A win for academic freedom

February 22, 2011

Sarita Flores reports on the fight that won back a lecturer’s job at Brooklyn College.

BROOKLYN COLLEGE students and faculty won an important victory for academic freedom when they forced the administration to rehire an adjunct lecturer who was unjustly fired after a student complained that his class syllabus contained writings about the Palestinian struggle, and then a state politician picked up the fight to get him fired.

Kristofer Petersen-Overton was scheduled to teach a graduate course called Middle Eastern Politics designed around "the idea of changing political identities in the Middle East." The syllabus he created has well over 50 referenced texts--some of which are based on a previous course he'd taken at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center--that go into a variety of issues, ranging from authoritarianism to ethnic identities to gender and sexuality.

Petersen-Overton explained that while he does devote quite some time to the area of his particular interest, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, his works of writing and curriculum should not be characterized as "pro-Palestinian so much as it should be recognized as pro-human rights."

Kristofer Petersen-Overton
Kristofer Petersen-Overton

"It's a pretty wide-sweeping course with the focus of identity throughout it," he said, "but there is always controversy when it comes to discussing anything over Israel and Palestine in this country."

Less than 48 hours after Petersen-Overton was hired, a well-known pro-Israel Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn, Dov Hikind, was "alerted by students into action." He issued a press release that claimed, without evidence, that Petersen-Overton was an "overt supporter of terrorism" because his syllabus included a number of readings that gave voice to the Palestinian plight.

Outrageously, Brooklyn College Provost William Tramontano caved in and fired Petersen-Overton--without so much as a phone call to allow him to defend himself from the ludicrous allegations.

Petersen-Overton added that there was another violation at play--infringement of departmental independence, since "the administration is not in a position to judge [my] credentials." Following the dismissal, Brooklyn College spokesperson Jeremy Thompson followed suit and defended Petersen-Overton's abrupt dismissal as a case of "insufficient qualifications"--since "he is very early on in his doctoral studies."

It is widely known even among students that pre-PhD adjunct lecturers are becoming the majority of instructors in CUNY's colleges. Petersen-Overton's firing is yet another example of the treacherous ground for adjunct professors in the CUNY system. Petersen-Overton explained:

As an adjunct lecturer, they have absolutely nothing at stake with me. As soon as the controversy arose, to squash it as fast as possible, they fired me. The certainly didn't want a repeat of what happened with Moustafa Bayoumi last semester, with the withdrawing of funding [from donors]. So with their efforts to bury this immediately, they had no idea this would turn into a hundred times bigger a controversy.

Moustafa Bayoumi is an award-winning writer and a full-time professor at Brooklyn College who last year became the target of a smear campaign launched by pro-Israeli critics after the college assigned his book How Does It Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, for incoming freshmen to read.

FORTUNATELY, THE story didn't end with Petersen-Overton becoming another victim of the growing Islamophobic campus witch-hunt. Upon the notification of his unjust firing, an array of forces from all over mobilized.

The American Association of University Professors wrote to the college's administration, and the Professional Staff Congress, CUNY Adjunct Project, CUNY Contingents Unite, Doctoral Students' Council, the Brooklyn College Student Union, Brooklyn College Palestine Club, and many other organizations and student clubs issued public statements condemning the firing.

International scholars e-mailed the president, and petitions were circulated nearly everywhere there was a listserve for education rights and activists. In less than 48 hours, 1,700 signatures were collected, and nearly 1,000 letters were received by the college's administration.

A rally was also widely publicized to be on campus soon after--the call was made for the defense of academic freedom with the demand that Petersen-Overton be immediately re-appointed to his teaching post .

To Petersen-Overton and everyone else's surprise, that was exactly what we got--he was rehired the day before the big rally. By unanimous vote, however, it was agreed that the rally should proceed--now as a victory and awareness rally instead.

On February 3, students and faculty gathered around the building where the president's office is located, Boylan Hall. Roughly 50 people gathered for the speak-out. There were signs reading "Victory for Academic Freedom" and chants like "Teaching, teaching Palestine at Brooklyn's not a crime!"

A handful of pro-Israel students turned out to disrupt the protest, with fliers alleging the course's unfairness, and they belligerently interrupted the speakers. They were still outnumbered five to one. Though the victory rally was temporarily reduced to an aggressive debate over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, several students and professors were able to successfully convey their message: professors need to be staunchly supported in conjunction with academic freedom.

Professors are supposed to play the invaluable role in fostering a free pursuit of inquiry within higher education, and yet they're subject to treats and repression when they teach unpopular perspectives. This is particularly true for adjunct professors who do not have any of the protections of tenure.

Also the same day as the rally, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould issued a crafty statement announcing Petersen-Overton's "victorious" reappointment:

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.

The statement continues on for another four paragraphs without so much as a hint of accountability or regret over what events occurred on her watch. Gould basically absolved herself of any responsibility for the incident since it was merely a "provostial decision."

Yet for the students, professors and scholars involved, this small but triumphant battle was a success in saving a career and exposing the not-so-uncommon practices of any given college's administration--where vulnerable adjuncts, privatization of school funding and political motivations dictate the future of our higher education institutions.

Though there is still a lot of mobilization to be done around these issues, at least Brooklyn College--and perhaps other CUNY administrations--felt a sliver of what political pressure feels like "from below."

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