Dittman the Hitman

Basab Dasgupta

 Immigrant Bengalis

When Richmond McQuistan was promoted to be the Dean of College of Letters and Sciences, Richard Dittman replaced him as the chairman of the physics department at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Dittman was a very tall Jewish guy. His academic research credentials were limited but he was a popular undergraduate teacher. He was also very political in the faculty circle and the rumor was that he already had his eyes set on following McQuistan's path and becoming a dean.

I did not have much interaction with Dittman but he seemed to be a friendly guy and always smiled at me and did a little chit-chat whenever he saw me. Even as a department chairman, he was teaching a course titled "Physics for Non-Science Majors" every semester jointly with a colleague, Glenn Schmieg; they were both present and lectured in parallel in every class. The course was reportedly an entertaining one because they used all kinds of interesting examples with elaborate demonstrations in order to convey some of the basic concepts of physics.

Just by accident I ended up attending this course for an entire semester. The university Students' Union (SU) started a program of selling class notes for all undergraduate courses with large enrollments so that the students could pay more attention to the lectures without having to worry about taking notes at the same time. The SU was offering $10 per class period to anyone who was capable of taking effective notes and submitting a typed version which could be copied and sold. In those days this was a good chunk of easy pocket money for graduate students like me. I applied and got the job of note taking in Dittman-Schmieg's course.

The classes were indeed very entertaining and informative at the same time. Many of the demonstrations had a magic like flare, involving optical illusions and sound effects and I must confess that I had not even thought about some of the examples they talked about in the course. Both Dittman and Schmieg were good at showmanship. Although they made some comments in the classroom making fun of the "the professional note taker" they never discussed anything with me nor made any negative comments. I felt a degree of camaraderie with them in our common goal of educating the students.

Coincidentally, this was also the time when I was in the process of completing my doctoral research and getting ready to write the thesis. A related issue was what I would do after my PhD. Although I did not start applying for jobs I had already decided that I would spend the rest of my life in the USA. Unlike my many friends I had no hesitation in reaching this decision. I fell in love with the country almost as soon as I came here; it was not quite the love at first sight, but definitely love within a few months. The Vietnam war was coming to an end and one of the discussion topics at all gatherings of Indian students was the appropriate timing for applying for a green card.

Marrying a US citizen in order to get a green card was not an option for me. So, realistically speaking, there were only two ways: to apply on the basis of the so-called "third preference" where one has to convince the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) that one is so valuable from a professional point of view that one's continued presence in this country would greatly benefit the society. The other choice was to apply on the basis of "sixth preference"; but in this scenario an employer has to sponsor the applicant by saying that they could not find a qualified US citizen for a critical position they are trying to fill. Clearly, with an abundance of PhD physicists available all over the country this latter option was also not a good one for me and I had not even completed my degree.

Realizing that the third preference application was my only hope I started to put all my ducks in a row in order to prepare an impressive application package. I already had two papers published, one conference presentation and a summary of the thesis ready. I had a perfect GPA and an excellent score in the PhD qualifying examination. I diligently put together all the transcripts, publications, awards and other supporting documents. As an "icing on the cake" I decided to submit two letters of recommendation from two of the faculty members even though such letters were not required by INS. Naturally, I chose my thesis adviser, Donald Beck, as one of them. I thought that it would carry some weight if the departmental chairman also recommended me for green card

I had a good feeling that Dittman liked me and I simply asked him one day if he would be kind enough to write a recommendation letter after I explained my situation. His response confirmed my expectations. "Oh sure" he said "I will be happy to". The two letters were sent by them to INS directly. I put together everything else with a very touching cover letter expressing my noble intention of devoting everything I learned to the good of the country. The rest was just a matter of long wait in utter suspense.

I was very surprised to receive a rather large envelope from the INS in the mail only after a couple of months. I was surprised because I was expecting a much longer wait and just a "yes or no" letter. On opening the envelope, I found out that there was indeed a letter stating that some information was missing from my application. I do not even remember what it was; probably some missing transcript or address where I lived during some period that was unaccounted for. INS apparently decided to return my entire application package back to me (hence the large envelope) with the instructions to resubmit it with the missing information. Surprisingly, the envelope also contained the two recommendation letters that I had not seen before! Naturally, I was curious enough to read both letters right away.

Beck's letter was a decent letter expressing confidence in my abilities and offering praise for my accomplishments, although not a highly emphatic one. The shocker was Dittman's letter. In fact, it was not a recommendation letter at all; it was an "anti-recommendation" letter. He did not mention anything personal about me, but it was an opinion piece on the merits of granting permanent residency status to foreign graduate students.

I can paraphrase the summary of the letter as follows: "All these students come for graduate study in the USA from foreign countries with the stated goal of receiving higher education here and then taking that knowledge back to their own countries for benefiting their motherlands. However, after living here for a few years, they all decide to stay here, thus effectively causing a brain drain from their own countries and adding to the pool of PhD students already seeking employment here. I do not subscribe to this process and therefore cannot recommend Mr. Dasgupta for the green card".

Needless to say, I was outraged. Dittman was certainly entitled to his opinion, but what made me angry was that he tricked me by showing his eagerness to write the letter when he knew all along that he would do his best to stop my efforts. The proper thing for him to do would have been to simply excuse himself by telling me the truth or giving some other reason. I could have certainly gone to a number of other professors for such a letter. I was so angry that I immediately went to the department and straight to his office. I closed the door and said "Well, I now know what you really wrote to INS" in a sarcastic way and waived the letter at him.

He was visibly upset; he stood up from his chair and almost charged towards me by throwing himself across his large desk. There was a conference room adjoining his office with a long table and a number of chairs around it. I ran into the conference room and started to circle the table as Dittman chased me. It was almost comical. Just imagine the chairman of a physics department literally chasing the best graduate student in the department for a piece of paper! After going around a couple of times he caught up with me; he could run faster with his long legs. He was also strong enough to snatch the letter away from me by force and tear it into pieces! I stormed out not quite knowing what to do.

I went into my office, sat down for a few minutes trying to grasp what had just happened. Thanks to my good memory, I remembered the entire letter word for word as I had read it multiple times. So first thing I did was to recompose the letter and make some copies. Then I informed Don Beck about what happened.

Problem with Don was that he was a real gentleman, almost to the point of being timid in a situation like this. I was not expecting him to put up a good fight on my behalf. So I also approached a couple of more influential professors in the department – Moises Levy, an experimental solid state physicist very active in the national IEEE organizations and Leonard (Len) Parker, a Harvard educated guy, well-known in the field of research on gravitational theories. I told them what happened and handed out copies of my reconstructed letter from Dittman. Coincidentally, both Moises and Len were Jewish. They were both shocked and assured me that they would help me to get through this. It almost seemed like they were thinking "how can a Jew do this to another man seeking good life in the USA after what the Jews have gone through themselves?"

I do not really know what took place behind the scene over the next several days, but I sensed that there were several closed-door meetings between various faculty members to discuss my issue with Dittman. I did not know if they had confronted Dittman or if this whole episode was brought up in the weekly faculty meeting; no one told me what was going on. In the end several faculty members (including Levy and Parker) offered to write glowing recommendation letters on my behalf and I took them up on their offer. My application package was completed and resubmitted. To make a long story not any longer, my application was eventually approved. I received the green card on my own on third preference without any sponsorship from an employer or help of any immigration lawyer, long before I completed my PhD, at a time when there was an abundance of PhD physicists looking for jobs.

There have been several incidents in my life where I faced a seemingly impossible situation because of unfavorable and unexpected events, but then these undesirable developments actually turned out to be helpful for me to get over the difficult road-blocks. This Dittman incident was a perfect example. Such experiences led me to formulate a key philosophy in my life: I view every apparent bad news as good news! It is almost as if the bad news is just a test to see how strongly I cherish something before I get it and I just know that I will get it. My life would have been entirely different if INS had rejected my application. I probably would have been forced to go back to India.

I never spoke to Dittman after that fateful day when he physically "assaulted" me and never even looked directly at him. More recently I was at UW-Milwaukee four years ago for the purpose of presenting a colloquium in the physics department and I ran into Len – currently a Distinguished Professor Emeritus. After exchanging pleasantries, he reminded me of the Dittman incident with a chuckle. It has probably become one for the legends among the old-timers there.


(Posted February 15, 2018)

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Comment received from Partha B. on February 19, 2018:

​"Rings a bell - the Dittman story
I got my visa the same way and with one letter of recommendation from my adviser.
While green card was approved (1979), it was issued only after I got a full time job (1980) and my employer didn't
have to sponsor.
In the late 70s I also retained a lawyer with the advice of Manorajan Dutta, then AIA president, teaching at Rutgers.
He didn't cost me a fortune.  A staff of the lawyers accompanied me to immigration interview.  Lawyer, immigration
nexus might have been more forceful in New York, NJ, especially when one didn't have a full time job offer.  My 
adviser wrote a glowing letter that I would be very successful in some of the rare areas I studied with him.
A South Indian batch mate was jealous at my success.  I didn't care what happened to him after graduate school."