Appearance on Democracy Now!

On September 9, 2014, I appeared for a second time on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman to discuss the firing of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

KRISTOFER PETERSENOVERTON: Yeah, well, I mean, I think there are important points of contact between my experience at Brooklyn College and Professor Salaita’s case. I mean, I was hired back in 2011 as an adjunct lecturer, so that’s a significant difference. I’m not a tenured professor. I’m a doctoral student, actually, at the CUNY Graduate Center. But many of us also teach courses in order to support our education. So I was hired to teach a one-semester course on Middle East politics. But before I was able to actually arrive in the classroom, a student complained to the department that she had googled me online and found some of my views apparently she took issue with and complained that I would be slanted and unfair towards Israel. The department asked her to hold off, and she turned around instead and went to a New York state assemblyperson, who then issued a press release calling me a, quote, “overt supporter of terrorism.” And this turned into an enormous controversy, which I didn’t expect, not knowing the political culture of Brooklyn College, not knowing the politics and background of this issue there. And unfortunately, the political science department, while supporting me, was routed by the administration, who intervened and canceled my appointment. And were it not for a large mobilization of students, faculty, activists and all sorts of independent organizations around the country and world, I wouldn’t have gotten my job back five days later.

Liza Featherstone: Caught in the Web

While labor lags behind other social movements in Internet organizing, some inspiring models are emerging. At the beginning of the year, Kristofer Petersen-Overton—an adjunct—was fired from the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, just after a right-wing Zionist politician criticized his course on the Middle East for being too sympathetic to Palestinians. In an opinion piece for the CUNY Graduate Center’s newspaper, Petersen-Overton wrote:

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.

CUNY graduate students—led by political science Ph.D. candidate, Michael Busch—mobilized, using what they had: eloquence, access to other scholars, and Internet savvy. They started a blog on the issue and solicited letters from a wide swath of intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and Mahmood Mamdani. The administrators were bombarded with letters urging them to reconsider their decision, and there was some press about the matter. (Full disclosure: I also wrote a letter.) All the letters went up on the blog, which only inspired more people to write. After just a few days of this epistolary assault, Petersen-Overton was rehired.

* Excerpt from Liza Featherstone, “Caught in the Web: The Teacher Union Counterattack,” New Labor Forum 20, no. 2 (2011): 92-95.

Stephen Leberstein: Open Season on Academics

The year began with threats of violence against Frances Fox Piven, distinguished professor of sociology and political science at the Graduate Center, following Glenn Beck’s repeated denunciations of Piven on his Fox network show and the posting of her home address on his blog. At the same time, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a PhD student in political science hired to teach a course on Middle Eastern politics at Brooklyn College, was fired just days before his first class following a complaint to the Chancellor by Assemblymember Dov Hikind. Continue reading

Alan Levine: Jews Are Dishonored by a Blind Defense of Israel

Now that the City University of New York board of trustees has reversed course and approved an honorary degree for Tony Kushner, it is time for the Jewish establishment to reflect upon its failure to speak out. Jewish history tells us that silence is complicity. While individual Jews and progressive Jewish organizations, such as Jews Say No!, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Against Islamophobia, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Shalom Center, and J Street joined those protesting CUNY’s earlier decision to withdraw its initial offer of an honorary degree to Kushner, not one of the mainstream Jewish organizations seemed to think the trustees did anything wrong in punishing someone for his dissenting views on Israel. Neither the American Jewish Committee nor Congress, not the Anti-Defamation League, not the Jewish Community Relations Council, not Hillel. Continue reading

Tony Kushner and the Corporatisation of CUNY

The taboo surrounding critical discussion of Israel in the United States never ceases to amaze me. But when the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) recently decided not to grant an honorary degree to Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner because of his views on Israel, it felt personal.

Three months ago, I found myself at the center of a similar controversy over my appointment to teach a course in Middle East Politics at Brooklyn College, a CUNY school. Lacking any evidence to support the charge, a local politician described me as “pro-suicide bomber” and pressed for my dismissal. Within 48 hours and before I had held a single session of the course, the college administration intervened to cancel my appointment. My case set off a groundswell of support from academics and activists around the world and Brooklyn College eventually reinstated me just in time for classes to begin. Continue reading

New York College Racked Over ‘Pro-Palestinian’ Reading List

NEW YORK // The Palestinian-Israeli conflict inspires political activism on college campuses across the United States, but rarely has the issue so regularly affected academic life as at Brooklyn College, which has large numbers of Orthodox Jews and Arabs in its student body.

It has been less than a year since a book by a Brooklyn College professor, Moustafa Bayoumi, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, was made required reading for first-year undergraduates in the college’s writing programme. The decision sparked a national controversy after a conservative blogger, Bruce Kesler, a graduate of the college, labelled Mr Bayoumi a “radical pro-Palestinian” and the country’s conservative media seized on the issue as an example of political correctness allegedly run amok. Continue reading

Life After Re-Appointment: Adjunct Lecturer Petersen-Overton Back at Brooklyn College

The start of a new semester is frequently charged with excitement and a sense of fresh beginnings. But for Kristofer Petersen-Overton, an adjunct lecturer of political science at Brooklyn College, the beginning of this Spring semester brought the shock of discovering that he was unemployed. Making matters even more con­fusing, he was notified of his sudden termination less than two days after he had signed all of the paper work and formally accepted the college’s offer to teach a Master’s class at the college in Middle East politics.

When later pressed by the New York Times for an explanation of why Petersen-Overton had been fired, col­lege spokesman Jeremy Thompson pointed to Petersen-Overton’s qualifications — or lack thereof — to defend Brooklyn’s decision to let him go just days before the start of spring classes. “Mr. Petersen-Overton was not sufficiently credentialed to teach at this level,” Thompson noted. “The course is an advanced [master’s] course and he is only three semesters into his doctoral studies.” Continue reading

In Switch, Brooklyn College Will Hire Adjunct on Mideast

Brooklyn College on Monday reversed an earlier decision not to hire an adjunct professor to teach a seminar on Middle East politics, a decision that the professor and others called politically motivated.

In a statement issued Monday evening, Karen L. Gould, the college’s president, said she had endorsed a recommendation from the political science department that the adjunct, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, teach the class this spring.

On his Web site, Mr. Petersen-Overton, who is a student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, called the decision “a victory for academic freedom and an outcome I think we can all be proud of.” Continue reading

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. Continue reading