ACADEMIC POLITICS is the most vicious kind, the old maxim runs, because the stakes are so small. The Ollman case, in the end, ran true to form.
Was Bertoll Ollman, the Marxist professor and inventor of the board game "Class Struggle," rejected as chairman of the University of Maryland's Department of Government and Politics at College Park because of his political opinions? A Baltimore federal judge thought not earlier this week, and ruled against Mr. Ollman, who had sued.
U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey made it clear that his ruling intended no personal determination as to Mr. Ollman's fitness to chair the Maryland department but, rather, a finding that President Toll's action "was a reasonable one . . . honestly and conscientiously reached after he had weighed all competing considerations." Mr. Toll, in short, had not turned down Mr. Ollman (according to the judge) for a "constitutionally impermissible reason," such as the latter's Marxist beliefs. Under the circumstances, Judge Harvey decided -- properly, in our view -- that he lacked the authority to "second-guess" the university president.
Judge Harvey's ruling may not persuade those convinced that Mr. Ollman had been unfairly dealth with, and the plaintiff may still appeal the verdict. On the evidence that emerged at the trial, however, Mr. Toll profited more than did his adversary from the careful courtroom exposition of the case. Far from emerging as a clear-cut academic freedom issue -- of fiendish administrative hounds pursuing a helpless professorial hare -- the facts described in Judge Harvey's 49-page opinion document a confused and manipulative departmental and administrative world at College Park permeated by petty backbiting and back-corridor struggles for influence.
The full story of the infighting over the Ollman appointment at Maryland would fill a hefty academic novel. By the time Mr. Toll took over the presidency, he found himself under political pressure to reject Mr. Ollman and under counterpressures from national faculty groups -- and from Mr. Ollman's threatened lawsuit -- to ratify the chancellor's recommendation. Instead, Mr. Toll conducted his own review and solicited evaluations of Mr. Ollman's work from leading scholars outside the university. Many of these noted Mr. Ollman's lack of administrative experience and criticized his scholarship, though the candidate countered with more favorable assessments.
In the end, Mr. Toll chose to risk the lawsuit and reject Mr. Ollman on the ground that he was not "the best qualified person" for the chairmanship. Whatever the merits of that assessment, Mr. Toll has been vindicated by Judge Harvey's conclusion that he "conducted his investigation of the appointment in a fair and open-minded manner." Apparently, the Ollman case tells us far more about the state of internal politics at College Park than it does about the limits of academic freedom.