Academic Freedom at CUNY–Day 1

Wel­come to the Aca­d­e­mic Free­dom at CUNY blog. We’ll be cov­er­ing the recent sit­u­a­tion of polit­i­cal purg­ing at Brook­lyn Col­lege and any related news start­ing this afternoon. Most recent updates will appear at the top with a EST stamp.

We are now officially in Day 2 of the blog.  View Saturday’s updates here.

Day 1

11:55pm   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 Susan Buck-Morss, Distinguished Professor of Political Theory at the Graduate Center, CUNY:

Dear Provost Tramontano,

As a newly appointed Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center, I had the privilege of teaching Kristofer J. Peterson last fall. The course, my first here, was dedicated to the tradition of Critical Theory, with an emphasis on the Frankfurt School, that brilliant generation of German Jewish intellectuals who were exiled under the fascists, and many of whom, as refugees in the United States, were seminal in shaping political thought in the best colleges and universities of our country. Kristofer excelled in that seminar, convincing me that the students at the Graduate Center are every bit as superb as those I have taught at Cornell for 25 years.

I must admit that I was shocked to hear of the decision to suspend Kristofer Peterson from teaching because of pressure from a political figure. That is just what we teach our students is not to be tolerated. We take the memory of past history seriously. Never again.

Susan Buck-Morss

11:50pm   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 Neve Gordon, Professor of Politics and Government  at Ben-Gurion University in Israel:

Dear Prof. William A. Tramontano, I am writing you from Israel out of deep concern for academic freedom. I recently read an article about Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton and the decision to cancel his appointment as an adjunct professor due to his ostensible bias with respect to a Middle East Politics class. I do not know Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton, I never met him, and indeed never heard of him until this morning. Having read the article about the decision to cancel his appointment, I googled him, found his personal homepage and the syllabus for the Middle East Politics class.I am a professor of politics, and since I have taught similar courses both in Israel and the US (e.g., the Political Science Dept. at University of Michigan Ann Arbor), I went over the syllabus very carefully. I can say with confidence that it is a very good syllabus that uses one of the classical textbooks as the major reading, alongside a series of other articles and books. While the textbook itself emphasizes the Zionist narrative, some of the article’s (mine included) are more critical of this perspective, while others provide a more staunch support of Israel than is offered by the textbook. I also went over the paper Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton is scheduled to present at the Middle East Political Science Association and was struck by its academic rigor. 

Thus, it seems to me that Assemblyman Dov Hikind is carrying out a witch hunt against Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton, in the tradition of Senator McCarthy. Hikind’s claims are groundless and his approach is antithetical to academic life and academic freedom. Allow me to urge you not to bow down to this kind of harassment. Moving ahead with the decision to cancel Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton’s appointment will not only have grave implications on his academic career, but, perhaps more importantly, will definitely serve a potent blow to academic freedom at Brooklyn College and the US at large.As you no doubt know, the great Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt once taught at Brooklyn College. I am certain that if she were alive today, she would be knocking at your door asking you to protect the academic freedom of Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton. It is her legacy that we need to follow and not the legacy of Senator McCarthy. 

Yours Sincerely,Prof. Neve Gordon 

11:35pm   The Professional Staff Congress has released an official statement on the Brooklyn College situation.  The text follows below, from:

Dr. Barbara Bowen, President, Professional Staff Congress/CUNY

On Wednesday, January 26, Kristofer Petersen-Overton received notice that the administration of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York had refused to approve his appointment as instructor of a graduate course in Political Science after receiving a letter from Assemblymember Dov Hikind protesting Mr. Petersen-Overton’s appointment.

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.

As the union representing faculty and professional staff at CUNY, the Professional Staff Congress will not tolerate political meddling in academic decisions. When college administrators yield to such pressure, they compromise the academic freedom not just of the individuals directly affected, but of the university community as a whole.

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.

The Professional Staff Congress will defend the academic freedom of Mr. Petersen-Overton-and of every member of the CUNY faculty, whether full-time or part-time. The union will use every tool at our disposal to defend the rights of our members if their rights have been violated.

Mr. Peterson-Overton’s experience is an ugly byproduct of a labor system that undermines academic freedom for thousands of hard-working adjunct faculty at CUNY, who work with far fewer job protections than their full-time colleagues. Contingent faculty need built-in, contractual protections that allow them to remain critical and independent thinkers; they should not have to look over their shoulders when they craft their syllabi and teach their classes.

11:25pm   A citizen group–Jews Say No!–has also written a letter to Provost Tramontano to protest Brooklyn College’s actions against Kristofer Petersen-Overton’s dismissal.  It reads:

Dear Provost Tramontano:

I write on behalf of Jews Say No! concerning the decision of  Brooklyn College to rescind the appointment of Mr. Petersen-Overton to teach a course on the Middle East this coming semester.  Jews Say No! was created partly in response to the increasing tendency of  public officials and institutions to prevent open and balanced discussion of issues pertaining to Israel.  Brooklyn College’s action regarding Mr. Petersen-Overton is an egregious example of that phenomenon.

We understand that the termination of his appointment began with a complaint from a student – about the alleged one-sidedness of a course that had not yet commenced! – which was then apparently taken up by Assemblyman Dov Hikind in a letter to the College President, in which he called Mr. Petersen-Overton “pro suicide-bomber.”  We understand that the course was withdrawn in response.

Assuming that to be a fair characterization of the events, one is is sadly reminded of that period in Brooklyn College’s history when it, along with its CUNY sister colleges, shamefully capitulated to anti-communist hysteria and, in 1941, fired respected faculty members and forced the resignation of others.  When, forty years later, the CUNY Board of Trustees publicly apologized for its actions, it vowed “diligently to safeguard the constitutional rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association and open intellectual inquiry of the faculty, staff and students of the University.”  The decision to terminate Mr. Petersen-Overton makes a mockery of that vow.

We think it not unfair to say that Brooklyn College’s reputation as an institution committed to academic freedom is at stake in this controversy. That, at least, is our view, and we know it is the view of any number of other groups and individuals in New York City who are committed to insuring that public colleges stand up to political pressure in defense of the right of students and faculty to discuss controversial issues without fear of reprisal. We will honor that commitment in our continued resolve to take whatever actions are necessary on behalf of Mr. Petersen-Overton.

Yours sincerely,

Alan Levine

11:20pm  A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics from around the coun­try have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Alex Gourevitch, a Harvard College Fellow, rising academic superstar in political science and all around stand-up guy:

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano,

I am a Harvard College Fellow, and recent Ph.D in political science from Columbia University, who also took classes at CUNY. I recently found out that Kristofer J Petersen-Overton was fired from his appointment to teach a course on Middle East politics after questions were raised regarding his political views. This is a distressing violation of academic freedom. It is especially unworthy of the CUNY system, where I not only took courses but where I have respected colleagues, and which I have always thought to be a beacon of diverse and contentious viewpoints. 

As an organizer of events on academic freedom at Columbia University, I know the complex educational environment in New York. Many different groups outside academia seek to influence the hiring and teaching decisions. It takes considerable fortitude to resist these bad influences. But it is essential.

The topic of Israel and Palestine is complex. I have been to Israel and Palestine a number of times; my wife’s family is Israeli; I have many friends who work on political issues involving Israelis and Palestinians. It is a situation in which it is almost uniquely impossible to write scholarly social science that does not come across as political advocacy. I have read Petersen-Overton’s paper on martyrdom and it is a very solid piece of scholarship, very well versed in the literature on nationalism and national identity. He cites key sources – Gellner, Hobsbawm, Renan – on nationalism, and has clearly done extensive research on his specific case. The paper is not only well within the norms of academic scholarship, it is a very good piece of scholarship, especially for someone who I understand to be a graduate student.

Of course, Petersen-Overton has a political point of view. But it would be very strange if someone studying any area of political science failed to have a point of view on that subject. That he has a point of view, regardless of what that point of view is, is irrelevant to his ability to teach his course. What matters is rather that he knows the literature – which he clearly does – and that he is able to teach the course in a way that accepts alternative points of view. There is no indication that he cannot do so. According to reports, a Brooklyn state senator objects to Petersen-Overton teaching because his research and views are ‘one-sided’. But it is the senator who is one-sided, or simply narrow-minded, if he thinks that that having a point of view makes a person unable to teach a class effectively, or with a suitable degree of objectivity. Some of the best courses I took in college and graduate school were with professors who had very different points of view, and who had very different interpretations of the readings and cases we studied. Often I knew this about them; it sometimes made me struggle that much harder to figure out why I thought they were wrong. All of these teachers – and I have little doubt this is true of Petersen-Overton – were able to treat students fairly, teach the material in an open-minded way, and make it a good course.

You do a great disservice not only to your students, but to academic freedom generally, if you buckle to narrow-minded and politically interested pressure. Let your students make up their own mind about well-taught material. And on a personal note, I will find it very disappointing if an institution I have respected for a long time buckles to such pressure.


Alex Gourevitch

11: 15pm   The Advocate has gotten hold of the response David Nasaw received from Tramontano in answer to his original letter reprinted below (see 11:00).  You will be shocked to learn that it is an exact copy of the letter sent in response to Andrew Ross. 

David Nasaw replies:

Dear Provost Tramontano,

Thanks for your prompt reply.   Regrettably, I find it hard to accept it at face value, especially after reading in SALON magazine that, in the very recent past, several students, with credential similar to Mr. Petersen-Overton’s, have taught masters’ levels courses at Brooklyn College.   The SALON article, in claiming this, incidentally verifies my own experience.   Here’s my problem: unless you can demonstrate to me and others (and I hope you can) that you or your predecessors as Provost have removed other adjuncts from their positions because they did not have sufficient academic training to teach masters’ level courses, I fear my questions and disappointment must stand.  

David Nasaw

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

From David Nasaw, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the Graduate Center, CUNY:

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano:

I am writing to express my dismay that an administrative action at Brooklyn College has once again brought disrepute to the City University of New York.   I began my teaching career at Brooklyn College, have now taught at the City University for more than three decades, and am currently the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the Graduate Center.   I do not know as much as I would like to about the decision to rescind the appintment of Mr. Petersen-Overton to teach a masters’ level course in the political science department, but, from what I read this morning in the New York Times, the decision, the timing, and the rationale raise significant questions about academic freedom, academic governance, and outside influence.   Is it truly the stated, written, and enforced policy at Brooklyn College to appoint only Ph.D. holders to teach masters’ level courses?   If it is not, why was Mr. Petersen-Overton singled out and removed from his position one week before classes?  The answers supplied to this point are clearly insufficient.   I do not enjoy sending such messages–and rarely do so–but this case casts such a negative light on an institution to which I am committed that I feel obliged to speak out and ask for further clarification.    

David Nasaw

10:50pm   A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics from around the coun­try have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Rogers M. Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.  Smith was also a member of the external review committee that evaluated the political science program at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2008. 

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano:

I’m a political scientist who studies civil rights and civil liberties.  Some years ago I had the great pleasure to participate in an external review of the Brooklyn College political science department.  I’ve also served on external review committees for City College and the CUNY Graduate School.  Those experiences taught me much about the complex and fascinating CUNY system–but I came away particularly impressed with Brooklyn College.  At the time we visited, all the faculty members had to share offices and all had heavy teaching loads. But all were enthusiastic about their students and their research, and the students we spoke with were all thrilled to be at Brooklyn College. Intellectual energy, high morale, amazing productivity under tough circumstances–I thought Brooklyn College was inspirational.

Now the New York Times is reporting a decision that, as a First Amendment believer as well as a friend of Brooklyn College, shocks and disappoints me. An alum complains that an instructor’s writings are insufficiently friendly to Israel, and the instructor is summarily fired–on the transparent pretext that this teacher of Master’s students only has a Master’s degree, which is true of many teaching in master’s programs around the country, and which presumably was known before he was hired.  I know Brooklyn College has been effectively privatized, that you get paltry public funds and rely on private donors, especially alums.  But if that means that what gets taught can be purchased by private donors, then an institution that has long been, and I thought still was, a shining beacon of first-class education largely for immigrant kids will be gone. It will be replaced by an institution where students receive paid political announcements.  I hope the media has it wrong, as is so often the case.  But if the facts are what the Times says they are, please consider this an amendment to the earlier review committee report I co-authored.  The amendment must read that Brooklyn College has some great faculty and students.

But the Brooklyn College administration appears to have lost sight of what academic freedom means, particularly in regard to teaching about politics–and no political science department thus administered can long endure as a reputable place for faculty or students.


Rogers M. Smith

10:45pm   A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics from around the coun­try 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 Wallach, Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Hunter Human Rights Program at Hunter College and The Graduate Center:  

Dear Provost Tramontano,       

I taught Mr. Petersen-Overton last semester in my Graduate Center seminar, P SC 701–Ancient to Medieval Political Theory.  He received an “A” in the class for reading and writing about Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas.  I also came to know M. Petersen-Overton fairly well over the course of the term.

Kristofer is a fine young man, and he exhibits excellent scholarship.  I had no idea of his involvement with a Palestinian Human Rights group.  However, that should have no bearing on his suitability to teach at Brooklyn College.  Indeed, it should be a qualification–as few academics have first-hand knowledge of the empirical circumstances about which they regularly lecture.  It does not seem that Kristofer has used his experiences in a way that compromises his ability to teach a fine class on The Politics of the Middle East.

 I noted the title of a paper that Kristofer wrote about Palestinians.  It concerned conceptions of martyrhood and Palestinian identity.  I could imagine such material being discussed in a piece published in The New York Times Magazine.  Moreover, insofar as he might have provided some understanding of suicide bombers, that would be all to the good–in order to address some of the causes that led to their self-destructive, violent, and hateful decision to kill others.  I expect that it would be happily read in many Israeli universities and discussed at Israeli academic conferences–contrary to incendiary, hateful remarks made public by Assemblyman Hiking.  I might add that I know Professor Talal Asad, a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at The Graduate Center, has written a book on suicide bombing that has been well-received among highly regarded scholars–not because he has endorsed the activities of his subjects but because he has shed light on them.  Should we have no books or papers on Hitler, or seek to understand the factors that led to his abominable rise to power?

Newspapers have reported that your office has responded to pressure from Assemblyman Dov Hikind in this matter.  Mr. Hikind does not have the credentials to evaluate Mr. Petersen-Overton’s qualifications.  That is within the province of Brooklyn’s Department of Political Science.  To succumb to such outside, political pressure violates cherished American principles and practices of academic freedom.  Assemblyman Hikind must be resisted and rebuked, and the decision of your college must be reversed.

John R. Wallach

10:30pm   The Advocate  has received Tramontano’s response to Andrew Ross’s original letter reprinted earlier (see entry at 7:30).  Here’s the provost’s response, followed by Ross’s reply:

Dear Andrew:

Thank you for your email.  I appreciate your concern about the college’s decision not to approve the appointment of Kristofer Petersen-Overton. When his appointment was brought to my attention as Chief Academic Officer, I determined that Mr. Petersen-Overton was not sufficiently qualified to teach an advanced-level graduate course.

In order to ensure the high academic standing of our graduate programs, Brooklyn College expects that those teaching courses at the graduate level hold a terminal degree in the appropriate field or, at the very least, have completed coursework toward a terminal degree and passed their comprehensive exams.  Kristofer Petersen-Overton has completed only three semesters of doctoral study and, therefore, does not have the credentials to teach at the graduate level.

Furthermore, all faculty appointments including adjunct appointments are subject to initial approval by an appointments committee comprised of faculty from the appropriate academic department.  This appointment did not follow this standard process.  All adjunct appointments are subject
to my final approval.

For these reasons alone, I a made the decision not to approve Kristofer Petersen-Overton’s appointment.

Again, thank you for your message.  I hope this information answers your questions.


William A. Tramontano
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

And Andrew Ross’s reply:

Dear Provost Tramontano,

I appreciate your prompt reply, though it does raise some new questions which I hope you can take the time to answer.

In response to inquiries of mine, Brooklyn College political science faculty have informed me that there are several instructors in the MA program who do not hold a terminal degree and some who are not even ABD. Nor, according to these faculty, have any of the instructors for this spring been approved by the department appointments committee, as you suggest is the normal procedure.

If these reports are accurate–and surely they are factual matters subject to verification–then the singling out of Petersen-Overton seems to be aberrant. Are you able to verify the accuracy of these claims?

Andrew Ross

10:20pm   A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics from around the coun­try have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Joseph Lowndes, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon:

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano:

I have just been made aware of Brooklyn College’s decision to fire an instructor who was hired by the political science department there to teach a course on Middle Eastern Politics. It seems clear, according to the account in the New York Times, that the instructor was fired because of a complaint made by a state assembylyman about what he perceived as political biases in the instructor’s academic work. The firing of this instructor on political grounds, based on what appears as pressure from a political official, is egregious, alarming, and a stain on Brooklyn College’s fine reputation.

It is not the role of an elected official, nor the members of any particular political persuasion to determine the competency of an instructor to teach a college course. Indeed, in this case it is only the political science department at Brooklyn College that should make such a determination, which it did in hiring this instructor in the first place.  Academic freedom, the cornerstone of intellectual inquiry, means that that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for, among other things, job loss.

I hope that you re-think this decision, which beyond violating basic premises of academic freedom, is surely demoralizing to your own academic community.


Joseph Lowndes

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

From Renate Bridenthal, Emerita Professor of History at Brooklyn College:

Dear Provost Tramontano: 

I have learned about the summary dismissal of Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton from the Department of Political Science overruling the Department’s decision.  Apart from the violation of faculty rights, I am appalled to learn of the apparently political nature of your decision, which brings up the matter of academic freedom.

I taught in the Brooklyn College History Department for 34 years and am very familiar with the political pressures that abound on campus. From what I understand, your decision was based on an objection by a state official motivated by one student and Mr. Petersen-Overton was not invited to participate in it.  This leads me to protest your decision in light of my own history as a Jewish child refugee from Nazism who detests censorship and bigotry.  A people who have experienced discrimination are not therefore entitled to practice it on others.  

I hope you will reconsider Mr. Petersen-Overton’s case and at least subject it to a fair hearing.  You wouldn’t want it bruited about that Brooklyn College can be pushed around by one state assemblyman. 

Sincerely yours,

Renate Bridenthal, Emerita Professor of History

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

From Jay W. Driskell, Assistant Professor of History at Hood College:

Dear President Gould,

It is shocking to me to hear that an institution like Brooklyn College would surrender to the sorts of anti-intellectual fear mongering to which academia should be immune.  In a time where most knowledge about the broader world gets circulated via cable news outlets that serve only as echo chambers for one or another version of political spin, the role of colleges and universities in preserving critical inquiry remains more vital than ever.  When a professor like Mr. Petersen-Overton is silenced through outside political pressure, the education available at Brooklyn College moves one step closer to being reduced to the bloviations of cable TV news and talk radio.

The academy exists in part to confront received wisdom and not merely to rehearse the words of the powerful.  Without the sorts of challenges that thinkers like Peterson-Overton present, our society will stagnate.  I urge you to reinstate him to his teaching position immediately.


Dr. Jay W. Driskell

7:30pm   A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics from around the coun­try have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and President of the NYU-AAUP chapter:

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano,

Like many of my colleagues here in NYU’s AAUP chapter, I was appalled to read press reports on the firing of Petersen-Overton. I have also heard from members of the Political Science department who are extremely concerned that college officials appear to have acted under pressure from an influential outsider. As a member of the national AAUP’s Committee A (on Academic Freedom), I see an increasing number of similar cases around the country of this kind of flagrant violation of academic freedom. Sadly, it is usually always because an outside group or individual has objected to the way that Middle Eastern politics is being taught in the classroom. Brooklyn College can do better. I urge you to reinstate the instructor.

Andrew Ross

7:00pm   A num­ber of promi­nent aca­d­e­mics from around the coun­try have sent let­ters to Brook­lyn Col­lege Pres­i­dent Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tra­mon­tano express­ing their dis­plea­sure with the recent turn of events.

From Shira Robinson, Assistant Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University:

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano,

I am writing to express my deep concern over your recent decision to fire adjunct professor Kristofer Petersen-Overton just before the start of his scheduled course on Middle East politics. Given the circumstances of the case as reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, it is difficult not to read your decision as a crude violation of academic freedom.  

As I’m sure you know, few subjects in the American academy today are more politicized than the history and politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It is precisely for this reason that university administrations must remain steadfast in their professional commitment to judge scholarly work on its merits and according to the rigorous standards of each discipline.  The concern of state assemblyman Dov Hikind that Petersen-Overton’s syllabus includes Israeli historians like Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris is personal and political, not professional.  While numerous scholars have argued over the proper interpretation of the evidence Shlaim, Morris, and others have brought to bear on the history and historiography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none have been able–or even tried–to discredit that evidence.  More importantly, the critical and reasoned evaluation of the conclusions drawn by these Jewish Israeli historians has occurred in appropriate professional fora, such as  peer-reviewed scholarly publications and in talks delivered at countless academic conferences.   These debates have enriched our field and our students enormously. They have also led to important changes in the Israeli school curriculum itself.

If Hikind and other politicians find the conclusions of professional historians disturbing, they should encourage students to challenge them using the rigorous methods of the profession. Politicians are also welcome to go to the archives and publish their own findings, or more generally to express their objections through the press and the microphone.   

In the meantime, it is the job of the university to uphold and protect its own professional standards in all academic subjects and all classrooms, without exception.  


Shira Robinson

6:30pm   A number of prominent academics from around the country have sent letters to Brooklyn College President Karen Lee Gould and Provost  William Tramontano expressing their displeasure with the recent turn of events.  The Advocate has received permission to reprint some of them here. 

The first comes from Distinguished Professor of History at Baruch College Ervand Abrahamian.  His letter follows below:

Dear President Gould and Provost Tramantano,

I was deeply distressed by the New York Times piece today describing the firing of an adjunct because of concerns expressed by an asemblyman. As a faculty member of CUNY for some forty years, I strongly feel that questions of teaching and syllabi should be under the jurisdiction of the faculty–especially the relavant department–and not be dictated to by outsiders, especially politicians. I am sure if I scrutinized the syllabi of other faculty members, I would find books I would object to. But I feel I have no academic right–even thought I have been in academcis for forty years–to tell them what they can or can not use in class. If I feel I dont have such a right, why should those outside academics and the relevant field enjoy such interfering privileges.

Yours sincerely,

Ervand Abrahamian
Distinguished Professor of History

6:10pm   The full text of FIRE’s letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Lee Gould can be read in its entirety here.

6:10pm   Salon‘s Justin Elliot reports that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has sent a letter of protest to Brooklyn College’s president.  Elliot quotes the letter at some length:

Please understand that FIRE defends free speech, academic freedom, and due process for all students and faculty members because we understand that the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech is more than simply a legal doctrine—it represents the belief that open discourse is critical to democratic society and that the merits of ideas are best decided in a free marketplace of expression rather than by government officials. History has decisively and repeatedly demonstrated that attempts by public officials to regulate or punish opinions are fraught with far greater peril than even the most offensive words.

As you know, BC is a public institution and thus is both legally and morally bound by the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of expression and academic freedom. The Supreme Court has held that academic freedom is a “special concern of the First Amendment” and that “[o]ur nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to teachers concerned.

6:07pm   The Gothamist has a brief snippet on Kristofer Petersen-Overton They’ve quoted Dov Hikind in the New York Daily News article that ran yesterday in bold, perhaps to highlight the fact that claiming someone is “literally radical” makes zero sense. 

6:05pm   Here’s a link to the Chrinicle of Higher Education post on the situation. 

6:00pm   Huffington Post has a story on the Brooklyn situation here. Nothing new here, but it’s good to see that the story is gaining traction nation-wide. 

5:00pm   If you haven’t seen Kristofer Petersen-Overton’s op-ed at the Advocate today, make sure to read it.  Particularly sobering is Petersen-Overton’s consideration of the practical consequences of Brooklyn College’s actions:

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.

4:45pm   The controversy at Brooklyn College has received some decent coverage in the popular media.  Of particular note, check out the New York Times coverage, as well as pieces that ran in Salon and Inside Higher Ed

4:40pm   The petition in support of Kristofer Petersen-Overton has collected nearly 800 signatures in less than twenty-four hours.  If you haven’t already done so, please take a moment to read it through and sign.  The petition will be sent to Brooklyn College President Karen Lee Gould and Provost William Tramontano.

4:30pm   Welcome to the Academic Freedom at CUNY blog.  We’ll be covering the recent situation of political purging at Brooklyn College and any related news starting this afternoon. Updates will appear at the top with a EST stamp.

One Response to “Academic Freedom at CUNY–Day 1”

  1. Ruth O'Brien says:

    Dear President Gould and Provost Tramontano,

    I am distressed that Brooklyn College of the City University of New York rescinded Kris Petersen-Overton’s opportunity to teach a seminar on Middle Eastern politics given his scholarship on human rights. This violates the basic principle of academic freedom, which not only CUNY, but the whole academy, holds dear, and which stems from our freedoms of speech and association guaranteed by the First Amendment.

    Public universities are in peril. Allowing a state assemblyman, Dov Hikind, to step into the Brooklyn College classroom in effect by unjustly wielding his power to protest directly to the Chancellor of one of the largest public universities in the U.S. and receive a response, politicizes publicly funded universities in a very troublesome way.

    Whether one agrees with Petersen-Overton’s scholarship, disagrees with it, or has never read it, the idea that a single legislator, with a few pointed words, can decide what the students at Brooklyn College will be taught, is noxious to the freedoms on which our nation thrives, to the process of intellectual dialogue through which truth is discovered, and to the ethos of diversity and tolerance that characterizes our university, our city, and our nation. I urge you, in the spirit of freedom and fairness, to reinstate Kris Petersen-Overton in his position as instructor.

    Ruth O’Brien

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