Welcome to the Academic Freedom at CUNY blog. We’ve been covering the recent situation of political purging at Brooklyn College and related news since Friday, January 28. Most recent updates will appear at the top with a EST stamp.
We are now officially into Day4. View Monday’s updates here.
11:45pm Distinguished faculty and public intellectuals aren’t the only voices expressing their concern over recent events at Brooklyn College. The administrative offices at the school have also been flooded with letters and emails from brave graduate and undergraduate students protesting the violation of academic freedom within their university.
From the always eloquent Mike Lubing, graduate of the law school at the University of Wisconsin and currently a student in the Comparative Literature program at the CUNY Graduate Center, Graduate Teaching Fellow at Hunter College and a member of boh the Graduate Council of the Doctoral Student Council and the Comparative Literature Executive Committee:
Dear Provost Tramontano,
11:10pm The Advocate is looking for Twitter-savvy volunteers who plan to be on the campus of Brooklyn College any or every day this week, and might be interested in being on-the-ground reporters for the Advocate. Interested social-networkers are encouraged to email us at [email protected] for more details.
11:00pm For all the tweeting songbirds out there, a new hash tag has been created to collect together relevant tweets in the twitterverse, beginning tomorrow. Please search #CUNYcrisis for the latest updates on Twitter. The Advocate has encouraged Democracy Now! to employ this hashtag as it reports on the situation at Brooklyn College, and we will be doing the same.
10:45pm A Facebook page has been created to aggregate and publicize information related to this week’s rally in defense of academic freedom outside the Brooklyn College Provost’s office. It can be accessed and joined here.
10:00pm 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 Christopher Stone, Associate Professor of Arabic and Head of the Arabic Division in the Department of Classical and Oriental Studies at Hunter College, CUNY:
8:00pm The Advocate has drafted the fifth 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 Ellen Tremper, chair of English. Her email is included in the link above.
6:30pm 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 Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University:
Dear President Gould and Provost Tramantano:
I write to protest your decision to fire Kristofer Petersen-Overton, who had previously been appointed to teach a course on Middle East politics at Brooklyn College, and to urge you to reinstate him immediately. I have read a number of published accounts about the case and it is clear to me that your decision violated the core principle of academic freedom that is essential to a healthy scholarly community. It is therefore not surprising that this case is attracting growing attention and causing a public outcry among concerned scholars.
There is no question that Mr. Petersen-Overton was qualified to teach the course for which he was hired, and the proposed syllabus for the course consists of a substantial number of standard works in the subject area. It is also clear that he had committed no offense or infraction that would justify your decision to rescind his hiring, and there was no sign that he was about to act in a manner that would bring any discredit on Brooklyn College. There is also no evidence that he intended to indoctrinate his students, or to impose his own political views upon them.
The sole reason he was terminated, in fact, is because a politician with no academic standing didn’t like some of Mr. Petersen-Overton’s views on the subject of Israel. Those views, it is worth emphasizing, are hardly outside the mainstream within the academic community. Nor would they be regarded as beyond-the-pale in Israel itself. In short, nothing in Mr. Petersen-Overton’s background or behavior justified his termination.
The principle of academic freedom is not an ideal that we invoke only to defend views with which we agree. On the contrary, it is there to protect those who say things that may be controversial or outside today’s reigning orthodoxy. Because none of us can know which ideas and arguments will one day be vindicated, it is essential that we encourage faculty and students to express ideas openly and freely, to debate them vigorously, and to make up their own minds. That principle makes imaginative scholarship possible, and protects us from even well-intentioned attempts to impose a particular view on students or faculty. That freedom of inquiry and expression is one of the great strengths of the American system of higher education, and one of the main reasons why it has outperformed countries where governments routinely dictate how scholars should think, write, and teach.
Having served as Associate Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago (1996-99) and as Academic Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (2002-2006), I have some experience with the pressures that university administrators can face. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility as academic leaders to defend our institutions against such pressure, and to insure that faculty and students can think, write, teach and learn in an atmosphere that it insulated from political pressure. By bowing to such pressure in this case, you have undermined that principle and tarnished the reputation and standing of Brooklyn College.
I therefore urge you to reconsider your decision. As you reflect on it, you may wish to ponder an analogous case from a few years ago. Back in 2007, external pressure similar to that which you experienced led the president of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota to rescind a speaking invitation to Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu. There was an immediate public outcry, and the same president wisely chose to rethink his initial decision and reissue the invitation. This decision was widely praised at the time, as you can read from this account of the case (http://www.startribune.com/local/11606811.html).
By reinstating Mr. Petersen-Overton, you have the opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to the principle of academic freedom and to earn similar kudos.
5:45pm Democracy Now! will be running a segment on tomorrow’s show about the situation at Brooklyn College. Details will follow as soon as they become available!
5:15pm 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 Ashley Dawson, Associate Professor of English at The Graduate Center, CUNY:
Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano,
I’m writing to express my concern about the decision taken by Brooklyn College to fire an adjunct professor who is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center. From what I’ve heard about the case, the instructor in question has been fired — less than a week before the semester has begun — for his political views rather than for any evidence of misconduct in the classroom.
As the editor of a book on academic freedom, an activist with the AAUP, and a frequent writer on the history of threats to independent thinking both within the U.S. academy and elsewhere, I know that there’s a very slippery slope once you begin firing professors for their purported beliefs rather than for concrete behavior in the classroom. Particularly in today’s polarized intellectual climate, in which a Distinguished Professor at the Grad Center has been the subject of death threats after being targeted by a Fox Channel commentator, I believe we must stand firm behind the core principles of academic freedom.
While I’m sure that you’re aware of these issues as well, I do not think that your decision to fire the instructor in question bodes well for Brooklyn College or for CUNY as a whole. I would urge you to reconsider this decision.
4:50pm Students at the Graduate Center and Brooklyn College and faculty from across the university have announced plans for a rally and protest in defense of academic freedom in front of the Provost’s offices at Brooklyn College, Thursday afternoon at 12:00pm. Organizers are asking readers to share the following announcement widely within the BC and CUNY student communities:
Stop Attacks on Academic Freedom! Reinstate Kristofer Petersen-Overton!
Just a week before the start of spring semester classes, Kristofer Petersen-Overton was fired from his position as an adjunct lecturer of political science at Brooklyn College. A scholar highly regarded by many distinguished faculty at CUNY, Petersen-Overton was scheduled to teach a Middle East Politics course. His firing by Provost William Tramontano came hours after college President Karen Lee Gould was contacted by a New York State assemblyman who complained about the instructor’s academic writings on Israel and the Palestinians. It is clear that Petersen-Overton’s dismissal was the product of political pressure.
The college’s actions are a clear violation of academic freedom, including the university’s own official policy. We demand that Petersen-Overton be fully reinstated in his position, and that his course on Middle East Politics be allowed to proceed as originally designed. The university must respect the academic freedom of all its employees and students. This is especially crucial with contingent faculty like Petersen-Overton, who receive none of the protections of tenure despite the fact that they teach the majority of courses at the City University of New York.
Stopping attacks on academic freedom is crucial to the rights of all of us who work and study at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York!
When: Thursday, February 3, 12:00pm-2pm
Where: Brooklyn College
Outside Boylan Hall in the campus Quad, near Bedford Ave.
Trains: Q Local to the Avenue H station, at Avenue H & East 16th Street. Walk 4 blocks east to the Ocean Avenue entrance. #2 (7th Avenue Local) or #5 (Lexington Avenue Express) to the Flatbush Avenue/Nostrand Avenue station.
Event endorsed by: CUNY Adjunct Project, CUNY Contingents Unite, CUNY Mobilization Network, Brooklyn College Student Union, Doctoral Students’ Council, Brooklyn College Palestine Club, and others TBA.
4:45pm 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 Stanley N. Katz, Director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, Lecturer with the rank of Professor there, one of the leading legal historians in the United States and former head of the ACLS:
Dear President Gould and Provost Tramantano,
I am writing to add my voice to those of the other scholars who have written to you in concern over the treatment of Kristofer Petersen-Overton in connection with his apparent dismissal from his part-time adjunct teaching position in your political science department. I do not know either Petersen-Overton or his work, but I am persuaded by the testimony of colleagues who are familiar with both that he was a perfectly plausible choice to teach a low level graduate course on Middle Eastern politics, which is a research interest of mine – I collaborated on a book recently that examined the peace movements in Palestine and Israel. The College has made the case that the decision to rescind his appointment was on the basis of insufficient professional qualification, since he is himself just a graduate student. In principle, that might be a good reason, but members of your own faculty testify that it is not a policy that has been followed in the College, in which other graduate students are offering master’s level courses. If that is the case, it makes me wonder whether the reasons for overturning the judgment of the department were not political rather than educational, and I would then regard the decision as a serious infringement of academic freedom. Brooklyn College has a great history as a landmark public institution, and I would urge you to protect its long-standing reputation by reconsidering the Petersen-Overton decision.
Stanley N. Katz
4:15pm An excellent story ran today at Mondoweiss by Brooklyn College undergrad Zoe Zenowich on the controversy surrounding Kristofer Petersen-Overton’s firing from the school. Of particular note, Zenowich writes that
The administration’s and Hikind’s narrative contradict both each other, Petersen-Overton’s own account, other faculty members, and that of Janet Elise Johnson, an Associate Professor in the Political Science department and a member of the Appointments Committee. Johnston says she was not present during the meetings on Petersen-Overton’s position, but claims that “the argument that it’s about qualifications doesn’t stand up to the evidence; we have other adjunct professors who teach for the Masters Program, but don’t have PhDs … he was not officially appointed by he had been asked to teach. He is qualified.” While Johnston cannot comment on the accusations that political motives propelled the decision to dismiss Petersen-Overton from his position, she maintains that “in reality CUNY and Brooklyn College are under funded, and under resourced, and have been so for decades,” which further explains the frequent appointments of doctoral students from CUNY programs.
4:01pm The Doctoral Students’ Council at the Graduate Center, CUNY, has issued the following statement to its department representatives in support of Kristofer:
We are writing to inform you and the student body of the Graduate Center about the unfortunate and unacceptable situation that Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a fellow doctoral student in Political Science, now faces. We ask that you forward this email to fellow students and colleagues throughout the New York metropolitan area and beyond that you know will share our grave concern for this attack on intellectual and academic freedom, the political autonomy of colleges and universities, and the rights of adjunct faculty. Included below is an official statement issued by the President of the Profession Staff Congress for CUNY and links to news coverage of the this event. For those of you willing to join the fight to protect academic freedom and reappoint Kristofer Petersen-Overton, we have also attached advocacy materials to facilitate contacting the CUNY Chancellor, the President of Brooklyn College, and the Provost of Brooklyn College.
3:30pm 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 John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago:
Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano,
I have been following the case of Kristofer Petersen-Overton, who was hired to teach a course on Middle East politics at Brooklyn College, and was then fired before he set foot in the classroom. It is clear to me and virtually everyone else I know who has followed this case that he was dismissed because he has written critically about Israel and his proposed syllabus contained readings that were also critical of Israel. That led some of Israel’s powerful supporters to contact you and pressure you to rescind his appointment, which you did. Of course, this is not the first case of this sort, although it has attracted more attention than most of the previous cases.
Your decision to fire Mr. Petersen-Overton (who I have never met) is deeply disturbing because it violates academia’s most important norm: the right to speak freely on any topic and not be punished for making unpopular or controversial arguments. I have been in the academic world for 35 years and everyone I have encountered at colleges and universities across our country cherishes the idea that we do not penalize students or scholars because of their political views, even if we intensely dislike what some others have to say. As you surely know, there is no way academia can work well if we do not tolerate rival views. Indeed, anyone committed to building a great department has to be willing to hire people who think about the world in fundamentally different ways. After all, we make progress by disagreeing with each other and improving our own work by listening to the ideas of those we disagree with. Moreover, we try to expose students to a wide variety of views, and then let them figure out for themselves whether a particular scholar’s arguments are right or wrong. Our commitment to academic freedom is what makes American colleges and universities great, and we should all be intensely committed to protecting that indispensable norm. And for sure, academic administrators like you should be especially vigilant about protecting scholars from political pressure.
The sad truth is that you have done serious damage to the core principle of academic freedom by firing Mr. Petersen-Overton because of his political views. You have also damaged Brooklyn College’s reputation and sent exactly the wrong message to the wider world. You should have stood up to the political pressure and not caved in. I am confident that your names and your school’s name will be featured in future articles and books about threats to academic freedom, and you will be described as administrators who failed to protect a young scholar who was being singled out because he held controversial views.
John J. Mearsheimer
3:00pm 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 John McCormick, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano,
As a proud CUNY alum (Queens College AB 1988, Graduate Center 1989), and committed member of the American academic community, I write to protest stridently Brooklyn College’s actions in the Petersen-Overton case, and to urge you to reverse your decision by reinstating Mr. Petersen-Overton immediately.
This case cuts to the heart of intellectual freedom in the American academy and dramatically diminishes CUNY in the eyes of its peers at other institutions of higher education.
Thank You for your time and consideration in this matter.
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 Bonnie S. Anderson, Professor Emerita of History at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center:
Dear Pres. Gould and Provost Tramontano,
Pres. Gould, I met you at Ethyle Wolfe’s Memorial and I wrote you and Dean Wilson complimenting you on supporting the Bayoumi reading for college freshmen. As much as I applauded that decision, I deplore the college’s recent truckling to extreme political interests over the case of Kristofer Petersen-Overton. In the process, you have thrown out the most elemental principle of academic freedom. A host of distinguished academics have already asserted that Petersen-Overton is an excellent scholar. I join them in urging you to undo the disastrous decision to rescind his appointment, which has already brought the college too much negative publicity.
As a member of the Brooklyn College faculty for over thirty years (and a Broeklundian Professor for the last four of them), I know that last-minute decisions can be changed, particularly concerning adjuncts. You can redeem the college’s honor by reversing this mistaken act.
Bonnie S. Anderson
2:19pm Barbara Bowen, President of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty and staff at CUNY, spoke out against Kristofer’s firing this morning on WBAI’s Beyond the Pale. Transcripts and audio of the interview are available on the site.
1:00pm 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 Sandi Cooper, Professor of History at the College of Staten Island, CUNY and The Graduate Center, and Chair of the University Faculty Senate–CUNY:
Dear President Gould and Provost Tramonanto
I have been apprised of a possible serious violation of academic freedom at Brooklyn College with the termination of the graduate student, Kristoffer Petersen-Overton prior to the start of the semester, based on student allegations to a political figure who is reported to have requested his dismissal.
If this summary is accurate, I remind you that the Board of Trustees policy regarding student complaints against faculty, which covers adjuncts, exists to provide fair, due process. I cite
Board of Trustees Policy 5.20:
The University respects the academic freedom of the faculty and will not interfere with it as it relates to the content or style of teaching activities. Indeed, academic freedom is and should be of paramount importance.
This policy was developed in 2007 following an unfortunate problem at Columbia University also involving vague allusions of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli ideas on the part of a professor by a student, not even registered there. The CUNY Board made slight modifications in its implementation last year, based on experience at a few colleges.
To my knowledge, perhaps incomplete, it has NOT been applied to issues of academic freedom.
The policy clearly states that academic freedom covering the right of an instructor to design a syllabus is not debatable. Were the young man found guilty of coming to class drunk, or making nasty remarks to a student or excessive absences from class, then the student complaint policy is appropriate. It is NOT for an unproven expectation of a class which may or may not be “unbalanced” in the views of an enrolled student, particularly when the semester has not begun.
If the College is now claiming that he is not qualified to teach the course, then it is incumbent on the College to prove that others with his level of qualifications have also either not been hired or have been dismissed. Otherwise, a decision by the administration overruling a departmental decision is a very dangerous, undesirable precedent. Even if this graduate student is the first on his level to be appointed to teach the class, it is very possible that other considerations make him entirely qualified. CUNY administrators and at the Graduate Center repeatedly comment that many of the newer, younger people are far more up to date in the field than some of those, like me, who have been around over half a century.
On a personal note, as one who was a student at CCNY in the early 1950s when the McCarthyite investigators pulled faculty from our classrooms based on allegations of Communist affiliations, I am extremely anxious to prevent any kind of re-run of those sad and destructive times. Students need to hear all sides of an issue, as you well know and not only the side that a political group deems appropriate.
I hope that justice can be done to this young man and that this action does not undermine a promising career in a field that is crucial to modern education and politics.
With good wishes,
11:15am 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 Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Professor of ANthropology and Middle Easter, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University:
Dear President Gould and Provost Tranontano,
I have just read an article in the New York Times [1/28/11] about the firing of an adjunct instructor at Brooklyn College for his political views. I am in Kampala, Uganda, directing the Institute of Social Research 8 months of the year, an experience that brings home to me on a daily basis the critical importance of academic freedom in the pursuit of academic excellence. I write to register my grave concern over this development and urge you to reconsider your action.
12:05am 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 Liza Featherstone, Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, and long- time contributor to the Nation:
To: Karen Gould, President of Brooklyn College
Sally Bermanzohn, Chair of Political Science Department
What kind of institution is Brooklyn College? As a longtime citizen of Brooklyn I’ve always held it in the highest regard. Brooklyn College attracts many of the best scholars in New York, which is to say, some of the best in the world. It also draws some of the sharpest, hardest-working students anywhere. It has been a beacon of excellence in a crumbling public education system. But in recent days it seems as if your administration is enacting one of the sorrier episodes of “The O’Reilly Factor.”
I’m sure you know the script even if you haven’t seen the show. A professor voices an opinion – usually a view that some of us find horrifying, and that others of us think perfectly reasonable. But that is not the point.
The point is the following scenario: the right-wing yahoos — who in any case hate education and intellectuals — get excited. They blog. They call. They fax. They even threaten violence sometimes. They won’t be placated till the professor loses his job. And in the end, the universities, more often than not, find a reason to fire the offending professor.
Isn’t that pathetic? And here you are, venerated Brooklyn College, enacting the same tired pattern.
I’m referring, of course, to your decision not to reappoint Kristofer Petersen-Overton. Such a decision, made so obviously in response to political pressure, clearly violates the principles of academic freedom. Without that principle a great university quickly becomes a certification mill, whose scholarship is worth little.
Just look at who’s setting your academic policy. Not scholars, not administrators, but politicians. And not just any politicians, but Dov Hikind, a wingnut whose own opinions – though he’s surely entitled to them – would be reviled by civilized folk all over the world. Just to note a couple of his extraordinary views: he’s an apologist for racial hate crimes and thinks gay marriage will lead to incest.
What kind of university allows such a person to make personnel decisions? What kind of college takes its cues from uninformed brutes when deciding who will teach our children? I hope you’ll ask yourself these questions, and realize that the answers matter. The reputation of a great institution is on the line.
12:01am Welcome to Day 3 of the Academic Freedom at CUNY blog! Entries from Day 2 can be accessed here.