The long arm of a Congressional investigating committee reached up to Vermont last year, involving a large proportion of the citizens of the Green Mountain state in a prolonged controversy over the conduct of a member of the faculty of the state university at Burlingon.
The central figure in the proceedings was Dr. Alex B. Novikoff, a professor of of Experimental Pathology and Biochemistry at the Vermont College of Medicine. His refusal to answer questions before the Jenner Committee ultimately led to his dismissal from the University by the board of trustees, despite an earlier recommendation by a special faculty-trustee committee that he be retained on the faculty.
The Novikoff ease began innocently enough in March, 1954, when he received a subpenna from the Senate Judiciary Committee headed by William Jenner (Rep.-Ind.), then engaged in an investigation of subversives in education.
At first, Novikoff appeared to be ready to adopt a course of general cooperation with the committee, which claimed to have evidence of his participation in Communist activities while a member of the faculty of Brooklyn College, prior to coming to Vermont in 1948.
Shortly after receiving the subpoena, Novikoff conferred with the president of the University, Carl W. Bergmann, and the University counsel, and a few days later appeared voluntarily at an informal meeting of the committee, attended by Senator Herman Welker (Rep.-Idaho) and committee counsel Robert Morris. After the meeting, Novikoff announced his willingness to go to Washington at his own expense and testify at a public hearing.
University Issues Statement
On April 10, two weeks before Novikoff's scheduled appearance before the committee in Washington, the board of trustees of the University issued a policy statement, designed to lay out a course of action in the Novikoff case and others that might arise.
While warning that no known Communist would be permitted on the Vermont faculty, the new trustee policy also stated clearly that a faculty member who invokes the Fifth Amendment would not be immediately dismissed from the University for that reason alone; rather he would be relieved of his teaching duties, although remaining at full pay, until a special faculty-trustee committee could investigate the circumstances of the case and recommend appropriate action to the full board of trustees.
When Novikoff went to Washington on April 23 for his public hearing, an air of belligerence seemed to have replaced his former attitude of cooperation. Several sharp clashes between Novikoff and the committee marked the opening moments of the session, with Senator Welker accusing Novikoff of doing "a terrible injustice to the committee" in his statements.
Jenner Attacks Novikoff
In another exchange, chairman Jenner snapped: "We do not want a dissertation this morning on how great a man you are," when Novikoff told of his cancer research at the Vermont medical school.
During the further course of the hearing, Novikoff denied membership in the Communist Party at any time since coming to Vermont in 1948, but invoked the Fifth Amendment in answer to questions concerning membership prior to 1948. He also refused to testify concerning the alleged Communist activities of former associates at Brooklyn College, saying: "I cannot be an informer and this is what I was asked to do."
Reaction in Vermont to Novikoff's refusal to testify came almost immediately. President Borgmann announced that Novikoff would be relieved of his teaching duties to await a formal investigation by the trustee-faculty committee and Governor Lee Emerson promised a thorough study of the matter.
The Vermont State Senate also discussed the case, but a motion to withhold funds from the University unless Novikoff resigned was defeated, since the procedures established by the trustees to deal with the problem were already under way.
Under these procedures, the special faculty-trustee committee, consisting of three professors and three trustees, began in late April and early May to question many of Novikoff's associates at the University and in other parts of the state.