Adjunct Wins Back Course

Following debate over academic freedom and job qualifications, Brooklyn College will let grad student teach course on Middle Eastern politics.
February 1, 2011

Defenders and critics of Kristofer Petersen-Overton still disagree over whether he lost a job teaching a course on Middle Eastern politics because of his political views or because he lacks a doctorate. But on Monday, he won the job back.

Petersen-Overton, a doctoral student in political theory at the City University of New York Graduate Center, had been slated to teach the master's-level course, starting Thursday at Brooklyn College, until the offer was revoked this month. The position disappeared after a member of the New York State Assembly who is a vocal defender of Israel called for Petersen-Overton to be dismissed, saying that he was anti-Israel and sympathetic to terrorists. Brooklyn College officials insisted (and still insist) that they revoked the job offer not because of the political complaint, but because Petersen-Overton does not have the academic credentials to teach master's students. The dispute quickly attracted widespread attention in academe.

At 7:15 p.m. Monday, however, Karen L. Gould, president of Brooklyn College, announced that Petersen-Overton would teach the course after all. She said that the political science department had voted unanimously on Monday to recommend Petersen-Overton to teach the course. "Based on information that has come to light, they are confident he has sufficient depth of knowledge and the intellectual capacity to successfully lead a graduate seminar. The provost now supports their recommendation, and I am in full agreement," she said.

At the same time, Gould criticized the way the incident has been discussed and reiterated the college's view that Petersen-Overton's politics were not the basis for the earlier decision to revoke the job offer. "Over the past several days, as a result of a provostial decision about an adjunct appointment, Brooklyn College has been thrust into a debate about academic freedom. This debate has been fueled at times by inflammatory rhetoric and mischaracterization of the facts. It is unfortunate that matters of utmost importance to our college community can be so rapidly co-opted by those with a political agenda and distorted by the media," she said.

Gould added: "We must never allow decisions about our students’ education to be swayed by outside influence. In the matter at hand, this certainly has not been the case. On behalf of every member of this institution, I reaffirm our steadfast commitment to the principles of academic freedom, faculty governance, and standards of excellence."

Reached shortly after the announcement, Petersen-Overton said in an interview that the political science department had called him just after 5 p.m. with the news. He said he was looking forward to starting the course -- and that he had been supported in the last week by hundreds and hundreds of calls and e-mails from students and faculty members from all over.

"I'm overwhelmed by everything that has happened. I so appreciate the support," he said.

Petersen-Overton said he didn't want to answer the criticisms that have been made of his views by Dov Hikind, the assembly member who had demanded his ouster. "My concern was always what the college administration did," Petersen-Overton said, not what Hikind said.

Hikind released a statement Monday night blasting Brooklyn College for hiring Petersen-Overton.

"It is pathetic that the administrations of Brooklyn College and CUNY has caved to intimidation tactics and reversed their earlier, praiseworthy decision to oust Mr. Petersen-Overton from his post. Mr. Petersen-Overton has stated in published reports that he 'understands' suicide bombing. In re-hiring Mr. Petersen-Overton, Brooklyn College and CUNY have sent a message to suicide bombers and their supporters that a publicly-funded institution of higher learning condones suicide bombing as an acceptable method of 'resistance.' Granting Mr. Petersen-Overton access to thousands of impressionable young minds, especially at the taxpayers’ expense, is nothing short of shameful and embarrassing. By CUNY’s own determination, Mr. Petersen-Overton was relieved of his teaching job and deemed unqualified because he did not hold a doctoral degree. His re-appointment and the university’s flip-flopping on this issue is cowardice at its very worst."

Petersen-Overton has written about suicide bombers, although scholars have noted that writing about suicide bombers and their motivations does not mean endorsing such actions.

Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, issued a statement last week in which he said he had reviewed the essay in question and that it was "a serious and informative work of scholarly analysis. Given that myths of sacrifice are promoted by many nation states in crisis, readers may learn from the essay no matter what their stand on Middle East Politics may be."

In an interview Monday night, Nelson called the rehiring of Petersen-Overton "a victory for academic freedom and for the faculty." He said that the case demonstrated that, when faculty groups unite and speak out, they can protect academic freedom. "It takes a country to sustain academic freedom," he said.

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