January 09, 2003

Battle of Brooklyn, Part 2

Last month, Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz published a searing indictment of the tenure debacle at CUNY's Brooklyn College. Unlike the New York Times, which ran an intellectually dishonest article that failed even to mention the corruption surrounding the history department's decision to deny tenure to KC Johnson for lack of "collegiality," WSJ's piece took Brooklyn College to task for its unethical practices and its political toadying. Rabinowitz showed in damning terms how Johnson made enemies of some of his senior colleagues last year when he protested a proposed campus roundtable on 9/11 because it did not represent a range of viewpoints (pro-U.S. and pro-Israel perspectives were omitted) and when he objected to how a job search was being conducted, arguing that the department should not seek specifically to hire a woman (as the chairman and others argued it should do), but that it should seek to hire the best candidate for the job, male or female. At that point, a campaign to deny Johnson tenure was launched by Philip Gallagher, the history department chair. Johnson was duly denied, despite having a stellar teaching and publishing record, and is currently appealing his case. (I wrote about this here.)

Today, Brooklyn College's Provost, Roberta Matthews, writes to the Wall Street Journal to protest Rabinowitz's piece. Here is her entire letter:

We take strong exception to the portrait of Brooklyn College in "Battle of Brooklyn" by Dorothy Rabinowitz (Taste page, Weekend Journal, Dec. 20). Brooklyn College has been synonymous with excellence in education for the past 73 years. We are respected nationally for our rigorous academic standards, and hold our students, faculty and staff to the highest principles and values. Our award-winning faculty -- including several Pulitzer Prize winners -- were graduated from top-notch universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Oxford. They publish quality books with internationally known publishers and are featured in respected scholarly journals.

Brooklyn College hosts eight honors programs and boasts students who have won prestigious awards such as the Mellon, Pickering and Beinecke. Our students are accepted to prominent graduate and professional schools. Again last year we exceeded our registration goals with applications from strong, academically qualified students. I am confident that our 15,000 students and 140,000 alumni would agree that Brooklyn College epitomizes an outstanding academic culture, while encouraging individual thought and personal development.

I am proud of the scholarly work done on campus, of our distinguished chair of the History Department and all of our faculty, and of our talented, diverse and eminently qualified students. We have great confidence in the time-tested processes used to evaluate faculty for hiring purposes, promotion and reappointment.

Roberta Matthews
Brooklyn College
Brooklyn, N.Y.

This is a promotional pamphlet masquerading as a refutation. Matthews has nothing to say about the facts as Rabinowitz reported them--and as such, she implicitly corroborates Rabinowitz's damning portrait of institutional corruption. More than that, she suggests that what was wrong with Rabinowitz's article was not its presentation of facts, or even its interpretation of them, but its suggestion that Brooklyn College's reputation is implicated in them. Apparently, rigging tenure cases to punish independent thought and principled debate is completely consistent with Matthews' idea of academic excellence.

Matthews writes that she is "proud" of "our distinguished chair of the History Department" (though that chair has himself written that Matthews "has no idea what actually goes on" in the history department and has pronounced her to be "either naive or devious: I suspect some of both.") If Matthews were serious about rectifying the problems at Brooklyn College, and, crucially, if she were not herself a large part of those problems, she would not be congratulating Philip Gallagher, but would be looking into firing him. You have to work hard to get fired from a tenured position, but Gallagher's studied and deliberate attempt to destroy KC Johnson's career--an attempt that Johnson and others have meticulously documented--makes him a strong candidate for that rare and dubious honor.

For more on Johnson's case and the departmental culture surrounding it, see
Jerome Sternstein's recent commentary
on the History News Network. You can also read the complete media coverage of the case on Johnson's home page.

Posted by Erin O'Connor at 10:54 AM | TrackBack (0)