Political Purge or Quality Control?

An adjunct teaching the Middle East is yanked from a course at Brooklyn College, with very different interpretations as to why.
January 28, 2011

A doctoral student hired to teach an upcoming Brooklyn College political science course on the Middle East was removed from his post Wednesday, leading to concerns over the institution's commitment to academic freedom -- concerns that the college insists are not valid.

While the ousted adjunct, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, said the college caved to political pressure that his views were too critical of Israel, the college says he simply was not qualified to teach the graduate-level course in the first place.

Petersen-Overton was hired as an adjunct in December to teach a master's-level course called "Politics of the Middle East," which was set to begin next week. Petersen-Overton, who is about to begin his fourth semester in the doctoral program in political theory at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, earned his master's degree in development studies from Aalborg University in Denmark in 2007.

It seemed natural to him that he would be considered for the job. CUNY often "farms out graduate students" to teach courses throughout the system, he said. Mark Ungar, an associate professor who was serving as acting head of the department, reviewed his resume, and was reportedly impressed that he already held a master's degree. "From his perspective, I had more credentials than most," said Petersen-Overton. He was hired for the position.

Ungar was not immediately available to affirm or rebut any aspects of the narrative offered by Petersen-Overton, but he offered a strong vote of confidence for the adjunct. "Ten of the faculty members of the political science department (the others could not be reached, since we are on break) object to the provost's actions yesterday," Ungar said in a statement. "His decision to reject our appointment undermines academic freedom and departmental governance."

Soon after Petersen-Overton was hired, a student who was slated to take the course raised questions with Ungar after searching Petersen-Overton's background, particularly his work in Gaza as a research assistant for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. After meeting with the acting department chair, the student said she wouldn’t pursue the matter further, according to Petersen-Overton. But then she forwarded her concerns to bloggers and to Dov Hikind, a member of the New York State Assembly representing Brooklyn. "Ungar said he fully supported me," said Petersen-Overton. "I thought nothing of it."

Hikind, a staunch ally of Israel, sent a letter on Monday to Karen Gould, the college's president, with a copy to CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, in which he questioned the adjunct's appointment. Calling Petersen-Overton "an overt supporter of terrorism," Hikind said he was "better suited for a teaching position at the Islamic University of Gaza."

Hikind, who said he earned his master's degree in political science from Brooklyn College, told Inside Higher Ed that he reached these conclusions after spending "countless hours" reading the newly hired adjunct's work. This included, chiefly, his unpublished paper, "Inventing the Martyr: Struggle, Sacrifice and the Signification of Palestinian National Identity," in which he examines martyrdom as it "embodies ideals of struggle and sacrifice" in the context of national identity. Hikind said such works reflect an effort to "understand" suicide bombers. "There’s nothing to understand about someone who murders women and children," he said. "You condemn."

The assemblyman also read Petersen-Overton's syllabus for the course (the syllabus and paper are posted on Petersen-Overton's website). The syllabus features works by well-known critics of Israel from the academy, such as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, as well as some of the most prominent Israeli critics of Israeli policy, such as Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim. "It’s all basically one-sided," said Hikind. "I was very, very concerned."

Brooklyn College, through Ungar, told Petersen-Overton on Wednesday that he wouldn't be teaching the class, he said. But the administration had begun reviewing his qualifications last week, before Hikind's letter, penned Monday, even arrived at the college, said Jeremy Thompson, a Brooklyn College spokesman.

"There’s a lot of factors at play that seem to be connected, but aren’t," he said. The issue isn't one of academic freedom; in fact, Thompson said, the course will continue under a different faculty member. The problem was that Petersen-Overton wasn't sufficiently credentialed to teach an upper-level graduate course. "He wasn’t qualified," he said.

Petersen-Overton called the reason for his removal "silly" because adjunct faculty members often teach without doctorates. "It’s a new requirement apparently," he said.

He said the experience had disillusioned him. "My issue is not with Dov Hikind or the student who complained about the course," said Petersen-Overton. "My issue is with the college administration and how fast they caved to pressure."


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