Decline of a BC professor


Managing Editor

A small battle was taken out on the pages of the New York Sun last week regarding the merit of Brooklyn College history Prof. KC Johnson, who was denied tenure this month.

"Prof. Johnson’s claim to be upholding merit at CUNY is disingenuous," wrote Renate Bridenthal, a retired BC history professor.

Bridenthal wrote in her letter to the editor Wednesday that she was in the history department when Johnson "systematically impugned the work of the most superior candidates in three different searches."

Johnson is on the department’s appointments committee, made up of five professors including the chairperson, a group that decides which professors are hired.

On Friday, the Sun ran a letter from another retired BC history professor, Leonard Gordon, who called Bridenthal’s letter a "hatchet job."

"I participated in the departmental hirings for all three [searches] and – in agreement with Prof. Johnson and the majority of the history department – thought that the best candidate was chosen in each search," wrote Gordon.

Bridenthal was not a member of the appointments committee and read none of their files, Johnson said. But at the time, between 2000 and 2001, she backed one candidate whose file she read, only because the candidate was her friend, said Johnson.

When asked to comment on this, Bridenthal refused.

Johnson’s ‘pot shots’

In October 2001, a teach-in was held at BC to discuss 9/11. Johnson spoke out against it, calling it one-sided, without supporters of U.S. or Israeli policy in the Middle East. This was part of Johnson’s uncollegiality charge that, he said, was part of the cause named for his tenure denial.

Psychology Prof. Nancy Romer, vice-chair of BC’s Professional Staff Congress chapter, (the union that represents faculty) said Johnson was taking "pot shots" when he protested the teach-in.

After hearing Johnson’s criticisms, Romer said she invited him to speak, so the other side would be represented and he said no.

"I don’t know exactly what his reasons were. He said it was too one-sided. I accepted his criticism," she said.

‘Putting file into context’

Johnson, 34, said his tenure and reappointment denial for fall 2003 came as a result of bias from history department chairman, Philip Gallagher. Johnson claims Gallagher was out to get him because of Johnson’s conservative politics and disagreement on a candidate to teach in the history department. This poison at the root spread, he said, to the promotion and tenure committee this year, causing it to give President Christoph Kimmich a bad review of Johnson.

The poison continued to flow, until Johnson got a note at his home from the administration, breaking the news.

The promotion and tenure committee is made up of every chairperson. They view the files of professors based on collegiality, scholarship and teaching evaluations then vote on the professor. Members, speaking on the general process and not Johnson’s particular case, said for the most part, a chairperson’s recommendation alone does not effect the committee’s vote.

"What the chair is doing is putting the file into context," said Glen Hass, chairman of the psychology department. "The chairs go to great lengths to present the view of the department."

Hass added that the process does not bend to the will of an "all powerful chair…The P&T takes this very seriously."

Charles Tobey, chairman of the physical education department, said a chairperson’s speech before the voting may sway the committee.

"I’ve seen it go both ways. It depends on what the chair says," he said, adding that if members of the committee have worked with the professor in question and had a different experience then the chairperson, this can effect the vote as well.

"There’s an open discussion and there’s room for argument and debate," he said. "The P&T is a body that makes objective decisions, not [based] on bias or prejudice. It’s not going to be persuaded by one person."

Student rally

Johnson’s students have banded together and will protest his dismissal in the Quad during club hours on Dec. 4. Sixteen students sent letters to Kimmich and City University of New York Chancellor Matthew Goldstein reading; "We came to Brooklyn College because it was called ‘the Harvard of the Poor.’ We think we deserve the best. Professor Johnson is an outstanding scholar and a remarkable teacher. He inspires his students and challenges them to do their best. Denying him tenure is an insult to academic standards."