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For Dunster Tutor Noel Ignatiev, A Lifetime of Fighting 'Injustice'

More Than Just the Toaster Tutor

By Maya E. Fischhoff, Crimson Staff Writer

Like a hero of the Old West, Noel Ignatiev is known by a nom de guerre.

But that nom de guerre is less than glamorous. To hundreds on the Harvard campus, Noel Ignatiev is the "Toaster tutor."

Forget about his four years as a tutor in History and Literature. Forget about his academic study of Irish immigrants. To much of the Harvard community, Ignatiev's identity has become inextricably linked with that of the electrical appliance he took issue with in Dunster House.

Ignatiev gained notoriety two months ago after writing a letter to Jerry Ardolino, manager of Dunster House Dining Hall, asking that the University remove of find private funding for a toaster oven placed in the Dunster House dining hall and designated for kosher use only.

Harvard's purchase of the toaster was a violation of the principle of keeping church and state separate, Ignatiev said. "Its use was restricted on sectarian grounds. I thought something like that should be purchased privately, by contribution or subscription."

But when his letter was released to The Crimson, Ignatiev found himself the center of a storm of campus debate.

"I didn't expect quite the general outcry that it provoked," he says.

His supporters call him a champion of free speech and intellectual debate. His critics think his action was improper and insensitive; some say, anti-Semitic. And Dunster House Co-Masters Karel and Hetty Liem seemed to side with the critics last week when they chose not to renew Ignatiev's contract as house tutor.

The question is far from closed, however, for some Dunster residents. In the past week, students in the house have written letters, held meetings, and briefly, displayed a large "Save Noel" banner outside the house.

Karl Liem said yesterday that he believed it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the situation. "We are in the middle of a controversy here," he said.

Those participating in the debate over Ignatiev's appointment draw a Jekyll and Hyde character sketch. His supporters describe him as an active, thoughtful tutor and accuse the Liems of thought control. Other students portray Ignatiev as a destructive force Dunster would be better without.

Speaking Out on' Something Wrong'

Sitting on a balcony outside Adams House in the early evening last week, Ignatiev seemed dismayed and slightly puzzled by the response to his letter.

"I thought something was wrong, so I wrote a letter and said so," he says. "I don't write letters every time I see something that stresses me. But this was an issue that directly affected the community I was part of, this was an issue where I could have some effect."

Ignatiev pauses. "In some sense this is a trivial issue. Clearly I have a sense of humor over it--it's only a $40 toaster."

But in objecting to the toaster, Ignatiev says, he was only applying his guiding principles. "Raise your voice, speak out. I fight against what I believe to be injustice."

Ignatiev, 51, took the high road to radicalism 30 years ago, when he dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania after his junior year.

Instead of studying Marxist theory, Ignatiev decided to live it.

"I was radical, I was an enemy of official society," he says. "I wanted to be part of the class that I thought held the future in its hands."

And so Ignatiev, a native of Philadelphia, spent the next 23 years holding manual labor jobs in steel mills, farm equipment factories and machine tool plants around Chicago.

"I became something of an electrician and something of a machinist," he says, looking far more the aging academic in wire-rimmed glasses, a short beard and a linen shirt.

"I wanted to get to know [the working] sector of the population," Ignatiev says. "It seemed to me that was the heart of America, and I wanted to feel part of it."

By the late 1960s, dropping out of college and working in industrial plants was a trendy thing to do. But on 1961, when Ignatiev deserted his middle class background and joined the proletariat, he was acting alone.

"My parents were sympathetic, if not quite in agreement," he recalls. "They wanted me to be happy."

Ignatiev brought a political passion to his new life. He was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements, he says. Later, when he decided that unions functioned as part of management, he tried to facilitate more informal relations through shop floor discussions and joint community activities.

Shedding his bourgeois background entirely proved impossible, he admits sadly.

"I was never a part of that sector of society in the sense that I would have been if I had been born into it," he says. "But I came pretty close. I was a pretty acclimated visitor."

His old coworkers might say that Ignatiev has sold out by reentering the bourgeoisie. When his plant closed in 1984, he was accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Education and subsequently entered a doctoral program in the Department of American Civilization.

Today, he says, "I couldn't imagine a place I'd rather be. Harvard has the best research facilities in the country and a body of undergrads that I couldn't imagine better."

He lives near Porter Square, teaches three tutorials in the History and Literature Department, and drives a station wagon.

But Ignatiev says the dream he had in the '60s lives on.

His wife, Kate, is a labor lawyer. His one year-old son, John Henry, is named after "the steel driving man, the fellow that died with a hammer in his hand," Ignatiev says. (Rachel, Ignatiev's 14 year-old daughter by a previous marriage, does not live with him.)

And his academic work concerns the issues of class and society that first fascinated him 30 years ago.

His dissertation deals with them in microcosm by focusing on Irish Catholic immigrants to the United States before the Civil War, he says.

"The working title is 'How the Irish Became White," Ignatiev explains. "How they became accepted into the white social formation and assimilated its values. The Irish were the model for virtually all the immigrant groups that came after them."

But the most significant legacy of the years he spent rallying his co-workers is his outspoken approach to situations he considers to be unjust, says Ignatiev.

Which brings us back to the toaster.

Battered by weeks of criticism, Ignatiev seems eager to set the toaster issue behind him.

"It's quite possible to argue that I was hairsplitting," he says. "I'm open to that discussion. People don't have to agree with me. I'm not absolutely convinced that I was right in this matter."

But he adds with a spark of old passion, "I am convinced I had the right to raise it."

Ignatiev has been affiliated with Dunster house for six years. In 1986 he became a resident tutor. After three years as assistant senior tutor, he became a non-resident tutor when he married in 1990.

'Positive Presence'

While many tutors squirrel themselves away and appear only to grab goodies at Masters' Open Houses, Ignatiev has been an active force in Dunster, his defenders say.

"He's the only tutor whom everyone knows," says Dunster resident Jonathon E. Schrag '92. "Not because of the controversy, but because he's at meals every week engaging with students."

Although they met when Ignatiev brought disciplinary charges against Schrrg for playing softball in the Dunster House courtyard, the tutor has been a postive presence in his life, Schrag says. "He's challenged me intellectually in a lot of ways--to apply the things that I study to my life."

Schrag says he sees the same principle in Ignatiev's tilting at toasters.

"His letter fits into his more general political view," says Schrag. "Rather than just talking about his views, he looks around him and finds a petty little example, a fucking toaster."

But other students say they found Ignatiev's complaint unnecessary and offensive. His active role in house life has not been a constructive one, these students say.

"For a tutor, whose mission is to foster a certain sense of community--for a tutor to argue that Harvard should not provide food for some students, meaning that Dunster House should not be a home for them--is outrageous," says Dunster resident Gordon N. Lederman '93, who is a Crimson editor.

Other critics say that the much-maligned toaster represented only a small concession to kosher students, who face numerous other obstacles in the dining halls.

"So many Jewish students here, they pay the same money and they are not allowed to have a variable meal plan at all," says Dunster resident Anna Fateeva-Berenfeld '93. "All they can eat for lunch is Wonderbread and tuna, and there's no kosher breakfast."

The introduction of the toaster to the dining hall should have been cause for applause rather than attack, says Fateeva-Berenfeld.

"If the University makes conditions for some students better, so that they can eat normally once a day, that is not a good issue to attack," she says.

But Ignatiev says that such an attitude ignores larger issues involving the separation of church and state.

"In this very limited context, Harvard is a public institution," says Ignatiev.

By funding the kosher toaster oven, Harvard is forcing all students who use it to engage in a religious observance, says Ignatiev.

Although Ignatiev says he supports the provision of kosher foods in Dunster House, setting the oven aside for kosher use is, he says, unavoidably "a religious observance."

If Memorial Church compelled everyone who enters it to genuflect, it would be much the same thing, he says.

"Private religious observances should be supported privately," he says. "It's better for everyone that way."

Mixing church and state in contemporary society could lead to "another series of religious wars [like] the Wars of Reformation," says Ignatiev, who seems to view toasters as the thin edge of the catastrophic wedge.

By now, Noel Ignatiev's letter to the dining services and personal character have become tangled up with firing and with issues of free speech. Indeed, Schrag claims that Ignatiev's original letter is no longer even relevant to the debate.

"Noel is not the issue at all," says Schrag. "Anything he has done in his life, anything he has said, not that he has anything to be ashamed of--that is not the issue. That is just way off base."

The issue, Schrag says, is "the role of a tutor in Dunster House and whether our intellectual community is something a master can single-handedly limit in any way."

Meanwhile, Ignatiev is "enjoying watching the struggle and taking part in it," he says. If he loses the job as Dunster House tutor, he says, he can always spend the extra time on his dissertation.

But he would be sorry to have to do so. "Being a tutor has really been, next to teaching, my best experience," says Ignatiev.

From West Philadelphia to the steel mills, Ignatiev had never experienced the kind of interaction and exchange of ideas that he has in his role as a tutor.

"This has been, really, my college experience...listening to people, interacting with them," he says.

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