The Case of Alex B. Novikoff, 1953

The most noteworthy expression of McCarthyism in Vermont involved the University of Vermont’s 1953 firing of Professor Alex B. Novikoff for the “crime” of invoking the Fifth Amendment before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

Oral history transcriptions

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Background information

Novikoff had been a member of the Communist Party during the 1930s, while a doctoral student in biology at Columbia University and a part-time instructor at newly created Brooklyn College in New York City. By the succeeding decade, however, his disillusionment with Soviet politics, coupled with fears of potential damage to his scientific career, led him to drift away from the Party. In 1948, following a year’s fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, Novikoff was hired by the University of Vermont and within five short years his research earned him national recognition as a cancer specialist, numerous grants, and promotion to the rank of tenured full professor.

The April 1953 subpoena to testify before the Judiciary Committee followed the Committee’s receipt of New York State files compiled during a 1941 investigation and, more directly, a recent confession made by two of Novikoff’s Brooklyn College colleagues to the committee “naming” him a “fellow traveler.” Faced with the committee’s request that he name two other members of the communist cell at Brooklyn College during the 1930s, first made in private and later in public hearings, Novikoff steadfastly refused, invoking the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

At the insistence of then Vermont Governor Lee Emerson, UVM President Carl Borgmann convened a six-person committee of faculty and trustees to assure Vermonters that the ”faculty is 100 percent pro-American and anti-communist.” Chaired by trustee Robert Joyce, a Rutland parish priest (later to become Bishop of the Burlington diocese), the committee voted 5-1 to retain Novikoff on the faculty. In July 1953, Governor Emerson attended his first board meeting as an ex officio member of the Board of Trustees and successfully persuaded the trustees to override the Joyce Committee’s recommendation. Instead, the trustees suspended Novikoff for a month, with the “walk or talk” ultimatum that he either return to Washington and name names or risk dismissal. Novikoff remained silent.

By June of 1953, the affair was front page local news with both of Burlington’s newspapers (the Daily News and the Free Press) editorializing on the front page, alongside pictures of Novikoff and his house. The trustees’ decision was readily praised and, in the case of the Daily News, contrasted with “the disgusting vacillations and chicken-heartedness” at Harvard, where faculty had been retained under similar charges. The main dissenting voice, attacking violations of “democratic traditions” arose from members of the clergy, led by Episcopal Bishop Vedder Van Dyck, Methodist minister Harold Bucklin, and Rabbi Max Wall, in addition to several members of UVM’s faculty itself.

Members of the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors succeeded in August 1953 in convincing President Borgmann that university bylaws had been transgressed insofar as Novikoff had not received a public hearing prior to the issuance of the ultimatum. A final hearing was arranged before the twenty-three member Board of Review, whose members included the governor, members of the board of trustees, and several faculty members.

Novikoff’s lawyer, a young Harvard graduate by the name of Francis Peisch, argued that the sanctity of the tenure system precluded Novikoff’s dismissal. UVM attorney Louis Lisman, armed with a facsimile of the FBI’s file on Novikoff (the FBS, at the request of Governor Emerson and Vermont Senator George Aiken, provided an “oral resume” of Novikoff’s file to UVM’s Borgmann, which he in turn subsequently had typed and delivered to Lisman), responded with the charge that Novikoff’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment amounted to “moral turpitude,” this being a legitimate ground for revoking academic tenure.

At the end of the meeting the panel voted 14-8 to recommend that Novikoff be dismissed and, a week later, the fifteen-member Board of Trustees confirmed his firing with on a single dissenting vote cast by Robert Joyce. Joyce insisted that Novikoff’s failure to testify before the Jenner Committee did not constitute an illegal act.

In retrospect, the injustice committed against Novikoff was undertaken in an atmosphere of fear and prejudice. Novikoff was a vulnerable target, not merely because he had been a communist in his youth (something that was not in fact illegal), but rather because a Ukrainian-born Jew raised in Brooklyn invariably raised suspicions.

More than thirty years would pass before the University of Vermont publicly acknowledged its their mistake, but nevertheless, they would do so. In May 1985, Novikoff accepted an invitation from the trustees to attend commencement and receive an honorary degree.

In retrospect, UVM President Borgmann’s admission to Novikoff several years later the “I have lost more than you” certainly holds true at both the personal and institutional levels. Novikoff’s career continued to flourish with only a temporary interruption. Two years after his dismissal from UVM, Novikoff was hired at the recommendation of Albert Einstein by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, where he labored as one of the world’s foremost cancer researchers until his death in 1987.

Further reading

David R. Holmes, Stalking the Academic Communist: Intellectual Freedom and the Firing of Alex Novikoff ( Hanover, N.H.: Univ. Press of New England,1989).

“Alex B. Novikoff Dies; Professor and Biologist.” New York Times obituary, January 11, 1987. Online:

Citation for this page

Woodsmoke Productions and Vermont Historical Society, “The Case of Alex B. Novikoff,” The Green Mountain Chronicles radio broadcast and background information, original broadcast 1988-89.

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