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The Dean led the Faculty Disciplinary Committee into an adjoining room, leaving me alone in the conference room. That was more than fifty-five years ago, but it seems as if it happened yesterday. It was in mid May of 1951, only weeks before I was to graduate. That is if the Committee didn't expel me. I was apprehensive that after four years at City College, I could lose my degree. I didn't dare think about my parents' reaction; they had no idea what I had done or that the Committee had summoned me. I was also only weeks away from marriage to my wife Irma. The committee's decision would affect not only me, but my parents, my wife and my future.
Let me give you the background of why I had jeopardized my degree. My brother had been an engineering major at City College, Class of '45. With the outbreak of World War II, on his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. In eleven months, he was transformed from a City College freshman and member of the lacrosse team into a fighter pilot and second lieutenant. I can still see him in his trim uniform proudly wearing his silver wings and gold officer's bars. He was proud to do his part defending our country against our fascist enemies. He was sent overseas, where he was killed in July, 1944, a month shy of his twentieth birthday.
I idolized my brother. Three years after he was killed, I was offered a scholarship to a private college, but I enrolled in City. In retrospect, I was attempting to obtain the degree that my brother never could. I was living under the pall of his death, as were my parents, who had suffered their greatest possible loss. They had come to this country as persecuted immigrants who escaped Russia's 1917-1920 malchuma-und-revolutzia (I grew up believing War-and-Revolution was one word). As their only remaining child, I was expected to bring what nachus (joy) a child can bring into parents' lives. Not that I believed I could ever replace my brother. But I could earn a college degree, which he couldn't. So why had I jeopardized my future, for which my parents had struggled trying to give my brother and me the advantages they didn't have in their Russian shtetl?
The reason was that on May 17, 1951, the college had a memorial service for the City College war dead. It included a parade by the Reserve Officers Training Corps and speeches by prominent political and military leaders. I read about the service the day before and wrote a letter saying that the college could better honor the college war dead by having a memorial service dedicated to peace rather than to military and political causes. I signed it as the brother of one of the 307 City College War Dead.
The next day, with the help of several of my friends, I distributed the mimeographed letter on campus. A dean ordered us to stop distributing the letter. I took the letters from my friends so they wouldn't get into trouble, but I continued distributing them. Only many years later, researching the campus newspapers, did I learn that ten students were picketing the stadium chanting, "They died for Peace".
The Dean and Faculty Disciplinary Committee had summoned me for "illegally" distributing leaflets on campus. Before they left the room, the dean asked me if I would distribute the leaflet again. For an instant I considered recanting--which I knew was why the dean had asked that question--but the thought flashed through my mind, If my brother gave his life for our country's freedom, how could I compromise those beliefs. I told the dean and the committee that, "Given the same circumstances, I would do it again." They left, and there I was, waiting for their verdict. After an interminable wait, they returned. The dean told me that I was placed on probation, with no termination date.
I did graduate, but along with my grades, my college transcript had the prominent notation, "Placed on disciplinary probation...distributed unauthorized leaflets illegally on City College Campus. Std. Fac. Dis. Comm- Dean Peace 5.22.51" I thought my academic and possibly my career future were in jeopardy. However, I had strong letters of recommendation from world renown psychology City College Professors Birch and Lehrman. I went on to obtain a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University and taught Psychology there as well as at Lehman, City and Queens Colleges of CUNY. I tried not to think of the sword of Damocles that hung over my head.
Fast forward: I enjoyed my years as a college psychology teacher and psychotherapist. In 2001, I received an invitation to the 50th reunion of my '51 class. I wrote to the City College acting president requesting that he rectify what I believed was an injustice done to me as well as a violation of my constitutional first amendment rights. I ended my appeal with the statement, "I didn't want my tombstone to carry the legend, 'Still on probation from CCNY.'"
I received no response and later wrote to the new President, Gregory Williams. I congratulated him on assuming the formidable task of becoming president and his pursuit of diversity, which I championed when teaching at Lehman College in the 1970's. I also asked him to rectify the injustice done to me. In the Summer, 2001 Alumnus, the President's address was the page before an article about me entitled, "The Road Not Taken: From Psychologist to Novelist." (City College's Professor Goodman had encouraged my writing, a dream finally resulting many years later in a novel, Land of Dreams, based on the immigrant experience of my family and brother).
After faxing copies of my earlier letters to President Williams, I received a reply in April of this year. He wrote that having "read with great admiration the many exemplary accomplishments of your professional life...I intend to exercise my authority and have removed from your transcript the notation 'placed on disciplinary probation' that has appeared there for many years."
I wrote a letter thanking him, saying that I appreciated his generous remark about my accomplishments that were in part nurtured by my attendance at City College, mentioning three areas: psychology, creative writing and being principled. I also wrote that my tombstone could now read, "No longer on probation from City College." But my wife had me edit that out.
In an earlier letter to the president, I quoted the poet Dryden, who had written, "Forgiveness to the injured does belong / but they ne'er pardon / who have done the wrong."
President Williams disproved Dreyden's pessimism. Injustices can be corrected by those with open minds, even if it does take fifty two years.
(Reprinted from the Alumnus (City College of New York), Fall 2004 Entitled "At Long Last, Punishment is Rescided for An Act of Conscience."
Copyright © 1995 - Photius Coutsoukis (All Rights Reserved).
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