No Room for Revolutionaries

GMC student protesting the draft and Vietnam War

“You are a revolutionary. We have no room for revolutionaries!” Chancellor Lorin Thompson huffed at philosophy professor James (Jim) Shea in the summer of 1969.  Shea was learning that his contract (due to expire the next year) would not be renewed.[1] Thompson told Shea that he would not be staying at George Mason College (GMC) because it did not retain faculty who were “unfit . . . to continue as an instructor."[2] 

The Chancellor had been mulling over this severance decision for months.[3]  Fairfax Mayor John C. Wood, a member of GMC's Advisory Committee, had already agreed to end the employment of the philosophy professor "Mr. Shea." C. Harrison Mann, the Virginia State Delegate and Advisory Committee colleague of Wood, concurred, warning that it would be a “bad mistake in judgement if this man" was not let go "immediately, out of hand.” However, it was the advice of Arthur Arundel, another Advisory Committee member, who convinced the Chancellor of a less obvious course of action.  Arundel hoped Shea would "not be fired, and therefore made a martyr of" but rather "be allowed to remain for the last year of his contract and be silently ignored."[4]

James Shea was not the only "revolutuonary" at GMC in the late 1960s. His friend, Robert Houston, an English professor, was considered one as well.  In a July 2021 interview between the author and Dr. Houston, the former GMC faculty member recalled that “Jim was the leader and Larry [Leftoff, another instructor] and I… would have been his lieutenants.”[5] Together, they organized demonstrations against the Vietnam War, set up teach-ins on societal racism, and spoke out against "conservative" administrators. Larry Leftoff, who taught in the mathematics department, was hired by GMC in 1966, the same year as Shea.  Robert Houston arrived on campus in 1968.  By the autumn of 1970, the trio were no longer working at the college. While Shea, Houston, and Leftoff were not formally dismissed, an anonymous letter made it abundantly clear that

Archived documents relating to the termination of Shea, Leftoff, and Houston refer to GMC's assessment of their job performance. Shea reportedly allowed his students to grade themselves, which administrators saw as a flagrant violation of academic procedure.[6] Leftoff apparently failed to make sufficient progress on his unfinished doctorate.[7] Houston took a year's leave of absence to complete his PhD, which became a justification for the Chancellor and his deputy, Dean Krug, to deny the English professor's request for reinstatement.[8] 

The dismissed faculty members did not accept their employer's decision. They presented petitions of protest to Thompson displaying hundreds of names (colleagues and students, among them).  These signed declarations urged the Chancellor to renew the contracts of the three "fired" instructors. Lost in this controversy, dissent, and heartache were the real causes for laying off Houston, Shea, and Leftoff.

One of these reasons--retaliation--was  broached during an advisory committee conference in February 1969, when the Chancellor bemoaned the existence of faculty “ringleaders” stirring up trouble on campus.[9] In this meeting, Robert Houston was singled out as an agitator because he had participated in a public demonstration against racial discrimination at the University of Virginia (UVA).[10] The recent event occurred in Charlottesville, where Houston and a GMC undergraduate organization submitted a letter to the UVA Board of Visitors, Virginia Governor, and Chancellor Thompson calling on Board of Visitors member C. Stuart Wheatly to resign.[11]  Houston had travelled south from Fairfax with the students, who were members of a group (dubbed Spectrum) formed by Jim Shea.[12]  Their letter exposed Wheatly's “segregationist views" and disdain for school integration.[13] 

When Houston sought re-instatement after completing his PhD, the Wheatley protest letter figured in the decision by “Dean Krug and the Chancellor . . . [that] he [Houston] should not return" to GMC,[14] despite “the English staff unanimously recommending” the opposite.[15] Houston later received a letter from the chairman of the English department, Jim Jackson, lamenting the inability of their colleagues “to convince the Dean that we need you back."  It did not help, Jackson told Houston, “that the Shea matter is still flapping” as well as the fact that “The Man,” probably meaning Thompson, did not appreciate some of Houston’s “statements in faculty meetings.”[16] In April 1969, the Chancellor revealed another reason for dismissing Houston. It was conveyed in a letter to the Faculty Affairs Committee.  The upper administration was “spend[ing] far too much of its time . . . in the resolution of contentions and conflicts among students, faculty," and others, Thompson complained, and these extra efforts were undermining “the essential tasks” of “capital development.”[17]  Dealing with institutionalized racism was not a primary concern of the college--making money was.

Button kept by Robert Houston and generously sent to author Ky Buckner

Button kept by Robert Houston from his GMC days and generously sent to author Ky Bucker

Houston believed that ignoring racism was a “sin of omission.”[18] This sin "was not particularized at George Mason" either.[19] Houston saw racism as central to the historical development of the United States and the college where he worked in Fairfax. A “radical union upbringing” in Alabama prompted Houston to join Black Power movements while he attended Syracuse University.  He strolled on campuses in upstate New York and Northern Virginia wearing pins that announced “whites against white violence.” Jim Shea, too, was inspired by Black civil rights "activists . . . [who] were risking their lives . . . [and] making people face questions they didn’t want to face."[20] 

More than Houston, Shea was notorious for his open antipathy toward the draft and the Vietnam War. In November 1969, GMC’s Advisory Committee responded to his political stance by passing a resolution recommending that Shea be “dismissed from his position and connection with George Mason College forthwith.”[21] What seemed to make matters worse for Shea, in the eyes of his employers, was his work assisting students with their military deferment status.[22] When he participated “in a draft card burning,” the last straw broke.[23]

The Quicksilver Times, a regional underground press, reported on Shea’s involvement with a group called “Northern Virginia Resistance (NVR)."  The newspapers praised his commitment to fighting “cesspools of slavery in Northern Virginia," or the area draft boards.[24]Members of NVR stole draft files and destroyed draft cards. The Quicksilver Times also noted that the GMC campus was “the place from which NVR draws most of its followers.”[25] Outraged by NVR activism, C. Harrison Mann unsuccessfully requested that the United States Department of Justice prosecute Shea for distributing “subversive literature.”[26] Shea’s writings advised students on the “possibility of getting a discharge as a conscientious objector.”[27]

Shea eluded federal charges until April of 1970 when administrators at GMC notified the IRS of a change in Shea’s W-2 form. He had updated his number of dependents to 20 and scribbled through the line verifying that he had not presented false information.[28] Shea did not want his tax dollars to go to a war effort that killed entire families in Indochina.  So he claimed “Vietnamese orphans as dependents on his income tax return.”[29] He did not expect "anything much would come of it because anti-war people had been doing this since World War 2.” However, Shea was brought up on a "criminal charge" of tax evasion. He then fled Northern Virginia.  Law enforcement was able to apprehend Shea after he turned himself in to authorities. He was convicted and served a prison term.[30]

Shea was a self-described fast- and free-thinking firebrand who preferred organizing against injustices.  This was the case for much of his short career at GMU.  When he first learned of his dismissal, Shea swiftly mobilized a campus demonstration on May 16, 1969 to protest the administration's decision.[31] He urged faculty members to cancel their classes and asked students to boycott attendance and go instead to teach-ins on women’s liberation, academic grading policy, and "the best  . . .  discussion on racism.”[32] News was beginning to leak out that only ten Black students had applied to the college since 1967.[33]  Moreover, federal civil rights investigators were starting “to gather material in making their determination of whether or not George Mason policies are racist.”[34]

Period accounts of the Shea-inspired protest suggest that between 150 and 300 people attended the event.  A petition was passed around urging students to challenge the "administration’s or faculty’s reasons for dismissing instructors—in Shea’s case and future cases.”[35] This petition noted that Shea was recommended for renewal by his department chairman, Dr. McFarlane, and that “he [Shea] was not found wanting in any area.”[36]

Cartoon from the Gunston Ledger, GMC's student newspaper, mocking the dismissal of Larry Leftoff

Caught up in this protest was Larry Leftoff, another released instructor who school administrators considered revolutionary.  On January 15, 1969, around eighty students gathered for a demonstration in support of him. A petition denouncing Leftoff's dismissal, organized by Spectrum, was submitted to Chancellor Thompson.  It insisted that GMC re-hire Leftoff  and establish a permanent student-faculty grievance committee to oversee disputed firings.[37] The petition also commended him for being “an excellent teacher."  At the bottom of the last page “more than 300 students and faculty members” signed their names.[38] Thompson refused to comply with Spectrum's demand.[39] The Washington Post reported on the matter. [40] In interviews with journalists, Thompson explained his decision in a roundabout academic way.[41] It was not until an Advisory Committee meeting in December 1969, that he admitted his real preference.  Thompson did not favor academics like Leftoff but liked "the ‘old hands’" among the faculty because "we need these people as sort of ‘drill sergeants.'”[42] The Chancellor's penchant for educators with experience in the armed forces was described in the campus student newspaper as a “staff infection,” with “12 out of 16 administrators" sharing a "military" background[43] 

Students were particularly critical of Louis J. Aebischer, the Director of Admissions, arguing that he “runs his office like the racist totalitarian the military has taught him to be.”[44] Aebischer was known to utter aloud the racist obscenity,  N****R, and anti-Semitic slurs like K**E.[45] His office conduct was never cause for dismissal, according to archived GMC records in the Special Collections Research Center at GMU University Libraries. Thompson was more concerned with Leftoff having “made no progress so far as I know toward his graduate work,” claiming that the instructor's "outside activities" in support of The Northern Virginia Free University were a professional problem.[46]

The Northern Virginia Free University was established in the autumn of 1968 by the GMC student organization called Spectrum.[47]According to its invitational pamphlet, the Free University  was “a place where people learn to be.”[48]There were no grades, admission requirements, or financial barriers to attendance. The location often changed; classes were held in parks and other accessible spaces.  Courses were designed by members, with topics ranging from folk guitar and gardening to draft counseling and Black literature. In addition to promoting autonomous education, the Northern Virginia Free University had a food distribution program. For a while, they collected fruit from local recreation spots, but were forced to stop this activity by city authorities or risk being charged with “stealing public property.”[49] 

At the end of 1968, a student tutor reported on their involvement in the Free University in the GMC campus newspaper, then called the Gunston Ledger. The student noted that “poverty is not far removed from the George Mason college campus.”[50] Contributors to the Free University , it was chronicled, found it “surprising to note that not all the poor in this area are Black...approximately a third of the poor are white.”  The student tutor also relayed: "Last Saturday, we played more soccer."  Temporarily suspending educational instruction provided members of the free school "with an opportunity to get to know each other" and see that the attending "children and their parents care enough to come.” It appears that Fairfax's unknown public university had become a family affair.[51]

Thompson saw Leftoff’s involvement in the Northern Viginia Free University as the primary grounds for the faculty member's dismissal. Shea countered the Chancellor's reasoning by granting Leftoff a “Doctorate of Humanitarian Mathematics on the spot” on behalf of “the Northern Virginia Free College.”[52] Thompson was not amused and effectively told both men that "those who are dissatisfied with George Mason College of the University of Virginia . . . [should] withdraw or resign.”[53]

There was an additional strike against Leftoff.  In July 1971, the Virginia State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights released a report entitled George Mason College: For all the People?[54] Leftoff was one of the informants [55] who presented evidence-based instances of GMC's institutional racism. [56] The report ultimately concluded that “George Mason College was conceived of, by, and for the white[s] . . . of Northern Virginia.”[57] This findings and an earlier investigation, conducted by the Fairfax Council on Human Relations, were so damning that community members wrote letters to Chancellor Thompson requesting he resign his position.[58] 

The GMC administration disagreed with conclusions of George Mason College: For all the People?  C. Harrison Mann claimed that the report was “one of the most blatant pieces of propaganda I have ever seen.” But what really disturbed him was that the Virginia State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights behaved as a “kangaroo court” ruled by “zealots…reciting the criticism of a few dissidents.”[59]

Disruptive radicals to some, Shea, Leftoff, and Houston were committed activists who protested war, poverty, and racial discrimination.  They were revered educators as well--certainly much admired by a segment of the student body that believed in their aspirations.[60] However, the cause of community freedom and dissent was but a tempest in a teapot for top administrators of George Mason College who acted as if it was better to be a racist than a revolutionary.

By Ky Buckner

Letter to Robert Houston from GMC Professor Don Galleher

[1] Michael Sorrell, “Extending Public Higher Education into Northern Virginia: The Formative Years of George Mason University, 1949-1972" (PhD Dissertation, University of Virginia, 2002), 411.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shea had one year left on his contract: George Mason College Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes, June 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Robert Houston, Arizona, interview by Ky Buckner, July 16, 2021, Zoom Recording, Black Lives Next Door, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.

[6] Letter John C. Wood, Fairfax, to Lorin Thompson, Fairfax, marked (CONFIDENTIAL),November 12, 1968, John C. Wood Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[7] George Mason College Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes, January 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University; Robert Houston, interview by Ky Buckner, July 16, 2021, Zoom Recording, Black Lives Next Door Project, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA. [8]

[9] George Mason College Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes, February 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Letter Spectrum to University of Virginia's Board of Visitors, February 17, 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[12] Jim Shea, interviewed by Meisha Griffith, September 24, 2012, in Charlottsville, VA, cassette tape, George Mason Oral History Program, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[13] Ibid.

[14] George Mason College Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes, September 1970, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[15]Letter Jim Jackson to Robert Houston, December 23, 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Letter Lorin Thompson to George Mason College Faculty Affairs Committee, April 7, 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[18] Robert Houston, interview by Ky Buckner, July 16, 2021, Zoom Recording, Black Lives Next Door, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.

[19] Ibid.

[20]Jim Shea, interviewed by Meisha Griffith, September 24, 2012, in Charlottsville, VA, cassette tape, George Mason Oral History Program, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[21] George Mason College Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes, November 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[22]Jim Shea, interviewed by Meisha Griffith, September 24, 2012, in Charlottsville, VA, cassette tape, George Mason Oral History Program, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Terry Becker, “New Anti-Draft Group Forms in N. VA,” The Quicksilver Times, January 30, 1970, DC Public Library, Washington,D.C.  https://digdc.dclibrary.org/islandora/object/dcplislandora%3A9959.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Letter C. Harrison Mann to Members of the Advisory Committee of George Mason College, July 18, 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[27] Northern Virginia Resistance, Induction Day. Fairfax, Virginia, n.d., Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[28] Jim Shea, interviewed by Meisha Griffith, September 24, 2012, in Charlottsville, VA, cassette tape, George Mason Oral History Program, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[29] Michael Sorrell, “Extending Public Higher Education into Northern Virginia: The Formative Years of George Mason University, 1949-1972" (PhD Dissertation, University of Virginia, 2002), 393.

[30] Jim Shea, interviewed by Meisha Griffith, September 24, 2012, in Charlottsville, VA, cassette tape, George Mason Oral History Program, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[31] Kenneth Bredemeier, “George Mason Students Stage Calm Protest,” The Washington Post, May 17, 1969.

[32] George Mason College Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes, May 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[33] Sue Johnson, “Shea Addresses Students at GMC, Northern Virginia Sun, July 17, 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Letter Spectrum to George Mason College Advisory Board, May 18, 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Letter Spectrum to George Mason College Advisory Board, January 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[38] Ibid.

[39] “80 George Mason Students Rally to Protest Firing of an Instructor,” The Washington Post, January 16, 1969.

[40] Ibid.

[41] “Geo. Mason Chancellor Outlines Tenure Rules," Northern Virginia Sun, February 1, 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University Archives, Fairfax.

[42] George Mason College Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes, December 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University Archives, Fairfax.

[43] Anonymous, “Military Staff Infection," Broadside, September 18, 1972, C. Harrison Mann Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University Archives, Fairfax.

[44] G, J. “Late Racism Report," Broadside, December 4, 1972. C. Harrison Mann Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University Archives, Fairfax.

[45] Anonymous, Letter to Incoming Freshman at George Mason College, “Welcome to the Battle,” September 1970, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[46] George Mason College Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes, January 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[47] Anonymous, “Free College," Gunston Ledger, October 11, 1968, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[48] The Northern Virginia Free College (Fairfax: Northern Virginia Free College, 1968), Robert Houston Private Collection, Arizona (now in possession of Ky Buckner).

[49] Jim Shea, interviewed by Meisha Griffith, September 24, 2012, in Charlottsville, VA, cassette tape, George Mason Oral History Program, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[50] H.W. Laws, “In the Right Direction," Gunston Ledger, November 15, 1968, https://ahistoryofmason.gmu.edu/items/show/107.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Charles Phillips, “Demonstration Set Today in Protest at George Mason,” Alexandria Gazette, January 16, 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[53] Letter Lorin Thompson to Spectrum. “Advise to Spectrum,” n.d., Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[54] Virginia State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, George Mason College: For All the People? (Richmond: Virginia State Advisory Committee, 1971).

[55] Julie Parker, “HEW Officials at George Mason in Routine Probe,” Alexandria Gazette, May 16, 1969, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University.

[56] Virginia State Advisory Committee to the Civil Rights Commission, Meeting Agenda, April 1971, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University. 

[57] Virginia State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, George Mason College: For All the People? (Richmond: Virginia State Advisory Committee, 1971).

[58] Letter Elden Boothe to Lorin Thompson, January 30, 1971, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University. 

[59] C. Harrison Mann, “Memo from Harrison Mann, July 21, 1971, Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University. 

[60] George Mason College Advisory Committee Minutes, n.d.  Presidential Collection - Thompson Series, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, George Mason University. 

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