McCarthy’s Ghost: Reminiscences of a Politically Incorrect Professor

The recent controversy concerning “political correctness” on campuses may seem to many to be academic. Most people do not spend a lot of time on campuses. University politics seem an arcane topic to them. My sad experiences as a “politically incorrect” professor may help to acquaint the reader further with the realities of current campus life.

In 1952, I began instructing economics as a “teaching fellow” at my alma mater, the University of Michigan. Since then I have been a visiting professor at the University of Florida and the Amos Tuck Graduate School of Business at Dartmouth, and I have been a member of the regular faculty at Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Michigan State, and Virginia Tech. Since 1963, I have been a specialist in large lectures, primarily in the principles of economics. For 26 years I lectured to more than a thousand registered students each term, so that I have had about 100,000 official students during my career. My lectures were given in large lecture halls, and at MSU and Virginia Tech they were taped and broadcast to numerous classrooms and all university dormitories via closed circuit TV systems. In addition, the cable TV systems serving East Lansing and Blacksburg broadcast my classes. Since the advent of the VCR, a large number of students have taped portions of my lectures, which have been viewed by many parents and friends. I believe my classroom work is the most frequently viewed of any professor in the United States.

I enjoyed the reputation of being a demanding professor who gives an interesting class. I have always used stories and jokes in class as an important part of my pedagogical technique. At both Michigan State and Virginia Tech I was rated “outstanding teacher in the university” the first time that students were empowered to make such an award. In my only term at Florida I was voted one of the five best teachers at the university, and in my only term at Dartmouth, the students named me “teacher of the year.”

I was raised as a New Deal Democrat. As a Jewish boy I had considerable sympathy for downtrodden minorities. During the early 1960s, when I was at Vanderbilt, I participated with Negro groups in the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. I supported the Warren Court’s anti-discrimination decisions and the civil rights activities of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. My original field within economics was labor relations. Some years ago I wrote an often-cited journal article which was thought by many to have supported the activities of labor unions.

My first encounter with civil rights in a university setting came when I was a visiting professor at Dartmouth. I was in Hanover at the moment of the Kent State shootings. This resulted in the cancellation of school for one week while students were protesting. Following the resumption of classes, all students who wanted to continue the protest were excused and were automatically given credit for their courses. Needless to say, few students bothered to finish their courses, and the term was essentially aborted. I was not unsympathetic with the students’ feelings regarding the Vietnam War, but I was and still remain of the opinion that credit should not be given for work not done.

When I was at Tuck, the school had just admitted its first two black students. At the end of the year it was the custom for the Tuck faculty to vote on which students were to be asked not to return the following year. I was told that normally the eight or ten lowest-ranking students of the 130-member first-year class would be asked to leave. This year, however, the two black students were at the bottom of the class, and a wide chasm existed between the grades of the two blacks and the lowest whites. It was therefore decided by the faculty that no one would be asked to leave that year. I demurred, but since I was a visiting professor, I chose not to vote.

I fear that this sort of practice is now old hat, but at the time it came as a great shock to me that a fine institution would dilute its standards in order to give minority members (and in this case several white persons) a degree which they otherwise would not have obtained. To me civil rights in education has always meant training minorities so that they could compete on an equal basis with the majority—not giving minority students an undeserved degree. I hold that view to this day. I cannot see how in the long run it does any good to receive a cheapened degree. I was soon to pay a price because I held such unpopular beliefs.

By 1971 I had returned to Michigan State. It was at this time that university civil rights officials asked me to give C’s to a black man and a black woman. They had received the two lowest grades in my 1,200-student class. I was told that I should give these students a “C” because they could not read and write. Upon asking the obvious question, namely, how had they been admitted to the university if they were illiterate, I was told that they had been admitted under the “Upward Bound” program and that all other professors had agreed to give them “C” grades. I stood alone in refusing to do so and thereby incurred the wrath of many university officials in the minorities affairs offices. Subsequently a brick was thrown through a glass portion of my office door during the night, my office was entered, books were thrown on the floor, and a note proclaiming “Power to the People” was left on my desk.

Six weeks later, after a new term had begun, the head of closed-circuit television at MSU informed me that unbeknownst to me someone was watching each of my television tapes from the preceding term. After making inquiries, I found out that the examination was being conducted under the auspices of the advisory committee to the chairman of the economics department. The chairman of the advisory committee informed me that the two black “Upward Bound” students who were in my class had come before the advisory committee with a charge that I had made numerous racist remarks and told “racist stories” in my class. In order to check this out, the advisory committee had hired a graduate student to view every minute of my tapes from that term. The committee had not bothered to inform me either that the charges had been made or that they were conducting an investigation.

As you might imagine, I protested the advisory committee action vigorously. I was protesting the procedure and the secrecy with which the investigation was being carried out. The chairman of the advisory committee, however, took my protests to mean that I was afraid the committee would find that my lectures were packed with all sorts of racist remarks. He disregarded my request that the viewing be discontinued.

In the event, all of my tapes from the term were carefully viewed for racist remarks, after which a letter was written by the advisory committee to the dean in which no example of racist remarks was given but I was described as being “insensitive to racial concerns.” Upon receiving a copy of this letter, I demanded that there be a meeting of the department at which I insisted that the advisory committee present specific examples of my racist remarks. The committee was forced to admit that after looking at every second of my class for the entire term, they could not find one instance of racist remarks. I then demanded that the letter to the dean be retracted. After two meetings lasting a total of seven hours, the advisory committee finally admitted its error and retracted the letter. But my victory had left a deep division within the department.

A year or so later my reputation as a “racist” was enhanced when I took a public stand against the acting president of the university, who had been (and later again became) a professor in economics. The Black Student Alliance (BSA) staged a sit-in at a residence hall. They charged that a dining hall supervisor at the residence hall had practiced racial discrimination against one of his subordinates. A “trial” of the supervisor was conducted in the dining hall while the hall was surrounded with members of the BSA, who had seized the building. Needless to say, the supervisor was found guilty and was discharged. I knew nothing of the substantive facts of the case, but I thought that the procedure was intolerable, and I wrote a letter to the student newspaper to this effect. This did not enhance my popularity within the department. Many department members supported their colleague, the acting president.

In 1973 I received an unsolicited offer from Virginia Tech. A meeting of the economics department at Michigan State took place to determine whether or not to match the offer. I was told that the meeting was very confrontational, but the final vote favored matching the offer by a very close margin, and the offer was matched. After weighing the matter at great length, I decided that it was best to leave MSU with honor. In September of 1974 I joined the department at Virginia Tech.

My life at Tech was happy until one day in February 1986, when I was confronted in my office by Nancy Reynolds, the head of the women’s section of the university’s Equal Opportunities/Affirmative Action (EO/AA) office. She informed me in no uncertain terms that I had been accused of “sexual harassment” by virtue of the sexist jokes and stories which I had allegedly told in my classes. I must confess that I object strenuously to the use of the term “sexual harassment” in this context. If one is accused of such harassment, it is usually taken to mean that he had made some sort of improper sexual advance to someone in private.

In this case, the charge instead was that in front of hundreds of students I had cracked jokes which someone did not like. In the interview Nancy Reynolds took an extremely belligerent attitude towards me. She admitted that she had never seen any of my lectures, yet she was convinced that I was a “sexist.” She repeated over and over again that I was “breaking the law” and that I had better cease and desist. I asked how many people had accused me, but Reynolds declined to answer. (The president of the university told me four months later that there had been one complaint.) I also was not told who my accusers were or what sexist remark they were accusing me of having made.

The interview with Nancy Reynolds ended in a shouting match in which I refused to admit guilt. Ms. Reynolds stormed out of my office shouting that she would be investigating me thoroughly. In fact, to my knowledge she undertook no investigation at all. The next day she approached Professor Daniel Orr, Chairman of the Economics Department and stated that I was guilty of making all sorts of sexist remarks. Professor Orr knew my lecture style well and expressed doubts to Ms. Reynolds concerning the truth of the allegations.

The following day Ms. Reynolds had a conference with Dean Richard Sorensen of the College of Business. She informed Dean Sorensen of the charges against me and told him that “no woman dared ask a question of Mandelstamm for fear of being humiliated because of her sex.” On the basis of this report Dean Sorensen contacted Professor On and proposed that I be removed from the classroom immediately! This proposal was made on the basis of one formal complaint after I had taught more than 35,000 students at Virginia Tech, had been viewed by thousands of additional students, and had consistently led the department in teacher evaluations. The proposal was made without any consultation with me.

Chairman On convinced the dean not to remove me from the classroom, but I was still presumably under investigation by Nancy Reynolds. In view of this, I decided to tell my class of the charges and to announce that I would cease all jokes and stories for the remainder of the term while the investigation was in progress. I said that I intended to proceed with my usual style of teaching once the investigation had been completed and I had been vindicated.

As the end of the term approached, I devised several questions to be added to the regular student/teacher evaluation questionnaire in order to address the charges made against me. The secretaries were asked to send copies of the tallies and all student comments to Nancy Reynolds, the dean, the chairman, and the provost. The day after the copies were sent, I received a letter from Nancy Reynolds in which she thanked me for the “information sharing opportunity” but returned the unopened packet to me, inasmuch as it was “not germane to the issue under consideration.”

One day later I received a harsh letter from Reynolds with copies to the dean and the chairman of the department. Although she said that the EO/AA office now considered the matter to be closed because I had ceased my sexist activities, she made it clear that she thought me guilty of the charges and warned me ominously that further complaints would lead to “a more in-depth review with consideration of more serious consequences.” I could only interpret this as an official letter of reprimand. I later learned that the letter had been sent with the advice and consent of Vice Provost John Perry, even though he also had never spoken to me about this matter. By this time I had reviewed my copy of the student evaluation results:

Rank of teacher relative to other faculty:                                                                                                            

  1. far above average-299
  2. above average-178
  3. average-24
  4. below average-2
  5. far below average-0

Level of rigor of course:

  1. high-290
  2. moderate-204
  3. low-10

“I am afraid to ask questions in the professor’s class because he makes offensive sexist comments in reply to students’ questions.”

  1. I agree—I am a female-3
  2. I agree—I am a male-0
  3. I disagree—I am a female-279
  4. I disagree—I am a male-217

“The professor should permanently change his teaching style to prevent any possibility that anyone might take offense at the perceived sexist quality of his lectures.”

  1. I agree—I am a female-3
  2. I agree—I am a male-4
  3. I disagree—I am a female-277
  4. I disagree—I am a male-216

Since I had been convicted of sexism and found guilty despite the evidence, I decided to do something about it. I sent copies of a memorandum together with all relevant materials to all academic deans, the provost, the president, and the EO/AA office. I read the survey results to the class and demanded an apology from the university, which I finally got from the provost after much delay.

Unfortunately, the president of the university was less sympathetic toward me. Until this moment I had not heard anything directly from him. He now asked me to call him. When I did so, he asked why I did not behave like the other 19 people who had been similarly accused. This was the first I had heard of their existence. It seems that they had all simply acquiesced in the accusation, had shouted “mea culpa,” and had apologized. On the other hand, I had behaved in a refractory manner. I was not guilty of sexual harassment, but I was guilty of the worst sin of all: in attempting to exculpate myself, he suggested, I had caused negative publicity to be heaped upon the university. When faced with an accusation such as this, apparently, the only thing to do is to accept guilt whether guilty or not.

The “defeat” for the equal opportunities office caused great dismay on the part of the campus Women’s Network. Nancy Reynolds was quoted in the paper as doubting the dedication of Provost Roselle to the cause of minorities. She said we had not yet heard the last of the Mandelstamm case. In order to save the Cause, the Women’s Network now launched a newspaper letter-writing campaign against me. During the months of April and May 1986, nasty letters about me were published regularly in the Roanoke Times and World News. Frequently during this period my wife would come into the house in tears after having read that day’s hate letters. So far as I could ascertain, none of the letter-writers (mostly female faculty members who were also members of the Women’s Network) had ever seen any of my classes.

The Women’s Network together with a black students’ group now insisted that in the light of the Mandelstamm affair the president must immediately reaffirm his support of minority rights. The president was quite willing to do so. His statement merely proclaimed that he believed in the Equal Opportunities Program, but it was widely interpreted by those who heard of it but did not read it to be an overruling of the provost’s apology by the president. In June I went to see the president. He told me that the statement was “deliberately ambiguous” so that it could lend itself to any interpretation people desired.

Starting with the year in which this series of events took place, I received below-average wage increases for the next five years until my resignation in 1990. My salary during this period was relatively high, and I cannot say for certain that the below-average increments had anything to do with the equal opportunities conflict. I asked the chairmen and the dean several times why I was receiving below-average increments. Each time I failed to receive a satisfactory answer. Most times the only response was a shrug. After I became insistent, the dean told me that the reason was that the chairman had recommended it. I could hardly consider these repeated below-average increments to be a sign of approbation from the university, nor could I be encouraged when I was asked to be acting chairman of the department only to find out at the last moment that I would not be allowed to exercise any of the normal powers of the chairman.

Yet another “equal opportunity” difficulty befell me in the fall semester of 1988. At that time I was asked by the EO/AA to make special arrangements for a student who had suffered brain damage in an auto crash. I agreed to allow her 90 extra minutes on a regular 90-minute exam with a 30-minute break between the two 90-minute segments, but this was not good enough for the EO/AA, who transferred her out of my class and secured a guaranteed “C-” grade for her. This was accomplished by the creation of a special independent study course for her which was substituted for my course in her curriculum. The teacher of that course informed me that she would receive the “C-” grade regardless of the quality of her work. Dr. Orr reprimanded me harshly for not agreeing to this arrangement.

I later had a discussion about this case with James Wolfe, the current vice provost. In the course of that conversation Dr. Wolfe told me that final course grades of “certain students” are sometimes expunged after the grade had been given and without the knowledge of the professor who awarded the grade. This news shook me to the core.

During the same conversation, I asked the vice provost for some favorable signal to counteract all the insults and signs of disapprobation which I had received. No such signal was sent. Instead, another accusation was leveled against me. One week after my conversation with the vice provost, the new chairman of the economics department, Professor Yannis Ioannides, informed me that during April and May of 1990, six persons had complained separately to him about a “sexist” remark I had allegedly made in class. Again I was not told who the complainants were and did not even know whether they had been members of my class. I pointed out to Ioannides that the remark in question had been made in August 1989. What can one think of six seemingly separate complaints, all of which are made eight or nine months after the event? Ioannides already knew that no student had complained about this remark on the student evaluation sheets in either the fall or the spring semesters. I offered to show the tape of the remark to Ioannides, but he refused to look at it. He also refused to examine the evidence from the earlier, Nancy Reynolds affair. Instead, he reprimanded me and insisted that for the rest of my days at Virginia Tech I should be subjected to a special mail survey of my students each semester in order to test me for sexism.

It was déja vu. I had again been “convicted” without anyone looking at my proof of innocence, which was readily available.

This humiliation was the last straw. I had had enough of this nonsense. I had served the university faithfully and even with some distinction. My classroom work was probably the most visible in the history of higher education. I was innocent and surely did not deserve to be found guilty automatically. I resolved that unless some favorable signal came immediately from the university, I would have to resign. My intention to resign was conveyed to several high university officials, but they choose to do nothing about it.

Thus it was that I resigned in class on October 1, 1990. I told the class that I was resigning and then spoke to them for about half an hour telling them something of the reason for my resignation. I said goodbye to them and stopped. I received a 5-minute standing ovation, and it was over.

In the days immediately following my resignation the students were extremely understanding and supportive of me. They put banners on classroom buildings and sent me petitions asking me to return. But my resignation had been accepted, and I could therefore not return, nor would I have done so without a strong request from the university.

My last lecture was given under the auspices of the Student Government Association, which invited me to return for a farewell talk on November 7, 1990, at a theater adjacent to the campus. At the same time, the Women’s Network was passing a petition stating that I was a sexist and strongly urging the university not to ask me back.

I have now become a sort of collector of apologies. There had been the apology to me from the Advisory Committee at Michigan State in 1971. At Virginia Tech in 1986 I had received apologies from the dean and the provost. In 1988 I had received a private letter of apology from Dan Orr. After my resignation Orr wrote an apologetic letter to the student newspaper. In early 1991, former President Lavery approached me with a semi-apology in which he expressed regrets about “all the things that happened.” The university, at the instigation of Professor Yannis Ioannides, has declared me “Professor Emeritus.” I was also given the use of my office for a year.

All of this is very nice, but it cannot make up for the loss which I feel within me. With the exception of the provost in 1986, no one who was in a position to do something did anything when the chips were down.

So my teaching career has come to an abrupt and strange end. It was a career which I thought was not without merit and honor and which—in my biased opinion—did not deserve the end to which it came. I could try to get a job at another university, but I am 62 years old and said to be a “racist” and a “sexist”; I doubt that anyone would hire me. If I were to be hired by some university, it would soon be discovered that I am out of step with the times; I would certainly be in trouble with the university’s affirmative action office in no time. So I had better remain in retirement.

My sad experience calls several questions to mind. Can a member of a pressure group simply denounce a professor for “racism” or “sexism” and have this charge stick regardless of the evidence? If one statement from one minority group member can play such havoc with my career, given my record and my visibility, one must wonder whether any member of any privileged group can at any time simply denounce any professor and render that professor defenseless regardless of the evidence he has on his side.

The civil rights movement was founded to remedy just grievances, but society, in its guilt over past wrongs and in sympathy with this just cause, has lapsed into procedures which seriously violate our codes of decency and fair play and undermine our standards of quality. If nothing is done to stop this contagion, our system of higher education will suffer an irreparable loss.


  • Allan B. Mandelstamm

    At the time this article was published, Allan B. Mandelstamm was a free-lance economic consultant and writer.

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