On Wednesday, January 26, Kristofer Petersen-Overton was informed that Brooklyn College’s provost had refused to approve his appointment to teach a graduate seminar on Middle East politics – a decision made shortly after a local politician complained. But five days later, Petersen-Overton had his job back.
The change was the result of a quick and outspoken defense of academic freedom – by his department, his union, fellow adjuncts, prominent scholars, other doctoral students, professional organizations, and others.
“Outside political interference in academic decisions about faculty appointments undermines the integrity of higher education,” the PSC declared in a statement released on the heels of the provost’s action. “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.”
Petersen-Overton had signed his hiring papers on January 24. The chain of events that led to his job offer being rescinded began when a prospective student complained to the college about the content of the draft syllabus for the class. The student also contacted Assemblymember Dov Hikind, who wrote to the college’s administration to demand that Petersen-Overton not be allowed to teach.
Hikind’s letter labeled Petersen-Overton “an overt supporter of terrorism,” and objected to his research on suicide bombing and the concept of martyrdom in Palestinian society. “There’s nothing to understand about someone who murders women and children,” Hikind told reporters. “You condemn.”
“Scholars have noted that writing about suicide bombers does not mean endorsing such actions,” a report in Inside Higher Ed observed. And in fact, Petersen-Overton has made his views quite clear. “I absolutely condemn it, of course,” he told The New York Times. “They’re clearly heinous acts.” On his website, Petersen-Overton writes that a key question in his research is, “How does the national subject reconcile atrocities committed on behalf of the nation; is there a threshold beyond which this allegiance cannot follow?” In an interview with The Jewish Week, he repeated his condemnation of the targeting of civilians, and added that he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When Petersen-Overton’s job offer was pulled by the college in the wake of Hikind’s letter, faculty members at Brooklyn College, the CUNY Graduate Center, and across the University were alarmed. They felt strongly that the issue was not whether Petersen-Overton had passed a particular politician’s litmus test, but rather why a politician was trying to reverse an academic hiring decision.
“Mr. Hikind does not have the credentials to evaluate Mr. Petersen-Overton’s qualifications,” wrote John Wallach, professor of political science at Hunter, in a letter to Brooklyn College Provost William Tramontano. “That is within the province of Brooklyn’s Department of Political Science.” In his own experience at the Graduate Center, Wallach said he had found Petersen-Overton to be an excellent and thoughtful scholar.
Mark Ungar, graduate deputy of the college’s political science department, objected to the provost overruling the hiring of Petersen-Overton. “His decision to reject our appointment undermines academic freedom and departmental governance,” Ungar said in a statement, shortly before the department as a whole unanimously backed Peter-sen-Overton’s appointment. The department’s clear and united stand was to play a central role in ensuring that Petersen-Overton was in the end allowed to teach.
Brooklyn College’s administration maintained that the issue was not Petersen-Overton’s views, but his qualifications. He “was not sufficiently credentialed to teach at this level,” a college spokesperson said, citing Petersen-Overton’s lack of a PhD. The course, which is part of a master’s program at the college, “is an advanced course and he is only three semesters into his doctoral studies.”
But numerous doctoral students who have taught at Brooklyn College said it was common for those without PhDs to teach master’s-level courses, including some who were still completing their coursework. Petersen-Overton noted that he was “somewhat more qualified” than many others because he already held a master’s degree and has published in the field. In a strongly worded letter to the college, American Association of University Professors (AAUP) President Cary Nelson wrote that “testimony from many at the college confirms that other doctoral students like Petersen-Overton, with a master’s degree, have regularly taught in the MA program without administration objection.”
Hikind made quite clear that his objection was very much to Petersen-Overton’s views. He told a student newspaper editor from Brooklyn College that he had also contacted CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, who had promised to “call a meeting” and “look at everything this guy has ever written.” CUNY Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld told The Jewish Week that he had also contacted Goldstein to object to Petersen-Overton’s views.
When Clarion asked CUNY what the chancellor had said in those conversations, whether he considered the objections to be appropriate, or what he said in subsequent communications with Brooklyn College administrators, it was given this statement from the chancellor in reply: “Such personnel matters are internal to Brooklyn College’s academic review process.”
With each passing day, more and more academics concluded that the college administration’s account was not credible. “The department’s decision to hire him should have carried the day,” wrote the AAUP’s Nelson. “The administration’s intervention outside due process is a threat to academic freedom.”
The PSC and CUNY’s University Faculty Senate both spoke out against the cancellation of the appointment.
“Academic freedom is the bedrock of higher education; it covers an instructor whether part-time or full-time,” UFS Chair Sandi Cooper and PSC President Barbara Bowen said in a joint statement sent to New York Times. “The whole University suffers if the adjunct faculty who teach half the courses are vulnerable to political interference and craven administrations.”
The college administration had never contacted Petersen-Overton “to discuss his qualifications or the contents of his course,” the PSC’s Brooklyn College chapter pointed out. The provost’s actions “were clearly taken in response to external political pressure,” the chapter stated, and must be reversed.
Prominent scholars across the country and overseas weighed in, including well-known scholars and activists for academic freedom. Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University, a historian of the McCarthy era in academia, wrote that cancelling Petersen-Overton’s employment “reminds me all too painfully” of “the dismissal of several Brooklyn College faculty members during that grim period.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) was also sharply critical of the adminstration’s action.
This rising chorus of dissent was sparked by an energetic effort to spread the word, and do so quickly. Petersen-Overton said that soon after he was informed that he could not teach the course, he drew up a press release and sent it out widely. The website of the Graduate Center’s Advocate newspaper became a major online organizing center. A petition there drew more than 1,000 signatures within 24 hours, while an Advocate blog on academic freedom served as a magnet for statements from a striking number and diversity of scholars.
“We were getting three or four hours of sleep a night,” said Michael Busch, a doctoral student in political science and an adjunct at CCNY who worked on the blog. “It was heartening to see how many people were willing to take a stand.”
On Monday, January 31, Brooklyn College’s Department of Political Science voted unanimously to recommend that Petersen-Overton be hired to teach the course from which he had been barred. The department’s Appointments Committee then voted unanimously to hire him. By that evening, the provost and college President Karen Gould had reversed course and approved the hiring. Citing the department’s unanimous decision, Gould wrote that “it is now time for us to come together as a community and welcome Mr. Petersen-Overton to Brooklyn College.”
Hikind and Wiesenfeld, however, said that they would continue to oppose Petersen-Overton’s hiring.
“What happened to me underscores the precarious situation of adjuncts with respect to academic freedom,” Petersen-Overton told Clarion. “To complain about Hikind and others is a waste of time,” he told the editor of the Excelsior, a Brooklyn College student paper. “I am mainly concerned that the college administration caved so easily.”
“Mr. Peterson-Overton’s experience is an ugly by–product 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,” PSC President Bowen emphasized. “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.”
Corey Robin, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College, said it was a lesson in the power of collective action. “No one at the center of this storm – as I was – doubts that this would have happened were it not for the mobilization of hundreds of union members...who wrote letters, made phone calls, and got their friends and coworkers to do the same. When you’re in the trenches, it’s hard to believe that collective action will work. But guess what? It really does.”
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