Corruption in the Academy:
The Tenure Case of KC Johnson

Jerome Sternstein
Address, Metropolitan Club, Washington DC
March 14, 2003

Last Spring, while attending the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, I ran into an old acquaintance -- I'll call him Bill -- who teaches American history at a Texas university. Repairing to the hotel's restaurant for coffee, we discussed what we had been up to since we last met, as well as the state of the historical profession and the world, neither of which, we agreed, was in very good shape. Later, I contacted a mutual friend, call him Harry, an historian at SUNY, and told him about meeting Bill. Here's his response:

"Bill is terrific and charming, though if academics knew his conservative views they'd shun him. Gender, race, and ethnicity reign supreme. When I retire they'll replace me with a radical social historian who uses the proper radical jargon and writes on the proper radical topics."

I wasn't startled at all by Harry's assumption that Bill, however "terrific and charming," would have a tough time if academics were aware he held conservative opinions -- that he thought, for instance, that Bush was an excellent governor and was doing a good job as President, or that he believed "Marxist radicals, assisted by ignorant administrators" were turning many colleges into indoctrination camps. Such views would certainly outrage most academics and brand the person holding them a "right winger." And in the present intellectual climate that tag is the kiss of death.

Aware of this, Bill is careful to keep his political opinions to himself -- though obviously he shared them with me since he knows I wouldn't shun him, and with Harry, who won't either despite being repelled by them, mainly because Bill assigns Harry's American History textbook to about 1000 students in his survey course every year, allowing Harry to buy the expensive wines he craves.

For career purposes, Bill is smart to practice self-censorship. The American academy today, for all of its talk about its commitment to academic freedom and intellectual openness, often punishes and marginalizes individuals who take those values seriously, especially those who do not march in lockstep with the prevailing politically correct orthodoxies. For evidence of this, one need only examine what happened to historian Robert David "KC" Johnson, a superb scholar and popular teacher, at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He was turned down for promotion and tenure and denied reappointment for an alleged lack of "collegiality," when in reality the history department's resident ideologues and an unscrupulous chairman, Phil Gallagher, sought to purge him because he expressed opinions and took positions on academic and other issues contrary to their own.

When Johnson arrived at Brooklyn College in 1999 after four years at Williams College, the history department was undergoing a major overhaul -- some would say rejuvenation -- as a result of twelve or so retirements between 1998 and 2000, mine being one of them. Everybody was thrilled when Johnson accepted Brooklyn's offer of an Associate Professorship. And why wouldn't they? With a Ph.D. from Harvard, and only in his mid-thirties, Johnson had already authored three acclaimed books, a score or more of scholarly articles, had received a large grant to edit the complete Lyndon Johnson tapes, and was in the process of completing a study of the 1964 presidential election. Moreover, he had a reputation for being an inspiring teacher, which was quickly confirmed. Students flocked to his courses and jammed his office. He was also a glutton for committee work. Recognizing this, the chairman appointed him to the curriculum committee, and his colleagues elected him to the all important appointments committee and as the department representative to the faculty union.

Before the Fall of 2001, an observer noted, Johnson "walked on departmental water." Practically everyone agreed with the chairman that he was the best appointment in two decades. Eventually, however, some senior colleagues, primarily those who identified themselves as cutting-edge leftists, reached a different judgment. They began to identify Johnson as an independent thinker, perhaps even a conservative Republican -- which, the truth be known, he isn't -- whose principled stances on issues and stature as a nationally recognized scholar threatened their agenda, part of which was to pack the department with compatible ideologues, most of them friends or former students. Johnson's appointment, they concluded, was a big mistake.

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Sensing their hostility to Johnson early on, chairman Gallagher shared his understanding of their personalities with him. He described them as "academic terrorists" who took no prisoners, and denounced one in particular, a radical feminist, as "an unscrupulous and unprofessional mole." He warned Johnson he would need "bullet proof vests" if he ever crossed her.

And predictably, such vests would have come in handy as the "academic terrorists" imputed to Johnson Svengali-like powers, implicating him whenever they were thwarted trying to advance their ideological agenda. For example, when the curriculum committee decided that a Masters Degree offering on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict proposed by one of them, a camp follower of Edward Said, lacked scholarly integrity and needed revision, they attributed that action solely to Johnson, though four of the five committee members voted for it. And when their favorite candidates for job openings in Latin American and American Social History lost out to people with superior credentials, they fingered Johnson as the culprit, heaping blame on him for the outcome largely because he read all of the candidates' files, articles, dissertations, and books, and distributed detailed evaluations which many of his less prepared colleagues found useful and persuasive in reaching their own decisions. To the "terrorists" this was proof positive, as one of them wrote, that Johnson was trying "to take over the department and call the shots."

Accordingly, they announced their intention to launch a "Reign of Terror" against him. Their campaign gained momentum after Johnson publicly took issue with a post 9/11 teach-in organized by the very "terrorist" who uttered that threat. Johnson, who has written extensively on American diplomacy, criticized the panel as unbalanced, since all the speakers were known opponents of an American military response, and none were supporters of United States or Israeli policy. Though two tenured colleagues voiced similar concerns, only Johnson was summoned before the college Provost, Roberta Matthews, who expressed her displeasure with his outspokenness. And coming from the Provost, whose duty it was to oversee the tenure process to insure it was fair and unbiased, such notice that the administration believed principled disagreement with the prevailing leftist orthodoxy was uncollegial could not help but comfort Johnson's enemies.

Much to their delight, their campaign then merged with a dispute that arose between Chairman Gallagher and Johnson over a search for a European historian. Though not an ideologue, Gallagher was known to view policy disagreements as affronts to his authority. He was also sensitive to the personal and ideological currents swirling around him and the menace they posed to his elected position.

Thus anxious to propitiate the "academic terrorists" who pressed for the appointment of a woman specializing in gender studies, and acceding to hints emanating from the College president, Cristoph Kimmich, to take note of a favored female candidate, Gallagher sought to confine the search, as he e-mailed Johnson, to "some women we can live with, who are not whiners from the word go or who need therapy as much as they need a job."

Johnson resisted, believing the appointee should be the best available candidate regardless of sex or race -- or even their need for therapy -- a stance ratified by a majority of the appointments committee. Unable to convince them otherwise, Gallagher lashed out at Johnson and turned on him with a vengeance. Whereas previously he had praised Johnson profusely and wrote glowing yearly evaluations, he now began manufacturing a spurious case of "uncollegiality," having heard from the College's labor relations office that using "collegiality" as a criteria in academic personnel decisions would be grievance-proof. To build his case, Gallagher harassed Johnson with specious memos asserting he deliberately ignored college regulations by allowing students to take his courses without proper prerequisites; he attacked Johnson's ��čintegrity, falsely accusing him of manipulating his workload for his own benefit. And he placed these contrived allegations in Johnson's personnel file for the attention of the tenure committees then considering his application.

Working in tandem with the "terrorists." Gallagher and his deputy poisoned the tenure process in many other ways: they appointed a department representative opposed to Johnson's candidacy to the tenure committee chaired by the Provost; they sent letters to the president filled with scurrilous accusations which Johnson was never informed of and hence could not refute; and they spread scandalous rumors that even I heard in retirement hundreds of miles away. One of the less nasty rumors was that Johnson had "collegiality" problems at Williams College. But unbeknownst to everybody, a former Williams history department chair had written Gallagher stating the exact opposite, that Johnson was an exceptional colleague they would have granted tenure to in an instant had he wanted to stay. Yet Gallagher remained silent and failed to inform the college tenure and promotion committee of this fact when the rumor was mentioned in his presence.

There is a great deal to add about this sorry affair, but the foregoing is more than adequate to demonstrate that it was easily the most abusive and corrupted tenure process anyone is ever likely to see -- and after almost thirty years at Brooklyn College, a good number of them spent as a union grievance officer handling such issues, I've seen my full share of corrupted processes. But none on this scale or with this level of duplicity.

But luckily for Johnson he secured a good lawyer and the City University is governed by a Collective Bargaining Agreement with established grievance procedures that allows for outside arbitration when all else fails. In Johnson's case, because of the egregious violations of his rights and the national outrage it provoked among historians and others, last month CUNY reached a settlement with Johnson that provided for a special faculty committee of three distinguished scholars unconnected with Brooklyn College to review the record and make a recommendation. It unanimously found for Johnson, and Chancellor Goldstein, after reviewing the files himself, interviewing Johnson, and reading one of his books, concluded that his "truly outstanding record of scholarship, teaching and other aspects of service" merited promotion and tenure, a decision endorsed by the CUNY Board of Trustees.

Recently, a commentator pointed to Brooklyn College and its treatment of Johnson as "an exemplary instance of the sort of petty, internecine corruption that runs rife in academe, where accountability is minimal and the power to destroy careers is correspondingly high." I couldn't agree more. But the question remains whether anything can be done to avoid similar situations other than allowing academics injured by the abuse of process access to outside arbitration or the courts? Is what happened to Johnson -- and too many others, I submit -- a reason to limit or restrain academic self government, as some propose? I don't think so. But the fact that nobody at Brooklyn College has been disciplined or sanctioned speaks volumes, I believe, for the need of trustees and alumni to get more involved in the governance of the institutions they're associated with. If nothing else, that's the least they can do to insure that politicized faculty and administrators under the guise of "collegiality" do not succeed in their quest for ideological conformity.