From "Easily Distracted" Weblog
|December 19, 2002
In the meantime, some thoughts on a recent story about Brooklyn College's denial of
tenure to Robert D. Johnson.
Edwin Burrows, a senior historian at Brooklyn College, complains in December 18's New
York Times that it is “outrageous” that scholars from other institutions would complain
about the tenure case of Robert D. Johnson when they’ve only heard Johnson’s side of the
story—many of us from reading the History News Network.
Fair enough. The Times article actually lays out the case against Johnson more than any
of the materials that have appeared on HNN to date, more even than Burrows’ own letter,
signed by some of his senior colleagues.
Apparently no one at Brooklyn questions that Johnson’s scholarly achievements are
exemplary. No one questions that his teaching at Brooklyn and elsewhere was as good as
it ever gets, that Johnson inspires and connect with his students to a remarkable degree.
So what do they question? Does he shirk service to his institution? Not at all. Does he drop
his pants and moon the faculty senate? No. Is he drunk and disorderly in the classroom?
Nope. Does he froth at the mouth and adjust his crotch at the lectern? Doesn’t seem
that’s the case.
What is his offense against collegiality? Well, he strongly, perhaps even stridently,
disagreed with his colleagues during a search for a professor of European history. How
perfectly horrible. That never happens among tenured professors in perfectly proper
departments. He appears to have believed that he had more insight into the dossiers of
the candidates. That terrible fellow! Throw him out! What a bad colleague! He allowed
some students to take his classes without the proper prerequisites (something that many
of his colleagues at Brooklyn also do, and something that any intelligent teacher allows
from time to time, based on their individual assessment of a student’s capabilities). He
even worked with some graduate students who had been assigned to someone else. My
god, a proper lord knows better than to meddle with another man’s vassals. Feudalism
these days just isn’t what it used to be.
The Times reports that his colleagues began to suspect that he had “an independent,
contrary streak.” Screw his scholarship and his teaching and his intellect: he has an
independent, contrary streak.
Certainly that’s not what tenure was meant to protect. Certainly that’s an offense which
cancels out the value of teaching and scholarship to an academic institution. How could
Brooklyn College run if its professors exhibited a tendency to be independent and contrary?
The Times article doesn’t even raise another issue that the HNN coverage has dealt with,
namely, that Johnson made enemies when he pointed out that an event scheduled on
campus about the contemporary Middle East seemed woefully unbalanced—an act that
seems a service to his community. Some of my antiwar colleagues are quick to cite cases
where professors have been illegitimately punished or suffered for antiwar views--and
there are some--but are less quick to note that there have been some similar instances of
punitive action against academics who support the "war on terror" in whole or in part or
even those who are perceived as doing so.
Unless there’s a smoking gun that the Department of History at Brooklyn College has yet to
reveal or even hint at, the only real outrage in this case is the denial of tenure to Johnson.
The whole case is one more arrow in the quiver of academia’s critics, one more revelation
of the corruption of the profession as a whole, one more reason to question whether
tenure ever serves the purpose for which it is allegedly designed. No one who voted
against Johnson’s tenure ought to claim to be a progressive or leftist, certainly: the logic
of Johnson’s denial is the kind of logic that any grey-suited “organization man” would
cherish. It is the logic of the bureaucrat, of the worst and meanest impulses of
If the people who support Johnson’s denial of tenure have a smoking gun, they’d better
find a way to get it out into the public debate over this case, confidentiality be damned.
This isn’t just a case of individual injustice as it stands: it is another example of
academia’s seemingly boundless capacity for self-diminishment. At a historical juncture
where the wider American society is surely going to begin interrogating the value of higher
education in a steadily more pointed and assertive manner, cases where a professor is
thrown overboard despite exemplary scholarship and excellent teaching because he is
independent, contrary and maybe even occasionally non-cooperative in his dealings with
colleagues confirm all the worst stereotypes of academic life. It is hard to go forth into the
public sphere to defend the integrity and importance of a liberal arts education with those
kinds of stereotypes in circulation, and harder still when they appear to have some
considerable basis in reality.