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Jacques Pluss: Devoted to the Cause of the White Aryan Race

Dean Barnett, in the Weekly Standard (4-11-05):

[Dean Barnett writes about politics and other matters at soxblog.com under his on-line pseudonym James Frederick Dwight.]

DURING HIS BRIEF AND UNHAPPY tenure as the president of Columbia University, Dwight Eisenhower and the faculty did not always enjoy the warmest of relations. At one particularly contentious meeting, a Columbia scholar proudly informed Eisenhower that the university boasted "some of America's most exceptional physicists, mathematicians, chemists and engineers." The then-retired General was unimpressed. He was more concerned that the faculty consist of "exceptional Americans." "Dammit," he snapped, "what good are exceptional physicists . . . exceptional anything, unless they are [also] exceptional Americans."

The Eisenhower formulation, that being a good American should be paramount and scholarship should come second, is hardly a popular notion in academia: consider, for instance, the case of former Fairleigh Dickinson University Professor Jacques Pluss.

Until recently, Pluss was an adjunct member of FDU's history department where he was by all accounts a popular and well received instructor in the one class that he taught. As his former student Heather Tierney put it in an email, "He taught well and carried himself well." Tierney's comment reflects a consensus amongst Pluss' students.

But some of Pluss's activities outside the classroom were eye-raising. Pluss was--and still is--an officer for the National Socialist Movement. Pluss is a Nazi, a genuine bona-fide Hitler-adoring, Jew-hating Nazi. The National Socialist website that advertises his title as an officer of the Movement features images of Adolf Hitler and swastikas and urges visitors to "come and join the fight!" A phone call to the Movement's office is received by an answering machine whose greeting shrieks, "Wake Up, White America!"

On March 21, Fairleigh Dickinson fired Professor Pluss. Some faint-hearted academic types might have fretted that the dismissal was perhaps the first step down a slippery slope that would chill free speech throughout academia; Farleigh Dickinson eagerly put such fears to rest. The dean of the college, John Snyder, has flatly stated that Pluss's termination was solely the result of an unacceptable amount of absences on Pluss's part. In an interview, Snyder explained that Pluss's class was scheduled to meet only 15 times during the semester and at the time of his dismissal Pluss had already racked up 6 absences. Snyder also claimed in our interview that Pluss's off-hours goose-stepping habit didn't come to the university's attention until after Pluss was dismissed. Snyder claimed to not know if any other adjunct faculty members had comparably poor attendance records.

Professor Pluss disputes Dean Snyder's account of the situation. The professor pointed out in an email that he wasn't "fired," or certainly not "fired" in the sense that Americans not employed in academia understand the term. While it's true that Professor Pluss is no longer allowed to teach his class, he is still receiving his faculty salary and is in no way barred from the campus. What's more, Pluss insists that he had only three absences and that all three were handled in an appropriate way and necessitated by medical reasons.

While Snyder sounded sincere during our interview regarding the causes for Pluss's firing (or non-firing), some people have speculated the university had availed itself of a lawyerly way out of a potential predicament. But as attorney Paul Seyferth, an expert in employment law, points out, "Assuming Pluss was an at will employee (as one would expect an adjunct faculty member like Pluss to be), the university would have been well within its rights to fire Pluss 'just' for being a Nazi. An at will employee can be fired for any reasons not specifically prohibited by law, such as race, sex, age, etc., and (depending on what state you're in) sexual orientation."

STILL, IT'S UNSURPRISING--if also dismaying--that Fairleigh Dickinson took refuge in a technicality like Pluss's allegedly deficient attendance record. As Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz said in an interview, "Colleges and universities are terrified of taking on the substantive issue in such matters." Dershowitz pointed to the Ward Churchill kerfuffle as a parallel case study.

So why does the modern academy so eschew the Eisenhower formulation? Eisenhower clearly would have deemed Pluss a sub-par American, given Ike's lengthy dealings with Pluss's kindred spirits. Were Eisenhower running Fairleigh Dickinson, he probably would have been more forthright.

But should a university fire a man for his political beliefs and activities? Professor Dershowitz would be uncomfortable with a termination for such causes.

Dershowitz explains that he grew up during McCarthyism and is by nature wary of such situations. He also points to the Stalinist maxim, "Show me the man and I'll find the crime," the suggestion being that any "undesirable" individual could be found guilty so long as the prosecution is willing to be creative enough. Applied to academia, the aphorism would imply that a professor found politically wanting could be terminated for other reasons.

AND YET ONE MUST ASK, is the academy really incapable of making certain common-sense decisions without pushing itself down a slippery slope that culminates in a new McCarthyism? After all, Professor Pluss's politics are not on the borderline of acceptability. This isn't Noam Chomsky, who is a putatively gifted linguist but an anti-American crackpot. But as risible as Chomsky's views are, they can still claim some misguided champions in respectable circles; even anti-American crackpot's see Pluss's politics as being beyond the pale.

And why is it such a far-fetched concept in the vast marketplace of academia that individual universities would be willing to step up and say, "We draw a bright line between what's acceptable and what is not." For instance, it's hard to imagine Fairleigh Dickinson suffering much of a public relations hit were it to proudly announce, "Neo-Nazi faculty are not welcome here." And yet, in academia, there is a curious reluctance to make such a forceful statement.

Somewhere, General Eisenhower weeps.