‘Within 24 hours of the assemblyman’s phone call, I was fired’ –Brooklyn College adjunct professor

on 15 Comments

The controversy over the firing of a Brooklyn College adjunct professor allegedly for his solidarity with the Palestinian cause continues.  The college’s assertion that the teaching appointment of Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a doctoral student entering his fourth semester of studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, was canceled a week before classes start because of his “lack of qualifications” doesn’t add up.

The dispute over Petersen-Overton’s course began after the class syllabus was circulated to prospective students. On January 12, a student worried about Petersen-Overton’s political affiliations emailed the department with the accusation that Petersen-Overton is an “active partisan of Palestinians in Gaza.”  Bruce Kesler, a Brooklyn College alumnus who appears to have taken up the hobby of monitoring  College’s assigned reading material and now teaching appointments, was quick to follow with a blog post condemning the hiring.

When the department requested that complaints be deferred until after the class had started, and after students could point to actual evidence of Petersen-Overton’s supposed “bias,” the unidentified student—who was interviewed on WPIX New York with her face blurred—contacted Assemblyman Dov Hikind. Hikind is a supporter of illegal settlements in the West Bank and an advocate for the ethnic profiling of Arabs and Muslims.  Hikind also played an influential role in the smear campaign that led to the removal of Debbie Almontaser from her position as the founding principal of Khalil Gibran International Academy, New York City’s first Arab-English dual language school—a decision which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission later deemed unfair discrimination.

Hikind called CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, and wrote a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould in which he claims that Petersen-Overton’s “personal biases should not be allowed to pollute the academic realm,” citing a paper Petersen-Overton is in the process of completing, Inventing the Martyr: Martyrdom as a Palestinian National Signifier.  In his letter, Hikind takes quotes out of context to back up his assertion that the paper “endeavors to justify and condone Palestinian suicide bombings as means of ‘struggle’ and ‘sacrifice.’”  Hikind either deliberately misconstrues the essay, has not read it, or does not understand it. Like most academic essays, Petersen-Overton’s cites research, not personal opinion, and is about how Palestinian national identity manifests politically— clearly not a “romanticization” of suicide bombers.

In a phone interview, Petersen-Overton recounted that, “within 24 hours of Hikind’s statement, I was fired,” adding that Hisseine Faradj, an adjunct professor who taught the same course before, is also a doctoral student.

Hikind said in a phone interview that he is “thrilled” that Brooklyn College decided to cancel Petersen-Overton’s appointment.  “Matthew Goldstein said to me on Tuesday that he was calling a meeting and they were going to look at everything this guy has ever written,” the assemblyman said. “The reading material on the syllabus are written by Palestinian historians or Israeli revisionist historians, and basically blame Israel for everything.”

But according to Brooklyn College’s Media Relations Manager, Ernesto Mora, “Mr. Petersen-Overton was not fired because he had not been hired. This was an internal matter and the CUNY Chancellor had nothing to do with the provost’s decision, regardless of what Hikind’s releases argue.” However, Petersen-Overton says that he signed a contract with Brooklyn College on Monday. Mora also claims Hikind’s statements to the New York  Daily News contains factual errors, and that no meeting occurred between the Provost William A. Tra­mon­tano and the Chancellor, adding that Hikind announced the decision that Petersen-Overton’s appointment had been canceled before the college did.

The administration’s and Hikind’s narrative contradict both each other, Petersen-Overton’s own account, other faculty members, and that of Janet Elise Johnson, an Associate Professor in the Political Science department and a member of the Appointments Committee. Johnston says she was not present during the meetings on Petersen-Overton’s position, but claims that “the argument that it’s about qualifications doesn’t stand up to the evidence; we have other adjunct professors who teach for the Masters Program, but don’t have PhDs … he was not officially appointed by he had been asked to teach. He is qualified.” While Johnston cannot comment on the accusations that political motives propelled the decision to dismiss Petersen-Overton from his position, she maintains that “in reality CUNY and Brooklyn College are under funded, and under resourced, and have been so for decades,” which further explains the frequent appointments of doctoral students from CUNY programs.

Currently, opposition to Peterson-Overton’s politically motivated termination is mounting. The Political Science department released a statement denouncing the decision: “His decision [the Provost’s] to reject our appointment undermines academic freedom and departmental governance.”  The watchdog group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to the President Karen Gould calling for the reinstatement of Petersen-Overton as adjunct professor. “As you know, BC is a public institution and thus is both legally and morally bound by the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of expression and Academic freedom, ” the letter reads.

Dr. Barbara Bowen, President of the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY, a union representing CUNY faculty and profession staff, released a statement condemning the decision as a politically motivated violation of academic freedom.  And in an email circulated on a CUNY Hunter list serve, John Wallach, a Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and The CUNY Graduate Center, writes, “All of us who have taught him [Petersen-Overton] at the Graduate Center have written letters to the Provost, yesterday if not today, in addition to signing the petition. Uniformly, we find this action an abominable assault on academic freedom that must be reversed—immediately and without qualification.” The CUNY Graduate Center student newspaper, The Advocate, is also circulating a petition that has already received over 1,300 signatures, in addition to hosting a live blog which follows the case’s developments. Brooklyn College’s Political Science department will also be holding an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the current situation.

Despite the circumstances, Petersen-Overton remains surprisingly level. “To complain about Hikind and others is a waste of time. I am mainly concerned that the college administration caved so easily. I tried to amend my syllabus as recommended, but they never gave me the opportunity.”

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

15 Responses

  1. Colin Murray
    January 30, 2011, 10:16 am

    If any terms of Petersen-Overton’s contract were violated or any laws broken, then legal action must be taken.

  2. bijou
    January 30, 2011, 10:22 am

    Please tell him that if he can, he should get a lawyer and fight this. He has grounds and it’s outrageous.

    Thanks for the great report.

  3. pjdude
    January 30, 2011, 11:01 am

    what a surprise a pro palestinain gets fired because simply being pro palestinian is indicitive of bias while pro Israel proffs get to push Israel on students without any questioning of their objectivitly

  4. Citizen
    January 30, 2011, 12:03 pm

    Where’s the ACLU on this? The SPLC? The ADL?

  5. Les
    January 30, 2011, 12:33 pm

    CUNY supports free speech in Egypt, in Brooklyn the situation is, of course, different.

  6. traintosiberia
    January 30, 2011, 12:44 pm

    Sanchez from CNN
    Olivia Nasr from CNN
    Helen Thomas from
    Superindent from Khalail Gibran school in NY
    Michael Scheuer from Jamestown Foundation in 2009
    Joel Kovel from Bard College after 20 years of service
    Douglas Giles for allowing question on religion including on Judaism from Roosevelt University .Chicago.IL
    Finkelstein from De Paul ,Chicago.IL

    There are others including removal of muslim from Obama campaign and Arabs ( Christian) from Clinton administration.
    Then there is Gaffney spewing venom against muslim Republicans for joning the Republican apparatus.

    I am sure there are many more.

  7. DICKERSON3870
    January 30, 2011, 2:08 pm

    RE: “we find this action an abominable assault on academic freedom” – John Wallach, a Prof. of Pol. Science at Hunter College and The CUNY Grad. Center
    SEE: The Trial of Israel’s Campus Critics, by David Theo Goldberg and Saree Makdisi, Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2009

    (EXCERPT)…It is an extraordinary fact that no fewer than thirty-three distinct organizations – including AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish National Fund – are gathered together today as members or affiliates of the Israel on Campus Coalition. The coalition is an overwhelmingly powerful presence on American college campuses for which there is simply no equivalent on the Palestinian or Arab side. Its self-proclaimed mission is not merely to monitor our colleges and universities. That, after all, is the commitment of Campus Watch, which was started by pro-Israel activists in 2002. It is, rather (and in its own words), to generate “a pro-active, pro-Israel agenda on campus.” There is, accordingly, disproportionate and unbalanced intervention on campuses across the country by a coalition of well-funded organizations, who have no time for — and even less interest in — the niceties of intellectual exchange and academic process. Insinuation, accusation, and defamation have become the weapons of first resort to respond to argument and criticism directed at Israeli policies. As far as these outside pressure groups (and their campus representatives) are concerned, the intellectual and academic price that the scholarly community pays as a result of this kind of intervention amounts to little more than collateral damage…

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – link to tikkun.org

  8. hughsansom
    January 30, 2011, 3:06 pm

    Sounds to me like Kristofer Petersen-Overton has at least four individuals or organizations to name in his lawsuit —

    the anonymous coward who initially slandered Peterson-Overton on WPIX,
    WPIX itself,
    Dov Hikind, who has an enormous record of hate-speech,
    CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein,
    Brooklyn College President Karen Gould,
    Brooklyn College.

    The problem is that his academic career may be dead (not unlike that of Norman Finkelstein, though that was a far larger and graver case). The upside is that he should probably see 2 to 5 million out of the lawsuit.

    • hughsansom
      January 30, 2011, 3:11 pm

      Should add that Petersen-Overton has a copyright infringement case against those who cited his paper — without the permission he specifically requires on the first page — for purposes of defaming him.

  9. lobewyper
    January 30, 2011, 3:36 pm

    Let’s say this professor is openly pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas. Isn’t Dershowitz equally pro-Israel? Should he not also be dismissed? Isn’t the point of democracy–in part–to guarantee that divergent views may be safely aired in order to arrive at the best approximation of the truth? The more that Israel and its American lackeys try to suppress debate, the weaker they reveal their case to be, because they know it cannot withstand honest scrutiny.

  10. annie
    January 30, 2011, 5:57 pm

    how disgusting these groveling school administrators down on their knees afraid to withstand the zionist critics

    there will be a backlash if this keeps up, and it won’t be pretty.

  11. ahmed
    January 30, 2011, 7:21 pm

    It’s amazing how thin-skinned and closed-minded all these young students, supposed to be at college to expand their horizons are. Years ago at NYU, people on a journalism school listserv got mad because I posted the occasional article by Fisk and Chomsky. They said they felt intimidated!

  12. iamuglow
    January 31, 2011, 12:30 am

    The Channel 11 clip is edited in such a way that most people will probably think the professor is in Hamas. Its a total hatchet job.


    Besides that, why does the student who is accusing him to her to keep her anonymity? Shes not underage… shes not a victim of a crime who needs protection. Yet Channel 11 will run a clip of her accusing someone of something while bluring her face?
    Ugh. The whole thing is just shameful.

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