Brooklyn College had an unusually busy and politically charged beginning to their spring semester as a dispute over an adjunct professor's dismissal swept through the campus and into the public eye.
On Jan. 26, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, doctoral student at CUNY Graduate Center and to-be professor of a seminar on the Middle East, learned that he was being dismissed for lack of academic qualifications, according to the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, William A. Tramontano. But on Monday Jan. 31, the school reversed its decision and rehired Petersen-Overton to teach the course as originally agreed.
Petersen-Overton and his supporters across CUNY believed that the decision to let him go was politically motivated. The Brooklyn College Chapter of the CUNY Professional Staff Congress released a statement claiming that the provost's reasoning and his failure to reach out to the professor prior to dismissal were unfair.
"Mr. Petersen-Overton had been recommended for the position by a member of the Political Science faculty at the Graduate Center, was interviewed by the Political Science graduate deputy, and was subsequently offered the class," read the statement. "At no time did the administration contact Mr. Petersen-Overton to discuss his qualifications or the contents of the course."
"I don't think [the administration] were concerned about my qualifications. I think they were concerned about losing donors from the local Jewish community," Petersen-Overton stated calmly. After a short pause, he continued, "You know, they are in a difficult position."
The reason why so many believe that the decision was politically motivated is because a student who was registered for the seminar complained to the department and Dov Hikind, a Democratic state assemblyman from Brooklyn, about the syllabus.
Hikind told The Ticker that he had looked at the syllabus, and "not one of the [readings] were centered to the right where as Israel is concerned" and that he was concerned about the fact that while Petersen-Overton does not condone suicidal bombers, he had said he "understands" them. "At the time when terrorism is such an issue, to use that word [understand] is beyond pale," said Hikind.
Hikind had written a letter regarding his concerns to President Karen L. Gould and had Cc'd the CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein on Monday, Jan. 24. The next day he spoke to the chancellor, who was by then already aware of his concerns, and on the following day Petersen-Overton was dismissed from his position. Hikind said he was surprised at how quickly they reacted and that their immediate decision was that the professor would "not be teaching the course."
Jeremy Thompson, a spokesman for Brooklyn College, could not be reached for comment by The Ticker. However, Thompson went on the record with The New York Times after the college had decided to allow Petersen Overton to teach, stating, "There was no political motivation behind this at all; it was always a question of credentials and process."
"It's pathetic," Hikind said of the Brooklyn College Administration's way of handling the situation and quick reversal of their decision. "One day they are dismissing the guy, the next day he is very qualified."
Hikind, who is not familiar with what the process of verifying someone's qualifications is at CUNY colleges, claims that he "never said to fire the guy. I just raised concerns about his views." Hikind dismissed the college's statement that the reason Petersen-Overton was re-hired was because further recommendations were submitted on his behalf as "pure b------t and nonsense."
According to Petersen-Overton, professors who knew him personally, such as Rosalind Petchesky of Hunter College, and Marshall Berman and Susan Buck-Morss of the Graduate Center, approached the school on his behalf. Mark Ungar, a political science professor, and 10 other professors submitted a statement disagreeing with the provost's decision.
During the four days that Petersen-Overton was terminated from his post, members of the CUNY community campaigned to get the dismissal overturned. The Graduate Center's newspaper, The Advocate, started a petition on his behalf, and the CUNY Professional Staff Congress President Barbara Bowen released a statement saying that the Union will "defend academic freedom" of all its members and "use every tool at our disposal to defend the rights of our members if their rights have been violated."