Local and national faculty groups on Friday blasted what they saw as a violation of academic freedom in the case of Kristofer Petersen-Overton, an adjunct instructor who was removed from teaching an upper-level master's course on the Middle East following criticism from a state politician -- though the college reiterated its prior statements that the two events were unrelated.
Calling the situation an "ugly byproduct of a labor system that undermines academic freedom for thousands of hard-working adjunct faculty," Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York, the faculty union at CUNY, said in a statement that the union will not tolerate what she called political meddling in academic decisions. The term "meddling" was a reference to complaints from New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind that the syllabus written by Petersen-Overton lacked balance in presenting a uniformly critical look at Israel in its dealings with the Palestinian territories.
The college continued to state that Petersen-Overton was removed from the course because, as a fourth-semester graduate student, he was not sufficiently qualified to teach the upper-level master's course, and that he was approved outside of normal hiring channels (the faculty of the political science department has come to Petersen-Overton's defense). Moreover, the college added that the review of Petersen-Overton's credentials began before administrators received Hikind's letter.
The union said that other doctoral students in the CUNY system regularly teach courses at similar levels. A college spokesman, Jeremy Thompson, said the administration was going to review its hiring practices to make sure that no longer happens.
Bowen added that the union would use "every tool" at its disposal to defend its members, whether they work full time or part time. Those tools include using political influence and, if necessary, legal action, a spokesman said.
CUNY's Professional Staff Congress is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the American Association of University Professors. The latter group also issued a statement defending Petersen-Overton, and added that it does not require courses to balance competing views. "Exposure to advocacy can be a beneficial component of an education, so long as students are not expected to agree with an instructor's point of view," said Cary Nelson, AAUP president, in a statement. Nelson added, speaking for himself, that Petersen-Overton's disputed unpublished essay "Inventing the Martyr," which discusses the role of sacrifice and martyrdom in the construction of Palestinian identity, is "a serious and informative work of scholarly analysis" that would provide insight to readers no matter what their stand on the Middle East might be.