Academic Terrorists At Brooklyn College

By Herbert London
President, Hudson Institute
John M. Olin Professor of Humanities, NYU.
Author of the recently published book
Decade of Denial, Lexington Books

In a recent letter to the chancellor of CUNY, Matthew Goldstein, twenty of the nation’s leading historians expressed “shock and dismay” at Brooklyn College’s denial of tenure to “one of the most accomplished young historians in the country.”  The scholar in question is Robert David Johnson who has been denied tenure and a denial of reappointment is currently in process.

Tenure denial is certainly not unique to Professor Johnson and unfair decisions on such matters are not unique in the Academy.  The question is why would an exemplary teacher and scholar be denied tenure when he consistently received high marks for teaching and scholarship from his faculty peers.

It appears that the decision was politically motivated.  Several professors in his department demanded his dismissal after he opposed hiring someone he regarded as academically unqualified.  But this wasn’t his only transgression.

Professor Johnson had the temerity to object to the college’s sponsorship of a one-sided panel examining international affairs in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.  The panel included no one who supported either U.S. or Israeli policies.  Department colleagues contended Johnson was an “unsatisfactory” faculty member on the grounds of “uncollegiality,” a criterion that doesn’t exist in CUNY faculty guidelines.

Akira Iriye, former president of the American Historical Association and chairman of the Harvard University History Department said, “The charge of uncollegiality strikes me as a mask for punishing his superior scholarship.”  Others noted that “imposing a litmus – test of collegiality rewards young professors who ‘go along to get along’ rather than expressing independent scholarly judgment.  It poses a grave threat to academic freedom.”

Alas, that is precisely what this decision suggests.  What has emerged in academic life over the last three decades is an orthodoxy of decidedly left wing opinion that intolerantly rejects any other point of view.  Those scholars who challenge it face the chastening effect of opprobrium and rejection.  Tenure is merely one manifestation of this ostracization.

Moreover, it is ironic that tenure conceived as a way to insure independent thought free from censure is now employed to force conformity.  What else can the “lack of collegiality” possibly mean?

In fact, there is evidence that the chairman of the history department at Brooklyn College, Philip Gallagher, conducted a campaign to turn students against Johnson, pressuring some of them not to take his courses.  It is instructive that students have organized a group, Students Against Academic Terrorism, to rally against the faculty’s tenure decision.

In two years at the college Professor Johnson received plaudits for his teaching.  One evaluation noted “his is one of the best classes I have observed.”  However, it should be noted that tenure denials do not require the approval of the system’s central administration.  Local authority prevails.

American Council of Trustees and Alumni president, Jerry Martin, described this case accurately, in my judgment, when he said, “This is more than just a tenure case.  This is a test case to decide whether any young professor, no matter how outstanding, can be purged by politically intolerant colleagues.  If Johnson can be fired, anybody can be fired.  Academic freedom will be gone, and only faculty who need apply are those with the ‘right’ politics.”

If the allegations made against Johnson’s colleagues are accurate – as they appear to be – then academic freedom is in jeopardy and the standard on which the freedom to learn and teach will soon erode, if that hasn’t already happened.

As significant in my opinion is the loss of a truly gifted instructor for students who invariably encounter mediocrities in the classroom, if not worse.  If the City University is interested in raising its standard – a claim often made by the chancellor – then this faculty tenure decision should be reversed.  Administrators rarely – if ever – countermand faculty decisions, but this is a case that warrants such action.  Anything less, hurts students, Brooklyn College and the academic enterprise generally.