Academic Freedom Under Siege at Public University

Michelle Chen

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Last week, as waves of upheaval swept through the Arab world, a chill of geopolitical anxieties twinged through New York City’s public university system.

It wasn’t exactly Cairo’s Liberation Square, but freedom was also at issue in the halls of Brooklyn College — of the academic variety. Reports emerged that a young graduate student had been yanked from his teaching appointment for taking the wrong stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to one city official who found Kristofer Petersen-Overton’s views too radical to be taught.

Immediately, activists and union members at the City University of New York (where the author is a matriculating doctoral student and thus represented by the Professional Staff Congress union) rallied to Petersen-Overton’s defense. Within a few days, the young scholar’s position was quietly restored, with nary a word about the political underpinnings of the hubbub.

The controversy began, the New York Times reported, when various critics, including Democratic State Assembly member Dov Hikind, complained about Peterson-Overton’s one-sidedness” on Palestine.

In an interview, Mr. Hikind, who himself has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political science from Brooklyn College, said he had spent 20 hours reading Mr. Petersen-Overton’s work and studying his Web site and syllabus. Everything I read was incredibly one-sided,” Mr. Hikind said. It was all about Israel being the bad guys in every way. He’s entitled to anything he wants to say, but if he’s going to go into a graduate course in my neighborhood, I just want a guy who’s going to be fair.”

The cancellation of the professor’s appointment was reported Thursday in The New York Post.

Mr. Petersen-Overton said that even before Mr. Hikind raised his objections, a student who had signed up for the course had complained to a political science professor about the syllabus, then posted her misgivings on a blog.

So with the help of a disgruntled blogger, a politically powerful alumnus, and the city’s notorious right-wing daily, a scholarly forum became a political battleground.

The Professional Staff Congress issued a statement blasting the administration for caving to ideological pressure:

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.

The incident might have passed with little scrutiny if it didn’t fit into a disturbing pattern of academics being demonized and alienated for airing political views deemed too pro-Palestinian/Muslim/Arab or, alternately, too anti-Israel/Semitic/American.

But beyond the fraught subject matter, the tussle pointed to broader dilemmas concerning academic freedom and job security on university campuses. Back in 2007, the tenure bid of Nadia Abu El-Haj, a Palestinian-American Barnard professor, was nearly thwarted by an extensive campaign to denounce her pointed analysis of Israeli politics. Before that, the Jewish-American academic Norman Finkelstein, a prominent critic of Israel and Zionism, became the target of virulent criticism and was ultimately blocked from tenure at DePaul University.

And just last year, a major donor to Hunter College cut off funding to express opposition to a book by professor Moustafa Bayoumi, titled How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America,” which had been placed on the reading list for incoming freshmen.

On the progressive Jewish community radio show Beyond the Pale, hosts Esther Kaplan and Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark and Barbara Bowen, head of the Professional Staff Congress, explained the broader implications of the Peterson-Overton brouhaha.

The discussion noted that the post‑9/​11 era is not the first time free thought has been under siege at the university: over the years, the university’s leadership established core principles of academic freedom in order to prevent ideological crackdowns such as the anti-Communist backlash that pervaded in the 1940s.

Embedded in these protections for academic freedom is the idea of tenure, which in reality refers to due process (not just about protecting bad teachers’ jobs at any cost — which is the impression given by the anti-tenure union-bashing rhetoric of some education reform hardliners). According to the statement, there is a direct link between economic security” and intellectual independence, the freedom to engage in scholarly explorations without fear of retaliation against one’s beliefs:

Tenure is a means to certain ends, specifically: 1) Freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and 2) a sufficient degree of economic security, hence tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.

CUNY is no stranger to controversial viewpoints. The institution’s evolution over the years has intersected with many of the country’s major radical and leftist movements. So it’s all the more troubling that in this bastion of critical thinking, such reactionary forces would hold such sway.

Even in the often insular world of academia, labor struggles loom large – not just about the usual bread and butter issues, but about society’s capacity to nourish the mind.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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