The Knickerbocker Case
To the Editor:
“The Knickerbocker Case: A Report on the Current Crusade,” by Morris Freedman, in the August issue of COMMENTARY, is a curious medley of fact and fancy. Little wonder that Mr. Freedman is confused by the events on the City College campus and the role of organizations like the Hillel Foundation and the American Jewish Congress, which for years have called for a full investigation of the charges against Professor Knickerbocker. For Mr. Freedman has accepted in toto the view of the defenders of Knickerbocker.
At the same time, for an objective reporter he appears to have only a second-hand acquaintance with the basic documents in the case against the Professor. He does not even know that the primary purpose of the present appeal to the State Commissioner of Education is to request a trial of Dr. Knickerbocker. But where knowledge fails, fancy may fill in.
Mr. Freedman mentions a Congress “study,” purporting to have shown that there was insufficient evidence on which to base a legal action against Knickerbocker. This Mr. Freedman has identified for me as an Analysis of the Record (of the evidence taken by the Faculty Investigating Committee), submitted by the Congress to the Board of Higher Education September 10, 1946. The intent of the Analysis is to point out the flagrant inadequacies in the Faculty Committee’s investigation of Dr. Knickerbocker. It marshals what evidence has been produced in spite of an “inadequate” investigation and reaches the conclusion that there are sufficient grounds to take action. For example:
We have already stated our view that the [faculty] hearings and investigations which have been held in these proceedings have been far from adequate. Yet even the inadequate record discloses sufficient evidence from which this [faculty] Committee can make positive findings . . . .
The evidence as to each of these charges supports the others. Viewed as a whole they indicate in our opinion, a philosophy and program of anti-Semitism . . . .
We are impelled, therefore, to the conclusion that Professor Knickerbocker does not possess the character for the high office he holds.
The Analysis recommends a re-organization of the department of romance languages, the retirement of all professors eligible therefor, and, specifically, of the Chairman (Professor Knickerbocker). It ends with this statement:
If the Committee still has doubts as to Professor Knickerbocker’s incapacity for office or as to the need for a drastic re-organization of the Department, we recommend an open hearing in which additional testimony can be taken, supplemented by an examination of the applications and records material to this inquiry.
It is clear that Mr. Freedman’s article in COMMENTARY distorted the clear intent of the Congress Analysis and its unequivocal findings in a “study” which he represented as having virtually exonerated Knickerbocker of any guilt.
2. Mr. Freedman’s statement on the role of the uptown City College Hillel unit is similarly fanciful:
It is apparently on the basis of such considerations [that Knickerbocker made derogatory remarks about Jews] that Hillel in the early stages of the discussion urged merely that Knickerbocker resign from the chairmanship of his department and possibly retire altogether from the faculty on his regular pension.
Mr. Freedman’s “apparently” and “possibly” in the quotation above cover the lack of any direct knowledge. Actually this Report described Professor Knickerbocker’s specific acts of a purported anti-Semitic nature as well as statements he had allegedly made in his official capacity as an administrator in the College, and unequivocally recommended Dr. Knickerbocker’s retirement from the staff, as the Congress Analysis had done. It also requested that Morton Gurewitch be declared the winner of the Ward medal for 1942—which was finally conceded in 1948.
Mr. Freedman conveys the impression that leftist maneuvering was responsible for the support of the CCNY Student Council Strike by our Hillel Foundation. This is not the case. The Hillel Report, published in March 1947, was the first to reveal that as late as January 1947 Gurewitch’s records held an “incomplete” in Honors I, although in actuality he had earned an “A” in May 1942, at the time of his graduation, and hence had a perfect “A” record in all courses in French. This discovery, by student investigators, clearly reflected on the adequacy of the investigations by the College authorities and Board of Higher Education, and justified the Congress’s judgment of the Faculty investigation. The Faculty had based its dismissal of the Ward medal charge against Knickerbocker on the incorrect record. The Board of Higher Education relied altogether on the Faculty’s findings. It did not take up the charge that Knickerbocker had denied the medal to Gurewitch solely on the basis of religion, having allegedly declared to Professor Muller who recommended him, “That fellow Gurewitch may be an excellent student, but he is a Jew.” The defense now offered of a “clerical error” in the Dean’s office is completely irrelevant. For Professor Knickerbocker admitted in the City Council investigation that in determining the winner of the medal, he consulted with the very Professor who turned in Gurewitch’s grade of “A.” He testified further that even if Gurewitch had taken another Honors course in addition to Honors I, he doubted that he would have given him the medal.
Since 1947, the Uptown CCNY Hillel student group has not altered its position of urging a full and open investigation of Professor Knickerbocker on the grounds of the new evidence which it presented. It called for an inquiry by the New York City Council and led a delegation to the Mayor’s office for that purpose. In June 1948 the City Council, by a vote of 16 to 0 with 2 abstentions, found Knickerbocker guilty of “reprehensible and unworthy” conduct, called for his retirement before the Fall semester 1948, and requested his removal as chairman of the romance languages department in the event that he did not voluntarily retire. Dr. Knickerbocker and the college authorities ignored the City Council on the grounds of “academic freedom.” Our Hillel Foundation endorsed the student body appeal to the State Commissioner for a formal hearing of the charges against Knickerbocker. It also supported the CCNY Student Council strike in April 1949, as a method of bringing the controversy over Knickerbocker and Davis to an end by a trial of both men.
3. Mr. Freedman’s statements about “the crusading vengefulness” of the action against Professor Knickerbocker are likewise misleading. Mr. Freedman quotes from unnamed “Jewish organizations” in illustration of a hysterical attitude on Knickerbocker but none of these quotations are from Hillel sources, although the uninformed reader might easily draw such an incorrect inference. The letter of the four faculty complainants ends with a strong demand for trial of the accused: “We therefore ask . . . that the incriminated . . . be promptly brought to justice”; but this cannot reasonably be stretched to mean what Mr. Freedman says it does, namely, that “charges alone, to the complainants and their friends, were sufficient grounds for the carrying out of sentence.” If among “friends” of the complainants he included the City College Hillel Foundation or the American Jewish Congress, his statement is entirely without justification. If Mr. Freedman means to say that the leftist section of the metropolitan press and their few representatives on the campus saw an opportunity in the Knickerbocker scandal of excoriating “bourgeois decadence” without regard to the niceties of judicial procedure, let him say so, without intimating that our Hillel and the Congress acted as their dupes.
4. I consider Mr. Freedman’s most serious misrepresentation to be that the City College student body, as a group, acted without sufficient knowledge of the facts, discarded all concern for judicial process and civil rights, and gave themselves over to a hysterical binge. Anyone at all acquainted with the City College student must be surprised at such a judgment. The number of man-hours spent by City College students last year on study and discussion of the Knickerbocker and Davis cases, in and out of class, over the lunch table or on the subway, is beyond my power to compute. A vast amount of material was distributed, and carefully read and discussed. Scores of students have a thorough knowledge of all facets of the Knickerbocker and Davis cases, and the State Education Law, in strong contrast with Mr. Freedman’s second-hand acquaintance. Some of these students have submitted their findings to college officials and have attended President Wright’s forums. Unlike Mr. Freedman, most of them have come away from such conversations with the conviction that only a full, formal hearing of the charges against the men involved could ever finally settle the issue.
Briefly and in an off-hand manner, Mr. Freedman does mention the purpose of the student strike correctly as being an effort to secure a trial of Knickerbocker and Davis, and their suspension pending trial. However, since this fact conflicts with his major premise that the students acted out of hysteria without regard for civil liberties, his discussion distorts the purpose of the student action into a demand for the summary dismissal of Knickerbocker without regard for due process of law. It is a fact, nevertheless, that at every opportunity the student leaders made clear their concern for judicial process. At the crucial moment of the strike last April, the college publicity bureau had full access to the general metropolitan press and the national press services. The authorities stigmatized the student strike as “lynch justice.” Knickerbocker and Davis raised the cry of “Communism.” (For doing so, they now have a libel suit on their hands.) From then on, the students did not have a chance to present their position in the press until near the end of the strike action, with the notable exception of the New York Post. They had to resort to an advertisement paid for by forty pints of blood sold by as many students. They took to distributing throwaways. One such statement said: “Remember! We Are Striking For Open Fair Trials—Not Ouster Without Trial. Do Not Misrepresent the Issues.”
They wrote a letter to the college teaching staff of which Mr. Freedman is a member at the Downtown Center: “We have repeatedly asked for clear and definitive action in the form of an open trial.”
They listed the charges in formal resolutions to President Wright and Ordway Tead, Chairman of the Board of Higher Education, and concluded:
Therefore, we . . . hereby request a formal trial be held and these charges given consideration, since no trial has ever been held on these charges at any time by anybody, and up to the present, Professor Knickerbocker has suffered no penalization in any form. We further request suspension pending trial.
The objective of the student strike of April 1949 conformed to the requirements of democratic judicial process as prescribed by law. The student leaders know that a member of the faculty who enjoys tenure, as does Professor Knickerbocker, cannot be removed from the staff without preferment of formal charges and a trial. They formulated their demands accordingly. Also, they removed from the picket line those posters which did not conform with the professed aims of the strike. Only teachers in the college like Mr. Freedman, who have no permanent status, can be dropped without preferment of charges, or indeed any explanation at all. Nevertheless, in summarizing the action against Knickerbocker, Mr. Freedman writes:
“Jewish groups that couldn’t automatically align themselves with those demanding Knickerbocker’s summary dismissal were embarrassed. If one took a stand for Knickerbocker’s right not to be fired, it was possible to be accused of anti-Semitism.” Mr. Freedman has imputed to the students the calumny of demanding summary dismissal without trial. This is his fancy, hardly the fact. An alert and intelligent student body has acted on a vitally important issue. Naturally, their reaction to evil in their own community is likely to be intense and vigorous without being necessarily hysterical or disdainful of civil liberties.
There may be details of the student action which their own leadership deplores. One may also lack enthusiasm for the demand for immediate suspension, pending trial, of the men under charges, although the students offered precedents for such action from the recent history of the College. One will also mark carefully the irrational statements of the few extremists and their eagerness to fish in muddy waters. But this is a peril that all fighters for a just cause must face today; such dangers are endemic in the contemporary struggle for power. And the recognition of these risks need not frighten us from our objectives or paralyze us with inaction; certainly they do not invalidate a cause if indeed it is just.
It is essential that an evaluation of the struggle to eliminate religious and racial discrimination in a publicly-supported university be capable of distinguishing the wheat from the chaff. In a complex situation like the Knickerbocker scandal, this will necessarily require considerable skill as well as a thorough acquaintance with all the facts. Instead, Mr. Freedman’s article has befuddled the facts and bedevilled the issues almost beyond repair—whether it deals with the charges against Dr. Knickerbocker, the rickety defense, the student action or the present status of the case. He has provided the defenders of the status quo with another “Jew” whom they can quote; he has provided the leftists with another example of the “befuddled liberal.”
In conclusion, Mr. Freedman is a tutor in the English department of the City College. This should not endow him with the immunity of poetic license in the discussion of a moral and legal problem. But it would appear to be an essential fact in the curriculum vitae of the author of an article on the Knickerbocker scandal, would it not?
Rabbi Arthur Zuckerman
B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation
The City College of New York (Uptown)