Monday, January 31, 2011

Freedom and Standards at CUNY: The Case of Kristofer Petersen-Overton

I submitted the following piece to Sharad Karkhanis's Patriot Returns, which goes to 13,000 CUNY employees and faculty. 

Freedom and Standards at CUNY: The Case of Kristofer Petersen-Overton

Mitchell Langbert, Ph.D.*

The Professional Staff Congress's (PSC's) president, Barbara Bowen, is using the rescission of Kristofer Petersen-Overton's contract to bait Brooklyn College's and CUNY's administration and for partisan jockeying. Instead, the PSC should press to uncover facts that would contribute to understanding the events preceding the rescission and to improving hiring and personnel practices at Brooklyn College and at CUNY. 
The New York Times, Inside Higher Education, and The New York Post cover the Overton firing.  There are two sides, but fact is scrimpy.  The administration states that before hearing Overton's political views they had determined that he was not yet qualified to teach.  Mr. Overton and his supporters state that the contract rescission reflected an incursion on his academic freedom.   Rejecting the possibility of any alternative to the second explanation, President Bowen condemns Overton's firing as "meddling in academic decisions" and, gasconades that "the union will defend the rights of our members if their rights have been violated."  

President Bowen's claim is not fact.  In the case of Professor KC Johnson several years ago Professor Johnson had uttered pro-Israel statements (in contrast to Mr. Overton's anti-Israel position) and found his promotion bid denied.  Rather than defend Johnson, as it is the union's fiduciary duty to do, President Bowen and other union officials, such as Susan O'Malley, publicly attacked him.  In that case President Bowen failed to live up to a minimal legal duty: the avoidance of partisanship in defending faculty rights.

Now, defending Mr. Overton's left wing anti-Zionism, Bowen claims that her support for free speech is unqualified.  This shift is consistent with a pattern whereby the PSC's leadership aims to represent those who are politically correct. 

There are a number of questions that need to be asked before anyone can conclude much about Overton's firing.   Does Brooklyn College generally hire doctoral students to teach master's students? If so, do the favored doctoral students consistently adhere to left-wing ideology?  Is there bi-partisanship in offering adjunct positions to doctoral students, or is the ratio of Democrats to Republicans 100-0? Have CUNY and Brooklyn College established best practice guidelines for the hiring of adjuncts? 

Conrad, Haworth and Millar (1993), in a book on master's degree programs, note that non-academic adjuncts play a crucial role in supplying practical experience that supplements theory.  Many master's students in political science may aim for careers in diplomacy or government.  Does Mr. Overton supply such experience?  Or is he a shill for ideologically committed advisers and their cronies in the PSC? Does the political science department ever offer adjunct teaching posts to doctoral students who agree with Bernard Lewis (2001), or is the ideological tenor monotone, the drumbeat repetitive, and the harp played only with the left hand?

*Associate Professor, School of Business, Brooklyn College.


Conrad, CP, Haworth, JG, Millar, SB.  A Silent Success: Master's Education in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Lewis, B. The Muslim Discovery of Europe.  New York: WW Norton & Co. 2001.

Minutes after I wrote the above piece,  Brooklyn College's President Karen L. Gould e-mailed that she had decided to give Overton the contract.  I guess we'll never know if any conservative doctoral students exist and if so whether they have been given teaching positions. Here is President Gould's letter:

Dear students, faculty, and staff,

Over the past several days, as a result of a provostial decision about an adjunct appointment, Brooklyn College has been thrust into a debate about academic freedom. This debate has been fueled at times by inflammatory rhetoric and mischaracterization of the facts. It is unfortunate that matters of utmost importance to our college community can be so rapidly co-opted by those with a political agenda and distorted by the media.

I stand united with you: We must never allow decisions about our students' education to be swayed by outside influence. In the matter at hand, this certainly has not been the case. On behalf of every member of this institution, I reaffirm our steadfast commitment to the principles of academic freedom, faculty governance, and standards of excellence.

Today, the Department of Political Science and its appointments committee voted unanimously to recommend Kristofer Petersen-Overton to teach a graduate course on the Middle East. Based on information that has come to light, they are confident he has sufficient depth of knowledge and the intellectual capacity to successfully lead a graduate seminar. The provost now supports their recommendation, and I am in full agreement.

Brooklyn College continues to have a strong commitment to academic freedom. As one of the most diverse campuses in the United States, we value civil discourse on even the most difficult topics. We believe that open, substantive dialogue between those with different points of view is an essential component of a 21st-century education.

Equally essential are academic standards that ensure an excellent education for all students at all levels. During this calendar year, we will work together as faculty and administrators to ensure that our graduate programs are of the highest caliber.

It is now time for us to come together as a community and welcome Mr. Petersen-Overton to Brooklyn College. We wish him and his students a productive, rewarding semester of graduate study.


Karen L. Gould

No comments: