Brooklyn College reinstates teacher fired for scholarship on Palestine

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Brooklyn College’s decision today to reinstate Kristofer Petersen-Overton’s teaching position is being hailed as a victory for academic freedom. Petersen-Overton, a PhD student at CUNY’s Graduate Center, was let go just 24-hours after state assemblyman Dov Hikind allegedly contacted CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein to complain of Petersen-Overton’s supposed sympathy for suicide bombers. Hikind, a former Brooklyn College alumnus, previously made his mark in the smear campaign that led to the removal of educator Debbie Almontaser.

The Brooklyn College Political Science Department called an emergency meeting today during which faculty voted unanimously to recommend that Petersen-Overton be hired to teach a course titled “Politics of the Middle East.” This was followed with a unanimous vote by the Political Science Appointments Committee to officially hire him. A meeting between the Chair of the Political Science Department, Provost William Tramontano, President Karen Gould and others then ensued.

An official statement released by President Gould reads:

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. This debate has been fueled at times by inflammatory rhetoric and mischaracterization of the facts. It is unfortunate that matters of utmost importance to our college community can be so rapidly co-opted by those with a political agenda and distorted by the media.

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.

Provost Tramontano refused to comment on the allegations of political motivation behind his original decision to deny Petersen-Overton’s appointment, but Political Science Chair Sally Bermanzohn said, “I’m very happy. This is a young scholar who has very interesting scholarship and has something to teach students.”

While this battle has been won, many have not. The fact that this is the second time in 6 months that academic freedom has come under attack at Brooklyn College only further emphasizes the opposition faced by those who dedicate their studies to deconstructing the complex, and controversial, politics of the Middle East.

Zoe Zenowich is a Senior in the Scholars Program at Brooklyn College, where she is the managing editor of the Excelsior, a student newspaper.

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