Much has changed since the heady 1960s, but not El Camino College’s celebrated radical, Prof. Robert A. Lee.
He goes right on living and teaching the anti-Establishment, let-it-all-hang-out life style of those bygone days, when the flower children and the hippies and yippies and assorted other free spirits cavorted over a rapidly changing landscape.
Most of Lee’s compatriots have shorn their hair, put on three-piece suits or plain working clothes and merged into the mainstream of regular jobs, home mortgages, child-rearing and PTA meetings. Uncounted others have fallen by the way, burned out like moths--or butterflies--drawn into a light too bright for most to endure for long.
Doing the Unusual
But Lee, at 43, says he is not ready to abandon the barricades and follow the ex-rebels of the ‘60s into what he fears will be obscurity and boredom. “I got here by using confrontational tactics, which means taking nothing from anybody, saying it all and doing the unusual,” Lee said in a recent interview.
“I came from lower East L.A. to a high professorship in 26 years, so why should I change now? It’s not my fault I was born in a transition era.”
So Lee has continued doing what he considers unusual in a “nice little college community like El Camino.”
He advocates free love, the legalization of hard drugs and the shouting of obscenities in class to dislodge repressed feelings. Once he wore a T-shirt promoting oral copulation.
He has used similar T-shirt slogans to taunt trustees and express his views on the U.S. invasion of Grenada and other issues.
Early in his 16-year career at El Camino, Lee appeared in his sociology class wearing what a colleague described as “a flowing velvet robe and a mask.” He said he wanted to break down “these rigid stereotypes of what a teacher should look like and how he should act.”
“People say this is the way things are and you can’t question it,” Lee said. “I can question it, real easy. . . . I like to jostle people just to see what makes them scream.”
More recently, Lee has questioned conventional views of incest. In a paper, “Behind the Fig Leaf,” the professor suggests that “incest brings the family closer together.”
He expanded on his idea in an interview on Wally George’s “Hot Seat” television program in November and threw in another concept: new insights into the Bible come from viewing the Virgin Mary as an incarnation of Satan.
Lee acknowledges that his latest efforts to “get people to think” have provoked more screams than he had anticipated.
“I mailed that paper (on incest) to people all over the country--liberals, conservatives, judges, reporters, legislators, and the reaction was totally negative,” he said. “I thought it was a very objective statement, one of the best papers I’ve done.”
The reaction at El Camino was also negative. President Rafael Cortada, with the reportedly unanimous backing of trustees, ordered him suspended without pay at the beginning of the semester in January.
Lee, who will challenge his dismissal in a hearing required under the state Education Code, asserted that college officials “can’t fire a tenured person just because they don’t like him.”
Moreover, Lee said, he has been advocating radical ideas for years and the college didn’t try to fire him before. So why make a fuss now?
“I feel very disturbed by the idea that education has been transformed from a sharing of ideas to a sharing of common values,” he said. “Education is supposed to free the mind and make people think.”
‘Unfitness to Teach’
College officials said that besides “immoral conduct and evident unfitness to teach,” Lee is accused of absconding with a batch of books from two of his colleagues in the department of behavioral and social sciences.
But Lee said that is nothing to get upset about, either. He took the books and sold them, he said, because he was short of postage money to mail off his dissertation on incest.
“I was right on the deadline,” he explained. “If I don’t get my papers out on time, they may not get published, or somebody else will beat me in coming out with a new idea.”
Lee said the Flat Earth Society and The Libertarian are among publications in which his work has appeared. Eventually, he said, all of his ideas reach the public, usually through editorialists who use them to explain what is going on in the world.
But back to the theft charge. Lee said he got about $130 for the books, including several of his own, and paid his colleagues their share within a few days.
One of the teachers, Lee said, preferred to have his books, but otherwise they weren’t mad at him.
Lee said quite a few students and several teachers have expressed support for his position. Campus officials said they were not aware of any great outcry against his suspension.
The teachers union has formed a committee to help Lee with his case. “It’s our duty,” one instructor said.
Since losing his $42,000-a-year position, Lee has had to leave his apartment in Hermosa Beach and move in with a girlfriend in Pomona. He said he will have to survive on unemployment compensation until the outcome of his hearing, probably in the fall.
If the college does take him back, he may even be willing to adapt to more conservative times. “I will face reality,” he said. “Keep my mouth shut on these controversial things and be much more sensitive to the feelings of the college and the community.”
Can it be that El Camino’s holdout radical is ready to come in out of the cold?
Lee shrugged. “Whatever happens, I’ll be all right,” he said somberly. Then he chuckled.
“If El Camino is over for me,” he said, “I’ll just use the greater world as a focus for my ideas.”
He said he is working on a new idea now--something called “quantum motion.” It could, he thinks, challenge the theories of the likes of Newton and even Einstein.
“Some of my ideas may not be right,” he said. “But that’s no reason not to try them.”