Brooklyn College Revokes Instructor’s Appointment to Teach Mideast Politics

85C1383F-EE22-446C-B82F-73F6F145AC85.jpgLast fall, it was an assigned book that brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict home to Brooklyn College. A wealthy alumnus said he was cutting the college out of his will because all incoming freshmen had been asked to read “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America,” by Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor there.

This week, it was a course — a graduate seminar on Middle East politics scheduled for the spring semester. The focus of the dispute was the adjunct professor who had been appointed to teach it, a doctoral student whose writings raised hackles even before he set foot in the classroom.

On Thursday, the professor, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, said he had learned a day earlier that the college was rescinding his appointment, saying he lacked the academic qualifications to teach such a high-level course. But the timing of that decision has led Mr. Petersen-Overton and others to question whether the decisive factor might have been politics.

Earlier in the week, Dov Hikind, a Democratic state assemblyman from Brooklyn, wrote to the college president and to the chancellor of the City University of New York, which includes Brooklyn College, to express alarm about the “slanted nature” of the professor’s works.

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.

Critics seem to have zeroed in on one of Mr. Petersen-Overton’s unpublished papers about the idea of martyrdom in Palestinian society. “They claim I romanticize suicide bombing even though I deal very little with the issue in the paper,” he said. “I absolutely condemn it, of course. They’re clearly heinous acts.”

A spokesman for Brooklyn College, Jeremy Thompson, said the provost had revoked the appointment because of concerns that Mr. Petersen-Overton did not have the academic credentials to teach a graduate-level seminar. The course was for students pursuing a master’s degree, and Mr. Petersen-Overton currently has a master’s himself.

“He’s very early on in his doctoral studies,” Mr. Thompson said of the professor, who is working on his doctorate at the CUNY Graduate Center. “Had this been poli-sci 101, the provost certainly would have let that stand.”

But Mark Ungar, a political science professor, issued a statement signed by 10 professors in the department, saying the provost’s decision “undermines academic freedom and departmental governance.”

The controversy comes after tensions flared in November between a new pro-Palestinian group on campus and Jewish student organizations. One trigger was a mock Israeli checkpoint that members of the pro-Palestinian group staged on campus.

Still, Mr. Thompson said that discourse between the two groups had mostly been productive. “It’s a conversation that ebbs and flows on any campus that has this level of diversity,” he said.

Lisa Foderaro
New York Times

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