The start of a new semester is frequently charged with excitement and a sense of fresh beginnings. But for Kristofer Peterson-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 paperwork 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."
But it was clear from the jump that Petersen-Overton's bona fides were not at issue in the school's decision making. Hours before the school moved to dismiss Petersen-Overton, state assemblyman Dov Hikind reportedly contacted CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein to complain about what he claimed were Petersen-Overton's anti-Israeli sentiments, and to protest particularly what Hikind claims is the adjunct's sympathy for suicide bombers. Hikind had become aware of Peterson-Overton's scheduled Middle East Politics course from a student enrolled in the class who had complained to both the college and the assemblyman that Petersen-Overton's syllabus demonstrated a clear bias against Israel.
The response from Petersen-Overton's supporters was immediate and unambiguous. On the ground, key organizers led by political science associate professor Corey Robin literally worked around the clock to ensure that the department and prominent voices from around the country stood unified behind Petersen-Overton, while graduate students rallied across campuses to organize petition and letter writing campaigns and other protest actions. Letters of support (see pages 11 and 12 of this issue for representative examples) from within and outside the academy poured into the mailboxes of Brooklyn College President Karen lee Gould and Provost William Tramontano. Many of these letters were copied to the Advocate and published on the paper's Academic Freedom Blog, which provided hour by hour updates of the controversy.
The mobilization around the defense of academic freedom was decisively overwhelming. On January 31, the political science department called an emergency meeting and voted unanimously to recommend that Petersen-Overton be rehired. The department's unified front prompted the political science appointments committee to throw down the gauntlet by rehiring Peterson-Overton. Almost immediately, the department chair met with the college president and provost. A short time later, Petersen-Overton received word from the president herself that he had been reappointed to teach the course on Middle East politics immediately and unconditionally.
Brooklyn College released a statement that evening announcing the college's decision to unconditionally reverse its earlier decision by rehiring Petersen-Overton to the graduate class in Middle East Politics. In her written statement, President Gould defended her actions by throwing Provost Tarantomo under the bus and claiming a measure of solidarity with those protesting Petersen-Overton's initial firing:
"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…I stand united with you: We must never allow decisions about our students' education to be swayed by outside influence. In the matter at hand, this certainly has not been the case. On behalf of every member of this institution, I reaffirm our steadfast commitment to the principles of academic freedom, faculty governance, and standards of excellence. Today, the Department of Political Science and its appointments committee voted unanimously to recommend Kristofer Petersen-Overton to teach a graduate course on the Middle East. Based on information that has come to light, they are confident he has sufficient depth of knowledge and the intellectual capacity to successfully lead a graduate seminar. The provost now supports their recommendation, and I am in full agreement."
Hikind's reaction to the news was predictably sour. In a statement released a day after the college's reversal, Hikind argued that "in rehiring Mr. Petersen-Overton, Brooklyn College and CUNY have sent a message to suicide bombers and their supporters that a publicly funded institution of higher learning condones suicide bombing as an acceptable method of 'resistance.'" This, it bears mentioning, from a local politician who belonged to the Jewish Defense League (labeled a terrorist organization by the FBI), is a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane whose heinous Kach political party is banned in Israel, generally despises homosexuals, and is a prominent advocate of racial profiling.
Before the surprise reversal, CUNY adjuncts had organized what had been planned as a protest of Petersen-Overton's firing. News of the rehiring quickly transformed the demonstration from one expressing dissent into one of celebration. What took place, however, was less than inspiring.
On a positive note, Petersen-Overton told the Advocate that "I was happy with the number of people who turned up for the rally and I had some good discussions with concerned Jewish students. When they realized that I had been vilified by Dov Hikind, we had a good discussion. This was the best part of it for me."
But some local campus groups took the opportunity to hijack the event and turn it into something much different, launching "diatribes against Israel," says Petersen-Overton, "which wasn't really the point. I think some of my opponents just hardened their views against me because of that."
As for the class? "The student who ignited the controversy" not only remained in the course, but "continues to cause difficulty. She sent me a 20-plus page breakdown of my syllabus with around 200 footnote citations explaining that the authors I've assigned apparently believe Israel committed 'the worst crimes of the 20th century.' She clearly hasn't read the material, and I strongly suspect she had outside help from groups like CAMERA in compiling this indictment." Also, "On the first day of class, after introducing the syllabus, I handed out the AAUP's 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and discussed it with the class. She seemed irritated by this and expressed concerns that I was 'only interested in academic freedom for the faculty; but students also should have academic freedom.' So I explained that I was not here to censor anyone and that I would be happy to talk with her in my office hours if she feels I covered something insufficiently. Last Thursday, we attended the Egypt Arising talk at Columbia, so I didn't hold office hours. But I think she'll be waiting for me this week."
Despite these minor headaches and the bumpy beginning to a new semester, the experience seems to be a positive one for Petersen-Overton. "Teaching has been fine so far… several students have told me that they were happy the course wasn't cancelled and that I was reinstated. One student actually thanked me for teaching the class, which made me feel pretty good."
Still, unsettling reminders of the ugliness that came before remain. The controversy prompted Brooklyn College to beef up security around campus on nights when the class convenes. "I have two security guards who monitor the hallways outside my classroom, just to keep an eye out for people who don't belong there. I teach at night, when the Political Science office is closed, so I don't mind them being there at all, [even though] I really don't think anything will happen…"
"Also, on a somewhat related note, I received a letter in my department mailbox three days ago packed with anti-Semitic, racist, white supremacist literature. Perhaps these idiots thought I would be sympathetic to their views because of my politics regarding Israeli state policy. That was pretty disturbing. It's not every day that you get pamphlets in the mail with revolting titles like 'Genocide Through Race Mixing,' 'The Fate of Northernkind,' 'Who Really Runs America?' and 'The Jewish Media Mafia.'"
At the end of the day, however, Petersen-Overton will be happy when the dust finally settles, and he can get back to the business of teaching and learning. In the meantime says the newly re-minted adjunct, "All I can say is that I'm glad the story seems to have finally dropped out of the media."