Academic Freedom Under Fire at Brooklyn College

I had some misgivings about teaching at Brooklyn College. Having worked for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in the Gaza Strip, and having written works critical of modern Zionism in the past, I knew that some students might take issue with my political views. Anticipating this, I devoted one of the earliest meetings in my course to the place of objectivity and humanism in scholarship—issues we all must confront and which I hoped might instigate a serious classroom discussion. Indeed, I never imagined that my affiliation with a group that combined the words “Palestinian” and “human” in its title would become suspect. Nor did I imagine that an analysis of martyrdom and its place in Palestinian identity would be crudely associated with admiration for suicide bombers. But most of all I did not expect to be dismissed before having been given the opportunity to hold a single session of the course.

I am not overly concerned with the criticism of my detractors however; my scholarship speaks for itself. I am concerned that Brooklyn College decided to let me go so quickly without attempting to contact me during the decision-making process and that they predicated their decision on a feeble lie.

According to the New York Times, Brooklyn College spokesman Jeremy Thompson pointed to my lack of a Ph.D. as grounds for my dismissal. “The course is an advanced [master’s level] course and he is only three semesters into his doctoral studies.”

Mr. Thompson is absolutely correct. I do not have a Ph.D. and I had just completed my third semester at the time of my hiring. Like all doctoral students at CUNY who serve as adjunct professors, I am working towards earning my Ph.D. But unlike many student professors at CUNY, I earned a Masters degree before entering the program, have published in the field and possess firsthand experience in the empirical circumstances of the subject matter. Unfortunately, the Provost’s office did not contact me before rescinding the appointment. And waiting to see how my class was to be conducted (it would have started February 3), would have apparently been far too novel an idea.

I can only draw one conclusion from Brooklyn College’s decision: we should be expecting the imminent dismissal of every Brooklyn College adjunct professor lacking a Ph.D. I’m not sure how many there are, but if you find yourself among this group, be assured that your job is not secure. Keep your political opinions to yourself. Better yet, do not publish anything at all and hope for the best. It’s better to be on the safe side, right?

Joking aside, there are a number of issues at stake here that clearly resonate far beyond my own case and affect all student professors. An attack on academic freedom and departmental independence is troubling enough, especially considering the clumsy way I was denied due process by the administration in this instance. But the practical consequences of the College’s decision underscore the precarious position that adjuncts hold at CUNY. In the blink of an eye, I have been denied tuition remission, access to subsidized health care for my family and financial compensation for the spring semester in a time of serious economic uncertainty. If the College’s decision stands, it should send a chill throughout the entire adjunct community.

On a final note, I should mention that I applied to CUNY in part because I was familiar with the strong stance it has taken on issues of academic freedom in the past. I was also aware that CUNY offered graduate students the unique opportunity to gain teaching experience. Unfortunately, I have been denied both. The only good thing to come of this sordid episode has been the tremendously inspiring deluge of messages and telephone calls I have received from students and faculty from all around the world. It seems the suppression of academic freedom is not taken lightly and even if I am unsuccessful in this struggle, I take solace in that.

Kristofer Petersen-Overton
GC Advocate

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