College Historian in Collegiality Dispute
By SCOTT SMALLWOOD
When Robert David Johnson was denied promotion
fought back, threatening to sue and gaining support
from students, other scholars, and the news media.
night, the professor of
his battle when the trustees of the
The decision ends a dispute that began last spring,
application for promotion to full professor, despite
his considerable research success and stellar
teaching evaluations. He later appealed, but the
college's president, Christoph M. Kimmich, upheld
The professor continued to press his case, both
publicly and through his lawyer. After negotiations
with Mr. Johnson's lawyer in recent weeks,
Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the CUNY
system, established a special faculty committee,
comprised of three CUNY history professors from
Friday, they unanimously recommended that Mr.
Johnson be granted tenure. Mr. Goldstein, who has
sought to raise standards at CUNY, also
interviewed Mr. Johnson and read one of his books.
"Although collegiality is a factor that may be
considered in connection with promotion and tenure
decisions, I did not find compelling and objective
evidence of a major problem in that regard sufficient
to trump a truly outstanding record of scholarship,
teaching, and other aspects of service," the
chancellor told the trustees.
Mr. Goldstein said that the case did not set any new
precedent and that allowing a "select faculty
committee" to review the decision was not unusual
because that is one option allowed under the faculty
"I'm grateful to the chancellor," Mr. Johnson said in
an interview. "This case could have dragged out, but
he acted decisively to move the talks forward."
Mr. Johnson called his case a "textbook example" of
the problems that can develop when collegiality is
used to evaluate professors. "I hope this will be a
lesson to college administrators to respect academic
freedom and make tenure decisions based on
scholarship and teaching," he said.
The case earned national attention in the fall when
21 scholars of
letter in which they asked him to "reverse this
disastrous and unjust decision." Denying promotion
to Mr. Johnson, they said, reflected a "culture of
mediocrity" at CUNY.
Mr. Johnson, who has published two books with
University Press, came to
1999 after four years at
his students take multiple courses from him and give
him rave reviews. This fall, when the tenure dispute
became public, students held rallies, signed petitions,
and marched to the president's office.
history department's chairman, carried out a
"vendetta" against him because of their
disagreements during a search last year for a new
professor of European history. Mr. Johnson said
that some professors on the committee during the
disputed search were determined to hire a woman,
while he pushed for candidates with the best
Mr. Gallagher has declined to comment publicly
about the case, and a
spokeswoman has said that college officials cannot
discuss details about a personnel matter.