Academic Freedom at CUNY–Day 2

Wel­come to the Aca­d­e­mic Free­dom at CUNY blog. We’ve been cov­er­ing the recent sit­u­a­tion of polit­i­cal purg­ing at Brook­lyn Col­lege and any related news since Fri­day, Jan­u­ary 28. Most recent updates will appear at the top with a EST stamp.

We are now officially in Day 3 of the blog.  View Sunday’s updates here.

Day 2

12:00am   The Advo­cate has drafted the fourth in a series of let­ters that can be directed to the var­i­ous chair­per­sons of aca­d­e­mic depart­ments at Brook­lyn Col­lege. Please take a moment to send along this note, or one of your own craft­ing, to David Troyansky, chair of history. His email is included in the link above.

11:45pm   Manhattan Neighborhood Network ran an extended interview with Kristofer Petersen-Overton on the situation at Brooklyn College.  As soon as details for online viewing become available, they’ll be posted here at the blog.     

11:00pm   The Advo­cate has drafted the third in a series of let­ters that can be directed to the var­i­ous chair­per­sons of aca­d­e­mic depart­ments at Brook­lyn Col­lege. Please take a moment to send along this note, or one of your own craft­ing, to Kenneth Gould, chair of sociology. His email is included in the link above.

10:15pm   A number of prominent academics and public intellectuals from around the world have sent letters to Brooklyn College President Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tramontano expressing their displeasure with the recent turn of events.

From Michael Friedman at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History, and a CUNY alum.  The incident referred to at the beginning of the note was an attack by pro-Israeli extremists on Bard President (and conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra) Leon Bottstein for defending Bard students’ right to form an ISM (International Solidarity Movement) chapter on campus.

Dear Colleagues:

Leon Bottstein’s defense of academic freedom is to be applauded and supported. While Dr. Bottstein’s detractor(s) in this case may well be at the extreme end of a continuum, their attacks on him, in fact, fall within the framework of a vindictive backlash that has become all-too common in academia in recent years, mounted by powerful interests that hope to straight-jacket acceptable academic discourse, inquiry and debate.

A mere 120 miles south of Bard College, at Brooklyn College, adjunct professor and doctoral student Kristofer Petersen-Overton was fired from his teaching position, ostensibly because his academic level (doctoral candidate) was insufficient to teach the masters-level course in Middle Eastern politics for which he had been hired.

However, this didn’t appear to be of concern to the Brooklyn College administration until days before the class was due to begin. Nor did the fact that the use of doctoral students to teach graduate courses is widespread at Brooklyn College and other City University of New York (CUNY) schools (I was one such “ABD” student).

At least not until one student who registered for the course complained to a political science faculty member about the “pro-Palestinian bias” of Petersen-Overton’s reading list, and then posted her concerns on a blog. A few days later, Democratic state assemblyman from Brooklyn, Dov Hikind, wrote to both the CUNY Chancellor and Brooklyn College provost to express his concern about the “slanted nature” of Petersen-Overton’s academic research. Citing Petersen-Overton’s unpublished analysis of the place of martyrdom in Palestinian identity, Hikind called Peterson-Overton a “pro-suicide bomber.” Hours later, Provost William A. Tramontano dismissed the adjunct faculty member.

In a statement deploring the firing, Professional Staff Congress (the CUNY faculty union) president Barbara Bowen affirmed, “Outside political interference in academic decisions about faculty appointments undermines the integrity of higher education. Ultimately, it is the students and society at large who suffer when university administrators inappropriately bend to the will of politicians… Academic freedom is a bedrock principle of higher education. Without the freedom to pursue lines of inquiry wherever they may lead, faculty cannot truly contribute to the vibrant exploration of ideas that makes college a place of learning.”

As Petersen-Overton noted in a commentary in the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate,”there are a num­ber of issues at stake here that clearly res­onate far beyond my own case and affect all stu­dent pro­fes­sors. An attack on aca­d­e­mic free­dom and depart­men­tal inde­pen­dence is trou­bling enough, espe­cially con­sid­er­ing the clumsy way I was denied due process by the admin­is­tra­tion in this instance. But the prac­ti­cal con­se­quences of the college’s deci­sion under­score the pre­car­i­ous posi­tion that adjuncts hold at CUNY. In the blink of an eye, I have been denied tuition remis­sion, access to sub­si­dized health care for my fam­ily and finan­cial com­pen­sa­tion for the spring semes­ter in a time of seri­ous eco­nomic uncer­tainty. If the college’s deci­sion stands, it should send a chill through­out the entire adjunct community.”

I had the privilege of teaching in the Citizen Science program at Bard in January. I am also a CUNY adjunct assistant professor. While I may well be jeopardizing my opportunity to teach at Bard again by writing these lines, I feel it is incumbent on me to reach out to my Bard colleagues on behalf of my CUNY colleague, and urge you to communicate with Brooklyn College Provost William A. Tramontano, should you be moved to do so:

Office of the Provost
Brooklyn College
2900 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11210


Michael Friedman

9:00pm  A number of prominent academics and public intellectuals from around the world have sent letters to Brooklyn College President Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tramontano expressing their displeasure with the recent turn of events.

From Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History at Yeshiva University, and America’s foremost authority on McCarthyism:

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano,

I am shocked and distressed at your decision to rescind the appointment of Kristofer Petersen-Overton. It is an action that clearly violates academic freedom, a subject about which I am deeply concerned. I am active in the American Association of University Professors, where I serve on its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure and have just helped to write its special report on “Politically Controversial Personnel Decisions,” (a copy of which I will be glad to send you as soon as it is publicly released).

I am also a historian who has written extensively about academic freedom, including a study of the academic community during the McCarthy years (No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities) that discusses the dismissal of several Brooklyn College faculty members during that grim period. Unfortunately, the dismissal of Mr. Petersen-Overton (for the rescinding of an appointment is, at least with regard to academic freedom, the equivalent of a dismissal ) reminds me all too painfully of what happened during the 1950s.

Whatever the “official” justification may be, it is obvious that untoward political pressures have resulted in your ill-advised action. As is well known, adjuncts without Ph.D.’s have long been teaching graduate courses in the Political Science Department. CUNY would ground to a halt if it had to dispense with the services of these presumably underqualified instructors.

Above all, the rescinding of Mr. Petersen-Overton’s appointment sends a chilling message to the entire academic community. If outside political forces can expel an instructor from the classroom even before the term begins simply because some people do not like the looks of his syllabus, then it likely that other instructors at Brooklyn College and elsewhere will be tempted to censor themselves and avoid teaching anything controversial. This is what happened during the McCarthy period. We cannot afford a replay.

I should note, as well, that Mr. Petersen-Overton’s syllabus is hardly subversive. Some of the books he planned to assign are on syllabi at my own school, Yeshiva University. If the orthodox Jewish undergraduates at Yeshiva can handle those readings, surely the MA students at Brooklyn College can.

Please restore academic freedom to Brooklyn College by returning Mr. Petersen-Overton to his classroom. To do anything less will damage the intellectual credibility of your institution and seriously undermine the morale of faculty and students alike.


Ellen Schrecker

7:15pm A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Rhoda Kanaaneh, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University:

Dear Provost William Tramontano,

I recently read about the firing of the adjunct instructor Kristofer Petersen-Overton at Brooklyn College due to his political opinions.  This is a most severe violation of academic freedom– to allow a state assemblyman to influence university decisions on faculty hiring (and in this case even firing) is beyond the pale.  This decision does not bode well for Brooklyn College’s future and reputation.  I urge you to reverse this decision and to uphold academic freedom at your college.


Rhoda Kanaaneh
Columbia University

6:30pm The Jewish Voice for Peace’s Muzzlewatch has a post on the Brooklyn College imbroglio that takes on Dov Hikind.  Pulling no punches whatsoever, author Cecilie Surasky notes that:

Dov Hikind is a bigot and a supporter of terrorism. He stood by 5 Jewish teenagers who severely beat a young Pakistani man with brass knuckles in a hate crime so heinous, it was condemned even by the Anti-Defamation League.  He is a former follower of the terrorist group the Jewish Defense League and recently waxed nostalgic at the memorial of hate-monger Rabbi Meir Kahane whose Kach party-including the Kahane Chai spinoff-was banned, even in Israel, for racism and terrorism. He and his wife are working towards the Judaization of East Jerusalem and are doing their part to start a Holy War there by supporting the building of the Third Temple. He actually opposed the inclusion of non-Jews (there were some 5 million) in a memorial to those who died in the Holocaust and is an advocate of racial profiling.

Oh, and he said gay marriage would lead to more incest.

And, it must be said, he does all of this while wearing a kippah- he is an Orthodox Jew–which I personally find particularly galling.

(His archived press releases about Israel and the UN are pretty remarkable for a local state assemblyman.)

6:00pm The Advocate has drafted the second in a series of letters that can be directed to the various chairpersons of academic departments at Brooklyn College.  Please take a moment to send along this note, or one of your own crafting, to Namita Manohar, chair of women’s studies.  Her email is included in the link above.

5:30pm Lawyers, Guns, and Money has a piece (We’re Just Firing You — The Course is Safe!) on the Petersen-Overton situation.  There’s a decent back-and-forth in the comments section about the role that PhD students play in teaching terminal MA programs.

4:30pm A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics and public intellectuals from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Joyce Appleby, Professor Emerita of History at UCLA, and President of the American Historical Association, 1997-98:

Dear President Gould,

It is with great sadness that I learned of the firing of Kristofer Petersen-Overton who was slated to each a graduate course in your political science department.

Academic freedom is so integral to the ideals embedded in our nation’s founding that its breach resonates far beyond the particular case.

If those who speak for higher education do not educate those who would silence unpopular views, we’ve no hope for its enduring as a core value in our colleges and universities.

I’m sure that in a subject as divisive as the relations between Palestinians and Israelis that Mr. Petersen-Overton’s views gave offense just as the views of pro-Israel scholars and spokesmen regularly give offense.

A university campus is where keenly felt differences can be aired, discussed, and moderated through more knowledge and better understanding.

In the history of freedom of speech, the great advance was made when the British dropped prior restraint and dealt with abuses after publication or speaking.  In this instance, prior restraint was exercised, a real set-back for academic freedom.

But I know that you know all this, so it is with sadness that I protest Brooklyn College’s action.

Yours sincerely,

Joyce Appleby

4:00pm A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics and public intellectuals from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Aziz Rana, Assistant Professor of Law at Cornell University:

Dear Pres­i­dent Gould and Provost Tramontano,

I teach constitutional law at Cornell Law School.  Before moving to Ithaca, I spent a number of years living in New York City and was deeply impressed by CUNY’s intellectual community.  I’ve had the opportunity to attend events through the Graduate Center and to present my work at CUNY Law School, experiences that I found very rewarding.  Thus, it comes with both surprise and disappointment to read in the New York Times that graduate student Kristofer Petersen-Overton’s contract to teach a course on “The Politics of the Middle East” was cancelled even before the class began.  As Salon notes, numerous adjunct professors with equivalent credentials have taught master’s level courses in the past.  Moreover, his syllabus covers established and seminal academic texts on nationalism and the comparative politics of the region.  In fact, his own piece at the center of the debate, “Inventing the Martyr,” is hardly a work of propaganda, but is rather a scholarly article that engages with the relevant literature and key theoretical figures in the study of nationalism.  Although Peterson-Overton may express a specific point of view, all teachers that cover politically contested topics bring into the classroom their own perspectives.  To bow to external pressure, particularly from elected officials, sends a terrible message that academic freedom can be trumped if scholars hold unpopular views or explore sensitive issues.  CUNY has a wonderful reputation for intellectual diversity and open inquiry.  It would be a shame to buckle now and allow those outside the classroom to dictate pedagogy and to police what texts professors assign or what ideas students debate.


Aziz Rana

3:45pm The Advocate has drafted the first in a series of letters that can be directed to the various chairpersons of academic departments at Brooklyn College.  Please take a moment to send along this note, or one of your own crafting, to Sally Bermanzohn, chair of political science–the department to which Kristofer Petersen-Overton belongs.  Her email is included in the link above.

3:15pm A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics and public intellectuals from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Scott Saul, Associate Professor of English and American Studies at UC-Berkeley:

Dear Ms. Gould and Mr. Tramanto,

I’m writing to express my grave concern about the recent action taken under your watch and, I imagine, with your consent: the revocation of Kristofer Petersen-Overton’s contract to teach in the Political Science Department, ostensibly due to concerns about his level of academic preparation.

The higher officers of a university should not engage in such obvious doubletalk. If you are firing someone for his or her political views, please at least have the decency to acknowledge that this is the reason for your own action.

More than this, though, I’m shocked to see that your administration could so easily overrule the decision-making structure of the Political Science Department itself. This is an obvious violation of academic freedom, and should be taken up by the appropriate organizations.

I’m aware that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict tends to heat up college campuses — as well it should, given that college campuses are where students are supposed to debate the live issues of the day. At UC-Berkeley and within my own home department (English), as I understand it, a graduate teacher was likewise deemed to have “pro-Palestinian” views by an outside group, which exerted pressure to have that student fired. However, the student was not fired. A faculty member was appointed an unofficial advisor to the course, and the course went off without a hitch.

We have come to a very sad day when basic and essential intellectual questions — such as, “What motivates suicide bombings?” — cannot be asked and answered for fear of these sorts of reprisals.


Scott Saul

2:30pm A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics and public intellectuals from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Greg Grandin, Professor of History at New York University, alumnus of Brooklyn College and author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award:

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano:

My name is Greg Grandin and I am an alum of Brooklyn College.   Born and raised in Brooklyn, I enrolled in my alma mater eight years after high school and, after receiving my BA in 1991, went on to obtain a doctorate in history at Yale University.   I now teach at NYU, and often credit my success as a scholar to Brooklyn College, particularly to the history department and the political science department.   I was dismayed, therefore, to read in the New York Times about Brooklyn College’s dismissal of Mr. Petersen-Overton, at the urging of a local politician.    I believe that that kind of interventionism on the part of our elected officials opens a dangerous door, and that a strict firewall needs to be maintained between political grandstanding (not to mention pandering) and pedagogy.    I was even more troubled after I took the time to read some of Mr. Petersen-Overton’s work and found it to be standard fare, fully within the bounds of conventional approaches.

I understand that the defense of the Brooklyn College administration will be procedural:  Mr. Petersen-Overton’s appointment as an adjunct violated standard norms.   But please respect the intelligence of a graduate of your institution:  do not pretend there have been no other cases, either in the past or currently, of corner-cutting in appointing adjuncts.  It is clear that Mr. Petersen-Overton’s termination directly resulted from a local politician meddling in Brooklyn College’s affairs.   It sets yet another dangerous precedent at a time when, now more than ever, we need courage from our university leaders

Best wishes,

Greg Grandin

1:00pm Breaking News: The Advocate has learned that various departments at Brooklyn College will be holding emergency meetings on Monday to decide how to react to the news of Petersen-Overton’s firing.  The Advocate will run the names and contact info for department chairs at Brooklyn for those interested in writing letters in support for the defense of academic freedom.

12:45 pm The amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of Uni­ver­sity Pro­fes­sors Pres­i­dent Cary Nel­son has issued the fol­low­ing state­ment on the issue at Brook­lyn College:

The AAUP has rea­son to be con­cerned that Brook­lyn Col­lege may have improp­erly can­celled Kristo­pher [sic] Petersen-Overton’s con­tract to teach an M.A. sem­i­nar on Mid­dle East Politics.The admin­is­tra­tion has asserted that Petersen-Overton is unqual­i­fied because he has not yet earned a PhD. Yet tes­ti­mony from many at the col­lege con­firms that other doc­toral stu­dents like Petersen-Overton, with a Master’s degree, have reg­u­larly taught in the M.A. pro­gram with­out admin­is­tra­tion objec­tion. His removal from the course fol­lowed rapidly upon a student’s com­plaint that the course would not be “bal­anced” and a state assemblyman’s attack on Petersen-Overton’s schol­ar­ship. The AAUP does not require that courses be bal­anced, believ­ing that expo­sure to advo­cacy can be a ben­e­fi­cial com­po­nent of an edu­ca­tion, so long as stu­dents are not expected to agree with an instructor’s point of view. More­over, the department’s deci­sion to hire him should have car­ried the day. The administration’s inter­ven­tion out­side due process is a threat to aca­d­e­mic freedom.

Speak­ing now – in what fol­lows – for myself, rather than for the AAUP, I would add that Petersen-Overton’s dis­puted essay “Invent­ing the Mar­tyr,” which dis­cusses the role of sac­ri­fice and martry­dom in the con­struc­tion of Pales­tin­ian iden­tity, is a seri­ous and infor­ma­tive work of schol­arly analy­sis. Given that myths of sac­ri­fice are pro­moted by many nation states in cri­sis, read­ers may learn from the essay no mat­ter what their stand on Mid­dle East Pol­i­tics may be.

–Cary Nel­son, AAUP Pres­i­dent
Jan­u­ary 28, 2011

12:37am CUNY Con­tin­gents Unite has issued a for­mal res­o­lu­tion call­ing for the full rein­state­ment of Kristofer and an end to attacks on aca­d­e­mic free­dom. Plans for a pos­si­ble protest at The Provost’s Office at Brook­lyn Col­lege are being dis­cussed in the case that Kristofer is not rein­stated soon.

12:30pm A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics and public intellectuals from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Katha Pollitt, columnist for the Nation magazine:

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano,

I’m writing to you about the case of Kristofer Petersen-Overton. What disturbs me is that a local politician, Dov Hikind, seems to have been able to insert himself into  academic decisions.  Should a state assemblyman decide who gets to teach at Brooklyn  College, and what  the content of courses should be? That Mr. Petersen-Overton’s contract was terminated before he had taught a single class, on the basis of his syllabus and Dov Hikind’s  objections to what he believed were the Petersen-Overton’s views on Israel, is just plain McCarthyism. It is shocking that Hikind has the power to micromanage a great school like Brooklyn College—right down to the hiring of an adjunct.

I understand that the administration is arguing that Petersen-Overton, as a graduate student early on in his studies, is underqualified to teach a graduate course. That’s not for me to say,  but grad students teaching other grad students is a fairly common phenomenon.  Given the widespread use of adjuncts at CUNY, one does wonder if credentials are really the issue here.

Sincerely yours,

Katha Pollitt

11:30am A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics and public intellectuals from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Anne Norton, Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania:

Dear President Gould,

I am writing with regard to the decision your College has made to rescind the appointment of  Kristofer Petersen-Overton as an adjunct professor.  This concerns many of us in the broader academic community because it appears to come from political pressure.  The New York Times reported that “Dov Hikind, a Democratic state assemblyman from Brooklyn, wrote to the college president and to the chancellor of the City University of New York, which includes Brooklyn College, to express alarm about the “slanted nature” of the professor’s works.”

This is an issue of academic freedom, a principle that is essential to academic life.  I am sure that you endorse and support that principle, but you may not be fully aware of how often it comes under assault with regard to Middle East politics.  Campus Watch patrols classrooms with lists of books professors must use, or face harassment (or worse.)  They have posted enemies lists of professors whose views are (in their view) critical of Israel or Israeli policy.  This has resulted in intense harassment and threats to those professors.

You may have learned, inconveniently and belatedly, that Mr. Petersen-Overton, does not have the qualifications you desire for this position. Appearances matter.  The suspicion that Mr. Petersen-Overton’s appointment was terminated for political reasons damages the College and emboldens those who want to limit speech.  A robust defense of the principle requires either that the level of the course be changed or that a more senior person sharing his views be hired in his place.

There is a third consideration.  The people of New York, Brooklyn in particular, have diverse views on the question of Israel- Palestine.  They come from many places.  Some feel free to speak, but some do not.  Mr. Hivkind’s constituents are important parts of your community.  So too are the many Arab Americans whose views are often silenced by pervasive hostility and organized campaigns of intimidation.

I hope that you will reconsider your position in deference to the diverse views that prevail among the people of New York and the principle of academic freedom.

Sincerely yours,

Anne Norton

11:00am A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics and public intellectuals from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Rosalind Petchesky, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center and Hunter College.

Dear Provost Tramontano:

I am a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and had the pleasure of teaching Mr. Kristofer Petersen-Overton in my graduate course, Contemporary Political Theory:  Biopolitics, in the spring of 2010.  Mr. Petersen-Overton was not only one of the three or four best thinkers and writers in a class of 22 (he received an A as his final grade) but also produced a scrupulously well documented paper on Israel’s occupation of Gaza that I judged to be of publishable quality.  Although I am not a specialist on Middle East politics, I have a particular interest in recent developments there and have read a great deal concerning the history of both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism (my uncle is the biographer of Martin Buber, and my mentor in college was a leading Palestinian political scientist, Professor Ibrahim Abu-Lughod).  I was particularly struck by Mr. Petersen-Overton’s command of the literature and his ability to apply that knowledge, as well as his first-hand experience working in the region, to a highly original exploration of Foucault’s theory of biopolitics.  His approach to understanding the complexities of Israeli-Palestinian relations, while clearly sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations, is solidly grounded in fact, well balanced, and in line with many respected scholars who are critical of some of Israel’s policies while fully recognizing its right to exist.  In fact, I was so impressed with Mr. Petersen-Overton’s abilities as an intellectual and a communicator that I saw in him the makings of a first-rate classroom teacher and urged my chair at Hunter to consider hiring him to teach in our department.

Given all this, it came as a tremendous shock and disappointment to learn that your office has abruptly terminated Mr. Petersen-Overton’s appointment to teach as an adjunct professor in the Political Science Department at Brooklyn College this semester, apparently on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations by one student and one state politician.  Not only does this action depart from all principles of due process and academic freedom–long held dear at CUNY–but it also evokes the sort of repression and censorship of the McCarthy era.  I am at a loss to understand why your office would act in such a precipitous manner, even risking CUNY’s reputation as a bastion of civility and fairness.  It also concerns me deeply that one of our finest graduate students is now in peril of losing vital tuition support, health benefits, and professional standing as a result of this very arbitrary–and seemingly politically motivated–action on your part.  I thus urge you to reconsider this decision and to rehire Mr. Petersen-Overton, not only for his sake but also for that of CUNY and its ethical integrity.


Rosalind P. Petchesky

10:25 The online petition to the administration of Brooklyn College  sponsored by the Advocate has broken 1,000 signatures, including that of Professor Noam Chomsky.  In a letter from Chomsky obtained by the Advocate, Chomsky reiterated his support for academic freedom and Kristofer Petersen-Overton, labelling the whole situation “disgusting.”

Please join Professor Chomsky and now thousands of others by signing the petition.  It can be accessed here.

10:00am A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From John Hammond, Professor of Sociology at The Graduate Center and Hunter College:

Dear Dr. Gould and Dr.  Tramontano,

I write to express my deep concern about  the summary dismissal of Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton from the Department of Political Science.  This event, on its face, appears to combine a violation of academic freedom, undue subjection to the will of outside political forces, and disregard for ordinary decency in the treatment of adjuncts since it occurred less than a week before the beginning of classes.

I regard Mr. Petersen-Overton as a colleague since I am a professor in the sociology department at Hunter College and the Graduate Center.  I deeply regret  that the University or any branch of it would engage in such a flagrant violation of its own principles.

I call on you to restore Mr. Petersen-Overton’s adjunct position and affirm your commitment to the academic freedom without outside political interference of your college’s curriculum.

Sincerely yours,

John L. Hammond

12:25am A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Marshall Berman, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center, CUNY and the City College of New York:

Dear Ms. Gould,

You may be too young to remember McCarthyism.  I’m old enough to remember it well, and what I’ve read about this case, in the Times and elsewhere, brings it back vividly.  It is appalling to see somebody being hired to do a job, and then, because of political pressure, being fired before he has a chance to do it.

Do you really want to appoint Assemblyman Hikind as Academic Commissar?

In Brooklyn College’s long Gideonse age, jobs were given and taken away by political tests, and people who stayed saw themselves as “survivors”. In recent years, many people have worked hard to get Brooklyn taken seriously.  This case flies in the face of all that work, sends a strong signal that professors and their decisions have no meaning, politicians rule, and your college has NOT overcome.  I don’t know you–I don’t know any of the principals–but I find it hard to imagine that you want your Presidency to be remembered as the place that established that principle.  Please have some second thoughts!


Marshall Berman

12:10am A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics from around the world have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Moustafa Bayoumi, Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and himself no stranger to similar political controversy at the college.

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano,

I was disappointed to learn that Brooklyn College has rescinded the appointment of Kristofer Peterson-Overton to teach a graduate course on Middle Eastern politics this semester. According to both the New York Times and Mr. Peterson-Overton, the decision to terminate his course was not because of any procedural gaffe but because of outside pressure put on Brooklyn College. This is regrettable.

I was very proud of and thankful to the College last semester precisely because the College did not succumb to outside pressure to alter its selection of my book as the common reading this year. As an institution of higher learning dedicated to academic freedom, Brooklyn College must protect its integrity zealously, and it is imperative that decisions regarding curriculum be made by the faculty of the College and not by outsiders to our institution. This was the principle at stake last August, and it is again being called in to question today.  I urge you to reconsider the decision regarding Mr. Peterson-Overton’s course and to reinstate him accordingly.

Thank you.


Moustafa Bayoumi

12:05am Welcome to Day 2 of the Advocate‘s Academic Freedom at CUNY Blog.  You can view Friday’s updates here.

8 Responses to “Academic Freedom at CUNY–Day 2”

  1. David Arnow says:

    As a professor of Brooklyn College, I would like an clear, public statement from the Brooklyn College President or Provost as to whom else, besides Dov Hikind, we faculty need clearance from. Under the current circumstances, I dare not say a word in class without advance clearance from Assemblyman Dov Hikind. I will be calling his office this monday morning to review my notes and make sure that they conform to the political standards that his office demands. I suggest that ALL Brooklyn College faculty do the same. Do not teach your class without advance written (or faxed) political certification from Assemblyman Hikind. If his office is unable to provide that clearance, then as a minimum you should get it (written or faxed) from the Provost’s Office. Be sure to go over your entire lesson plan, lest some politically problematic element is present, one that could later be grounds for your dismissal. Make sure that the Provost understands that you cannot risk saying a word in class without such clearance.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The current scandal does not differ a great deal from the recent violation of freedom of speech at the Guggenheim. The underlying threat is not, however, to freedom of speech but to tax funding of either institution. Private organizations fundamentally have the right to allow who they wish into their organization.If we are going to protest Brooklyn College’s bias towards Israel, we beg the question as to what we believe should not be allowed in the public education system. The offensiveness of the Republican attack on the Guggenheim was the implication that they knew what was the proper material for a publicly funded institution to exhibit for American audiences – they surely would not, despite the alleged separation of Church and State, have protested an exhibit that was openly and avidly Christian. But the question remains whether those on the other side of the aisle would like to see tax payer money going to the Guggenheim to fund the indoctrination of the nation with Christian beliefs. By working at a public institution, we unfortunately delegate to the tax payers to determine at heart what is appropriate material for our education system. The administration at Brooklyn College are the elected or selected representatives of the public. If we want to argue with the administration, we will need to prove that the majority of America, or at least New York, tax payers would support the class of Peterson-Overton. In other words, the current debate and activism should not be isolated to the CUNY system – fundamentally the CUNY system is at the beck and call, the service, of the public – if we want to make our case that the public supports Peterson-Overton, then get a petition from the public. It doesn’t matter what a bunch of academics say, it matters what the public says.

    • admin says:

      We actually have a petition that reflects these sentiments exactly, Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous. There are currently over 1,200 signatures from around the world on it. I urge you to sign…it can be accessed here:

      • Anonymous says:

        Great – but around the world doesn’t matter. Some intellectual in France doesn’t, and really shouldn’t, have a say

        • admin says:

          Actually, you are wrong in at least two ways: first, you assume that all of those “around the world” voices are completely disconnected from CUNY. We can tell you for a fact that many of them are alums and others with close ties to the community.

          Second, the ones that aren’t still have a voice. And it is important for the CUNY community, and Brooklyn College particularly in this case, to know that the world is concerned with what goes on in the City University Ivory Tower, and that threats to academic freedom are a threat to the democratic exchange of ideas more broadly. Let’s try not to be too parochial here…

  3. Mike says:

    Thank you for the blog, Advocate Staff! I’m sure that I speak for many contingent faculty members when I say that Mr. Petersen-Overton’s situation highlights the precariousness of our employment situation at CUNY and shows the need parity, not only in terms of pay, but in terms of rights and dignity. This is an attack on free speech, intellectual inquiry, and academia as a whole. As a CUNY GTF, I am concerned that something like this could happen to any one of us, at any time, which is extraordinarily scary given the fact that our incomes, tuition (and status as students), and health insurance all come from our work at CUNY schools. If Mr. Petersen-Overton had been a tenure track faculty member who was ABD, this would not–could not–have occurred.

    I urge all CUNY students and faculty members to take the following action: 1) Write letters of support for Mr. Petersen-Overton and participate in protests to support him if he is not reinstated immediately, 2) Support the Adjunct Project’s contract demands, particularly for the demand that adjuncts receive minimum three year contracts that must be renewed but for cause, 3) Call for an end to the two-tiered labor system that exploits adjuncts, particularly graduate students and recent PhDs.

    We are in the midst of contract negotiations as we speak, I urge all PSC members to refuse any contract that does not contain added protections for adjuncts and graduate students. Mr. Petersen-Overton’s firing shows that we simply cannot trust the CUNY administration to resist outside political influences, and we must fight to insure that contingent faculty members are not subject to McCarthyism, political witchhunts, or intimidation because of their personal political views, their academic work, or their supposed “bias” as judged by any politician who takes the time to dislike one of us.

    Oh, and Don Hikind, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that I’m already planning on donating money to your opponent next time you’re up for reelection. Who thought that you would get CUNY faculty members so interested in your campaign?

  4. jon-christian suggs says:

    What Brooklyn College administrators seem to lack is common courage as well as a sense of the principles of their profession. Over 35 years at CUNY I believed in and taught that academic freedom was the central principle behind university life and intellectual work.

    Case in point: several years ago, on leave from the classroom to work for the vice-chancellor for academic affairs, I got a phone call from the then-vice chairperson of the Board of Trustees. The trustee asked whether we employed a man named Ginsberg at the university. I assured the trustee that we employed more than one Ginsberg. The trustee was interested only in one of our Ginsbergs: Allen, a poet of whom you may have heard; the trustee had not. But it had come to the trustee’s attention that Allen Ginsberg, whoever he was, was not only a member of the CUNY faculty but a member of the Man-Boy Love Society (or some such). The trustee wanted him fired and directed me to do it. I explained who Ginsberg was and where he worked and why he worked for us. And then I mentioned that for reasons having to do with academic freedom we couldn’t “fire” Allen Ginsberg, his status among poets or Man-Boy lovers notwithstanding. The trustee insisted that I investigate the process for firing him and report back. I said I would. After we hung up, I went to lunch, came back to my office, did some work and late in the day called back to report that after looking into the matter I was sure that it was impossible and reminded the trustee that it was also not likely that we had to protect Ginsberg’s students since he only taught MFA students all of whom were past the age of consent and that if the intent was simply to fire homosexuals the university would most likely decimate its own ranks in several disciplines.

    This matter, taken seriously by the trustee, who was also the vice-chair of the board, might have got Ginsberg “fired” at Brooklyn College, despite the fact that he had been appointed Distinguished Professor in 1986, had the current college administration been in place and had the trustee called them instead of me. Of course the attempt would have failed anyway, but young Mr. Peterson-Overton hasn’t the protection of fame or tenure, so he needs even more clearly the defense of administrators who have some commitment to first principles instead of to their jobs.

  5. [...] Day 1: Day 2: Day 3: Check out THIS FLYER and [...]

  6. of course like your website however you need to test the spelling on several of your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling issues and I find it very bothersome to inform the truth then again I will certainly come back again.

Leave a Reply