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We’re Just Firing You — The Course is Safe!


This attack on academic freedom — an adjunct hired to teach a course was fired by Brooklyn College administration after a state assemblyman sent a letter arguing that the syllabus and instructor were too critical of Israel — is depressing. First of all, there’s assemblyman Hikind:

Hikind, who said he earned his master’s degree in political science from Brooklyn College, told Inside Higher Ed that he reached these conclusions after spending “countless hours” reading the newly hired adjunct’s work. This included, chiefly, his unpublished paper, “Inventing the Martyr: Struggle, Sacrifice and the Signification of Palestinian National Identity,” in which he examines martyrdom as it “embodies ideals of struggle and sacrifice” in the context of national identity. Hikind said such works reflect an effort to “understand” suicide bombers. “There’s nothing to understand about someone who murders women and children,” he said. “You condemn.”

Great — BC is outsourcing its hiring decisions to someone who thinks there shouldn’t be any difference between academic work and Weekly Standard editorials.  (Wait until he finds out about the criminology department!) But there’s only so much I can blame Hikind; he didn’t, after all, make the final call. So how does the administration justify this? Well, it argued that Petersen-Overton was “unqualified,” but (as the fact that he was hired by the people best situated to evaluate his credentials reflects) the “requirement” that more than an MA and doctoral work at the grad center is required to teach at CUNY is entirely fictitious. Perhaps sensing that this won’t fly, the College offered another non-explanation that’s comic in its disingenuousness:

“There’s a lot of factors at play that seem to be connected, but aren’t,” he said. The issue isn’t one of academic freedom; in fact, Thompson said, the course will continue under a different faculty member.

Right — it’s not a violation of academic freedom to fire someone for political reasons, because…the college will still offer the same course, taught by a different instructor with a different syllabus (that will presumably be constructed with the knowledge that there will be a political veto over its content.) I guess is that what we’ll all have to look forward to in the post-tenure utopia…

…UPDATE.  Petersen-Overton with his own response:

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.

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  • John

    It does seem a bit odd to have a second year PhD student teaching a graduate level course, but I don’t really know how CUNY does it. The whole thing certainly stinks.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Well, if it’s at BC it would be a course for a terminal MA, not part of the PhD program (which would be at the grad center.) Somebody who’s completed an MA and is doing a PhD should be able to teach a class in a terminal MA program.

      • John

        The sitution does seem to be that PhD students at CUNY Graduate Center do teach MA courses at the other CUNY schools, so the school’s excuse does seem pretty bogus.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Right. Whether or not this is a sensible policy, there certainly isn’t a de jure rule preventing CUNY grad students from teaching MA courses and there doesn’t appear to be a de facto one either — which is presumably why the chair thought he was qualified.

    • There are fields in which a terminal MA (usually with substantial field experience) is considered an adequate credential for graduate instruction. I didn’t think PoliSci was one, but it does explain the lack of formal restrictions on the selection.

      That said, removing the instructor after getting a dumb-ass letter from a state legislator is prima facie evidence that the firing is censorship, political and reflexive power-stroking.

  • justin

    Kristofer Peterson-Overton’s opinion piece in the CUNY graduate student newspaper is here.

  • IM

    So that is meant by “moving the Overton window”!

    • c u n d gulag

      I was about to say that, but I decided to get long-winded in my comment instead.

  • c u n d gulag

    Obviously, this story sucks.
    I’ve been an Adjunct – for acting and Theatre related subjects, without even a Masters. I got it because of my experience, and was a graduate of that college.
    About 15 years ago, the college where I was teaching offered to put me through my Masters and PhD, not in Theatre, but in Russian. The Professor there was going to retire soon, and since I spoke the language fluently, and he knew me, and knew I was a good teacher, he wanted to leave the program to me.
    I thought long and hard about it, but declined. I had worked in the corporate world, and now in a college, and the corporate world was less cut-throat.
    I saw deserving and popular Professors get denied tenure, not because they weren’t published, but because they weren’t published in the ‘right’ journals – the ‘right’ ones were, of course, determined by the heads of departments. And the ‘right’ places to publish changed, depending on how compliant you had been, and how good you were, not at teaching, but at sucking-up to the powers that be.

    Adjuncts are already underpaid, and in tenuous positions.
    Who’s going to want to Adjunct if some idiot of a state legislator doesn’t like your particular view of history or politics? Or that you weren’t revential enough to Israel. Or that you reference Krugman too often when you’re teaching economics.
    And what happens in the future if you’re a political or economics adjunct and they don’t like that you’re not teaching Republican Rovian statistics, or by then, Ryanian budget math?

    The conservatives control the MSM. They control a lot of the (mis)information the public gets. The last bastion of facts and knowledge are colleges and the internet. And that is why they’ve been attacking colleges more and more over the past decade, and fighting against Net Neutrality.

    Facts and knowledge have a well known Liberal bias. That is why so many in academia are Liberal (The Donalde, or as I call him, AmericaneoCLOWN, excepted). Therefore, facts and knowledge must be spun through a conservative filter, or shut down completely.

    Every Full Professor in this country needs to stand behind Adjuncts, and make sure that tenure is based not on politics, but on teaching ability and knowledge. (I put knowledge second, because I knew a lot of very knowledgable Professors who couldn’t teach worth a damn).

    I hope that there’s a big battle to reinstate him.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    A petition in support of Petersen-Overton’s academic freedom can be found here.

    • DrDick


  • The PSC (faculty and professional staff union) is working to undo this decision, and to make the college administration answer publicly for it.

    The college’s explanation is simply untrue. There are a number of programs at BC were doctoral students are teaching graduate courses, including my own in sociology. In fact, the college sometimes hires Lecturers, with a minimum qualification of a BA, and there are no rules preventing Lecturers from teaching in graduate programs.

    Some of my colleagues have decided to ask the college president for a list of all Brooklyn politicians who have veto power over our course content so that we can obtain clearance for our courses in advance.

  • efgoldman

    The more publicity the better.

  • “Some of my colleagues have decided to ask the college president for a list of all Brooklyn politicians who have veto power over our course content so that we can obtain clearance for our courses in advance.”

    That’s witty but be careful — a lot of politicians would take it seriously and propose all course syllabi be posted on the web for community review. After all, who can be against community participation?

    • c u n d gulag

      Yup, that’s a HUGE can of worms.

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  • Kadin

    “There’s nothing to understand about someone who murders women and children,” he said. “You condemn.”

    To be fair to the assemblyman, “don’t understand, condemn” is pretty much how it works in politics.

    • Slocum

      What does the assemblyman have against the IDF?

  • Christopher

    “There’s nothing to understand about someone who murders women and children,” he said. “You condemn.”

    I’m glad the assemblyman is willing to condemn our Federal Government, Military, all state governments that have a hand in the death penalty, and basically all foreign governments, including that of Israel.

    All of these organizations have killed innocent women and children for extremely dubious reasons, and like the assemblyman, I am pretty irked about it.

    I’m not quite sure how well our resistance to the man will go, given the assemblyman’s avowed disinterest in understanding the processes of his own government, but still, it’s a brave stand for somebody in his position to take.

  • Dave

    This is certainly outrageous, but it points up and recapitulates the way higher ed. administrations and faculty have sold out their institutions over and over again for decades. When higher ed finally gurgles to the bottom of the drain, leaving no one but adjuncts and well-paid presidents, it will be because of decisions like this being greeted with complacency by tenured faculty.

  • Xenocrates

    Ah, Dov Hikind, another politician who has much more interest in serving the interests of the Likud than of his constituents. We salute you, you bigoted, miserable useless POS. Thanks again, Brooklyn, we just got rid of Lieberman.

  • CoinOperatedBoy

    Hikind also supports firing all the analysts at the National Counterterrorism Center. After all, trying to understand suicide bombers is wrong.

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