Maryland? It's clear according to the courts that he can," said Jordan Kurland, of the American Association of University Professors, which censured the university for its rejection of Ollman. "The First Mendment protections in terms of political beliefs make it impermissible to deny appointment to a public institution. The principle is clear, but the battle is never over."
The state, for its part, maintains that Ollman's Marxism had nothing to do with his rejection as chairman of the Department of Government and Politics at the university's College Park campus. Ollman, a New York University professor, simply was not qualified for the job, and John S. Toll, then the university's new president, rejected the nomination on those grounds alone, assistant attorney general Paul Strain has argued in court.
The stage for the battle was set in March 1978 when university Provost Murray Polakoff offered Ollman the department chairmanship after a search committee had selected him over dozens of other applicants.
By April, the appointment had become a hot campus issue, with several powerful state legislators and members of the university's Board of Regents raising their objections.
Ollman will "never get on there," one board member predicted of the Marxist's proposed move from Greenwich Village to College Park. "We have too many of those kind of people from up in New York down here now."
The Ollman matter soon spilled over into state politics when acting governor Blair Lee III was asked about it at a press conference. "If this were Harvard we were running, there'd be no big problem," said Lee. But a a public institution like the University of Maryland, he said, such an appointment could "kick up quite a backlash."
Lee's opponents in the gubernatorial primary grabbed the Ollman matter as what one of them termed "a golden issue," and within days everyone from political scientists to politicians were getting in on the action.
Back in New York, Ollman granted interviews to the press and waited, knowing that he already had the approval of the search committee and the two top officials on the College Park campus. All that remained between him and the appointment was formal approval by outgoing university president Wilson H. Elkins. But Elkins retired in June without acting on the appointment.
On July 20 -- three days after Ollman threatened at a press conference to sue the university if his nomination was not approve -- incoming president Toll rejected Ollman, emphasizing that the onlyh criteria he used were academic qualifications.
The next month Ollman filed his lawsuit, asserting that the rejection violated his constitutioinal rights to freedom of speech and expression. With that, the balding, bearded Oxford PhD became a cause celebre in the academic world, and the prestigous Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter thought enough of his case to represent him free of charge.
This week, Ollman, who seems to blossom in the spotlight, was again the center of attention. Although he looked slightly uncomfortable on the witness stand in his tie and tweed jacket complete with elbow patches, he seemed the professor lecturing the wayward student.
Indeed, after one Ollman minilecture, assistant attorney general Strain told the professor, "Oh, you want that to be my next question? Well, I have another one instead."
In his testimony, Ollman said being rejected for the $39,000-a-year post cost him not only future earnings -- he was making about $25,000 at the time -- but diminished his chances for promotions. But the state has attempted to show, over Ollman's fierce denials, that the professor actually thrived on his new found notoriety, using it to further his other pursuits.
For Ollman, along with teaching his NYU courses and publishing scholarly works, has also enjoyed considerable success, groping for his way, as he puts it, in the world of capitalism.
In April 1978, Ollman came out with his board game brainchild, "Class Struggle." The game, which he introduced as "the first to promote a Marxist view of the world" made headlines around the country and taught Ollman what he now calls "a certain sympathy for capitalists as human beings."
After all the publicity, the game took off. Then Ollman's New York Times essay on the games' effects on his life caught the eye of a movie producer, and soon the Ollman story was headed for Hollywood.
The move sale spurred interest in an Ollman autobiography, and the professor is now at work on one with the proposed title "The True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman."
Though Ollman's business pursuits have been touched on in the trial, they are not a major focus. The question before the court is precisely why the university turned Ollman down.
Ollman says that if he wins the case he'll take the job he was once offered, though he's aware the situation would be awkwrd to say the least.
"It's a good job," he says, "a challenging job. There are things there I would like to do."