After 14 months of grueling memo-writing and grievance-filing, History
Professor KC Johnson won the battle against Brooklyn College for his
reappointment as a full professor with tenure.
The decision, announced by CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein at a board
meeting last Monday, was reached after a special advisory committee
consisting of three faculty members appointed by the chancellor reviewed
Johnson’s record and recommended he be granted full tenure in spite of
allegations from the BC history department that Johnson lacked
The committee members, History Professor Pamela Sheingorn of Baruch
College, English Professor David Reynolds of Baruch College, and History
Professor Louis Masur of City College, worked independently of the
chancellor and reached a decision that was “entirely their own,”
according to CUNY Vice Chancellor Frederick Schaffer.
While it is uncommon for such an issue to reach the highest ranks of
CUNY, it is well within the chancellor’s power to oversee such processes
and not act as a “rubber stamp” of any deciding committee or college,
After considering the committee’s decision in light of an interview with
Johnson and a review of his professional record, Goldstein said he did
not find “compelling and objective evidence” of a major problem with
Johnson’s collegiality, or lack of, that was sufficient to “trump” his
“truly outstanding record of scholarship and teaching.”
Indeed, Johnson’s record of scholarship and teaching is one that he said
both BC students and scholars across the nation consider outstanding.
He received the support of 24 of the “most prominent national
historians” and from such organizations as the American Association of
University Professors (AUP), the American Historical Association (AHA),
and SHAFR, the national association of diplomatic historians.
A specialist in U.S. political history, foreign relations, and the CIA,
Johnson has taught 22 courses, published three books and 12 articles,
and is currently working on two books.
That is why he considers his case an “unusual” one.
“The college [BC] itself said that my scholarship and teaching is
extraordinary in writing,” said Johnson, referring to a memo written by
history chairman Philip Gallagher in which he praised Johnson’s teaching
and “success” in attracting a great number of students to his class.
“So it was very odd that you would have a criteria [collegiality] trump
what are supposed to be the two primary ones [scholarship and
Dissatisfied with the history department’s decision to deny him tenure
based on what he considered an incorrect interpretation of collegiality,
Johnson took the issue a step further. On Oct. 16 2002, he submitted a
200-page legal memo to President Cristoph Kimmich, who did not show
interest to speak with him even after he sent Kimmich an e-mail
expressing his desire to discuss the matter. He also forwarded a copy
of the memo to the chancellor and vice chancellor.
Much to Johnson’s luck, the chancellor’s inability to find “objective
evidence” of a problem with his collegiality resulted in the override of
BC’s Kimmich-supported decision to deny him tenure. Kimmich, who
attended the board meeting on Monday with the chancellor and the board
of trustees, did not comment on the decision and could not be reached
for later comment.
“I’m really happy!” said Johnson with a burst of excitement. “The
chancellor acted decisively in this case. I think everyone recognized
that as soon as this file got to an unbiased panel, they would judge in
Johnson said he feels that Goldstein’s decision also boosted the
credibility of his claim that the history department was not only
evaluating collegiality incorrectly, but was abusing it. He explained
that certain members of the history department, namely Professor Stuart
Schaar, considered his criticism of the college’s sponsoring of last
year’s Sept. 11 teach-in to be an “uncollegial act.”
But Johnson considers it a difference of opinion.
“I do not consider this to be a radical position that I took,” he added,
expressing that he did not find it “uncolllegial,” as Schaar, who said
he believes Johnson used the teach-in a “political football” to rally
the political right to his side.
Johnson criticized the Sept. 11 teach-in for being biased and
unbalanced. The teach-in, which was a panel discussion organized by
Provost Roberta Matthews and the Professional Staff Congress (the
faculty union), was aimed at discussing appropriate U.S. foreign policy
in the Middle East. The panel consisted of about seven speakers,
including Schaar, English Professor Mustafa Bayoumi, and Juan Gonzalez,
a reporter for the Daily News, none of whom held pro-American or Israeli
views, according to Johnson.
After Johnson raised the point, Schaar and other panelists asked him to
speak on behalf of U.S. and Israeli policy, but he refused, claiming
that the panel was “created by a committee that had a point of view” and
that regardless of whether he spoke, “the teach-in was going to have the
same point of view.”
Johnson recalled another instance when he said colleagues mistook his
difference of opinion for a lack of collegiality. When the history
department was searching for a new professor last fall, Johnson said
that hiring should be done on the basis of merit, not gender.
“There were members of the department, or at least Gallagher said there
were… who had decided that regardless they wanted to hire a woman,” said
Johnson. “So there was this issue of affirmative action.”
But affirmative action was not the case, according to Johnson, who said
that the Jennifer Rubain, BC’s affirmative action compliance officer,
informed him that it was illegal to hire professors on the basis of
gender in such departments as the social sciences where women are not an
Johnson’s refusal to hire a professor on the basis of gender and his
subsequent refusal to endorse a candidate that Schaar chose to be a
Latin American history teacher earned him the reputation of an
This is when Johnson started to question the way his colleagues were
“This is a position [I took],” he said, referring to his refusal to
support potential candidates for the history professorship. “You can’t
be uncollegial for position you take. I was uncollegial because he
[Schaar] didn’t like my opinions. That’s academic freedom.”
Feeling that his case exposed the dangers of collegiality, Johnson said
he does not think it should be a factor in determining the status of a
“This [collegiality] is a standard that’s so ripe for abuse that for
every ten times collegiality is used, one time it is probably used to
get rid of someone who’s just a real jerk,” he said, explaining that the
other nine times collegiality would be used to purge someone whose
opinions and views were not favored. “For me, I would much rather have
one jerk around than to fire nine people who are otherwise qualified and
just spoke their minds on issues the senior college didn’t like.”
To celebrate his victory in the battle with collegiality, some of
Johnson’s closest students had a party for him in his office on Tuesday,
the day he learned of Goldstein’s decision to reappoint him as a full
professor with tenure.
For these students, some of whom spent over 100 hours campaigning for
Johnson’s tenure, writing letters and coordinating rallies, it was a
personal battle as well.
Dan Weininger, a history major who has taken nine classes with Johnson,
chaired the committee for students against academic terrorism and
organized a student rally and a petition campaign with other members of
the committee, collecting 500 signatures of students who supported
Johnson in two days.
“I was basically trying to provide support in any facet I could to
ensure that Professor Johnson was not taken away from us,” said
Weininger. “When you have a campaign that indulges in personal
attacks,… that is intent on taking away a star scholar and teacher from
students that rightfully deserve to partake in the knowledge-gathering
process from him, it’s sad.”
Weininger, along with Christine Sciascia, a history major who has taken
five classes with Johnson, said he believes that parts of the battle
were much more personal than they should have been. Involving what
Sciascia described as “personal attacks,” Weininger said the history
department’s accusations of Johnson’s “uncollegiallity” showed a “lack
of clarity of thought.”
Weininger said he considers the history department’s inability to
produce concrete evidence of uncollegiallity and other general matters
despicable. He cited Schaar’s presumption that a new McCarthyism was
taking the form of students reporting on teachers who had “different
opinions” as an example.
“To me it really displays that maybe those faculty members are getting
older,” he said. “To claim that there is a new McCarthyism around that
tries to shun the voices of progressive professors, I find interesting
that those are the same professors who are using the tactics of Joseph
“What happened here over the past 14 months, this astonishes me,” said
Johnson. “They tried to fire me because I expressed my opinions.
That’s what McCarthyism is.”
But with everything over, it is uncertain how much of a role
collegiality will play in future appointment decisions. While Johnson,
among others in the history department, said he does not think that
collegiality should be used to determine whether a professor gets
tenured, others do not agree.
“I hope collegiality will not be thrown out,” said Schaar, expressing
his hope of working together with Johnson. “I have no problem with
differences and debates. If there’s no deceit and lies, I’m willing to
Asked of his prospects for the future, Johnson said that one of the
reasons he fought so hard was because he does not want to see another
junior faculty member at BC go through what he went through to get a
“We are all entitled to a fair process, and that’s in everyone’s
interest,” said Johnson. “I hope that the college really looks at the
system and comes up with ways to make sure that it stays fair.”