A university’s mission is to be a force for reason in society. They are supposed to cultivate an open exchange of ideas, even when some of those ideas aren’t convenient for society. And they are supposed to stand up for their students and faculty when these people come under attack for ideas or associations that this country was founded to protect. As hysterical fear of communism swept across America during the 1950s, the University of Michigan repeatedly failed to meet these obligations. One of the victims of this neglect was Milo Radulovich, a student at the University who received little support from his college as the Red Scare disrupted his life and forced him to drop out. Now, the University has rightly reconciled its past by awarding Radulovich a long-overdue and posthumous honorary degree.

A lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force reserves and a student at the University studying meteorology, Radulovich was, by all accounts, a typical student when he was here in the early 1950s. That is, until 1953. That year, Radulovich became the target of McCarthyist paranoia thanks to a great leap of logic: Because Radulovich’s sister was politically active and his father subscribed to a newspaper from Serbia, where he emigrated from, Radulovich was deemed a communist threat. The Air Force discharged him based on these flimsy connections.

But Radulovich didn’t go down without a fight. Radulovich took his case to the media. He was featured in The Detroit News and then on legendary news anchor Edward Murrow’s CBS show “See it Now.” And especially thanks to Murrow, his case became the poster child for the gross civil rights violations and unnecessary fear that dominated this country in the early 1950s. Less than a month after the “See it Now” segment aired, the Air Force reversed its decision, reinstating Radulovich.

Radulovich’s seldom-told story, though, happened at the University of Michigan. During his public fight, the University never came to Radulovich’s defense nor did it facilitate an environment where he felt welcome. At one point, Radulovich even went to one of his professors asking for help managing his case and course load, only to be reportedly asked, “Why don’t you find a new major?” This unsupportive climate led Radulovich to drop out in 1954, only a few credits away from graduation.

In a very basic way, the University failed as an institution when it didn’t help Radulovich. It would go on to make the same mistake in 1954, when it suspended three professors, Chandler Davis, Mark Nickerson and Clement Markert, because they wouldn’t testify before the government-sponsored witch-hunt known as the House Un-American Activities Committee. In both cases, the University forgot that its first obligation is to its students, faculty and academic freedom — even when defending these things is unpopular, even when taxpayers rise up in a moral panic and even when legislators come knocking.

That is hopefully the lesson the University will take away from the honorary degree it awarded to Radulovich on Thursday. Unfortunately, it was not one that Radulovich could be there to share, because he died just over a year ago on Nov. 18, 2007. But awarding him this degree will help his lesson live on when these situations come again to test the University. It’s certain they will.

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