Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Kristofer Petersen-Overton Revisited

Sharad Karkhanis's Patriot Returns,  which goes to 13,000 CUNY faculty and staff, published a recast version of my piece on the Kristofer Peterson-Overton matter that was covered in  The New York Post, New York Daily News, New York Times, and Inside Higher Education.  Brooklyn College's president, Karen Gould, decided to hire Petersen-Overton after the administration initially rescinded his contract.

Several of Karkhanis's associates and I made a few changes to my original piece to address President Gould's decision, which was of course politically important to her. My piece appears here.


   Vol. 54, No.1                                                          February 02, 2011

Freedom and Standards at CUNY: The Case of Kristofer Petersen-Overton
Mitchell Langbert, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, School of Business, Brooklyn College.

The Professional Staff Congress's (PSC's) president, Barbara Bowen, aimed to use the rescission of Kristofer Petersen-Overton's contract to bait Brooklyn College's and CUNY's administration and for partisan jockeying. Based on the Monday evening announcement from Brooklyn president Karen Gould, the Brooklyn College administration displayed astounding weakness in the face of faculty bullying.  Now, people of academic goodwill should press to uncover facts that would contribute to understanding the events that preceded the original appointment to improve hiring and personnel practices at Brooklyn College and at CUNY.

The New York Times, Inside Higher Education, and The New York Post  covered the Petersen-Overton case. There are two sides, but the facts are scrimpy. The administration stated that before hearing Petersen-Overton's political views they had determined that he was not yet qualified to teach--only to reverse their position, for reasons unknown, a few days later. Mr. Petersen-Overton and his supporters stated that the contract rescission reflected an incursion on his academic freedom. Rejecting the possibility of any alternative to the second explanation, President Bowen condemned Petersen-Overton's short-lived firing as "meddling in academic decisions" and, gasconaded that "the union will defend the rights of our members if their rights have been violated."

Bowen's claim is not fact. In the case of Professor Robert Johnson several years ago, Professor Johnson had uttered pro-Israel statements (in contrast to Mr. Petersen-Overton's anti-Israel position) and found his promotion bid denied. Rather than defend Dr. Johnson, as it is the union's fiduciary duty to do, Bowen and other union officials, such as then-UFS chair and New Caucus executive committee member Susan O'Malley, publicly attacked him. In that case Bowen failed to live up to a minimal legal duty, the avoidance of partisanship in defending faculty rights, and Dr. Johnson was forced to hire an attorney to successfully defend himself.

Now, defending Mr. Petersen-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 and to squelch those who are not.

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 aim for careers in diplomacy or government. Does Mr. Petersen-Overton supply such experience? Or is he a shill for ideologically committed advisors 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?

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.
Sharad Karkhanis, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus


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