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

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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.

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