Firing and Re-hiring of Brooklyn College Professor Spurs ControversyFiring and Re-hiring of Brooklyn College Professor Spurs Controversy
Academic freedom called into question
Professors and students CUNY-wide gathered at Brooklyn College on Feb. 3 to demonstrate support for Professor Kristofer Petersen-Overton, who was fired after releasing a controversial syllabus for his Middle Eastern politics course. Petersen-Overton was rehired unconditionally a few days later, against the wishes of a local politician, in what his supports deemed rare victory for academia.
Petersen-Overton, 26, is currently a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center studying political theory.
“The acting political science department chair at the time, Mark Ungar, had contacted me saying there were some political rumblings,” Petersen-Overton said. “Ungar tried to reassure me that the controversy would blow over. I wasn't actually concerned until I found out I had lost my job.”
His firing came after a student registered her complaint with state assemblyman Dov Hikind that the course taught by Petersen-Overton was allegedly biased against Israel. Hikind proceeded to address a letter to Brooklyn College president Dr. Karen Gould, urging her to reconsider Petersen-Overton's appointment. In the letter, Hikind referred to the professor as an “overt supporter of terrorism” and quipped that “Mr. Petersen-Overton would be better suited for a teaching position at the Islamic University of Gaza.”
On Jan. 27, less than a day after Hikind's appeal to president Gould, Petersen-Overton was dismissed from his position on the basis that he was unqualified to teach the course.
“The reason why I came to CUNY was because of the strong stance they have had on academic freedom. It's unfortunate what happened. It goes against the CUNY legacy. It encourages people like Dov Hikind to try and influence higher education,” Petersen-Overton said.
When news about his dismissal began to circulate, academics from all over the world voiced their outrage over Petersen-Overton's firing, emphasizing that Brooklyn College's decision to abide by Hikind posed a serious threat to academic freedom. Following the outcry, Brooklyn College's political science department held an emergency meeting on Jan. 31 where they unanimously decided to reinstate Petersen-Overton immediately and in time for his first class on Feb. 3. That same day, a rally initially intended to protest Petersen-Overton’s firing was held to celebrate his reappointment.
In front of Brooklyn College's Boylan Hall, supporters of Petersen-Overton gathered to hear Petersen-Overton, several adjunct professors and students from all over CUNY speak out in support of academic freedom.
“I've been inspired because academics from all over the country, scholars, people like you from all over the country, stood up for a principle that is incredibly important,” Petersen-Overton said before the crowd. “Really since 9/11, it's been very difficult for anyone talking about issues relating to the Arab world and the Islamic world, and it's just really profoundly humbling to see people stand up in this way.”
Although the majority of the crowd was attending to support Petersen-Overton, there was a sizable portion that came in protest, many accusing the professor of being “pro-Palestinian” and “supporting terrorism.”
He responded by saying that objective debate was diminished by shallow labels, and said that he considered himself “pro-human rights.” Several such exchanges broke out between speakers at the event and students in the crowd.
Alyson Spurgas spoke at the event on behalf of the better treatment of adjunct professors. She is a coordinator of the Adjunct Project—which is an adjunct support group—and she is a doctoral student with a writing fellowship at Queens College. After stepping down from the steps of Boylan Hall, she got into an argument with somebody in the crowd who accused Petersen-Overton of lacking integrity.
“It is not so simple as pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, anti-this or anti-that, it is a complicated issue that deserves discussion where people are allowed to speak,” Spurgas stressed. “That is what Kristofer Petersen-Overton wanted to do in his classroom. He almost didn't get the chance to do that.”
Among those in the crowd expressing their opposition to Petersen-Overton was Dina Kupfer. Kupfer is a 23 year-old graduate student currently enrolled in Petersen-Overton's class on Middle Eastern politics. She was handing out fliers that criticized Petersen-Overton for his alleged biases. The fliers also called for Brooklyn College's administration “to take responsible measure to ensure QUALITY EDUCATION – and NOT BIASED EDUCATION.” She also spoke briefly at intervals.
“What concerns students, and especially Jewish students is that the professor's syllabus is biased,” Kupfer said after the rally. “The class is designed to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the readings are all pro-Palestinian.”
Later that day after attending Petersen-Overton's first class, Kupfer said that she was disappointed that the syllabus was largely unadjusted and that she hoped to meet with political science faculty to appeal for adjustments to occur. She said, “if he does not adjust his syllabus to reflect material outside of his extreme narrow-minded beliefs, then his reinstatement will subtract from the academic freedom of Brooklyn College.”
Kupfer initially registered her complaints against Petersen-Overton to Professor Ungar, who told her that her opinion was noted but that no judgments would be made until the class began. Kupfer then proceeded to alert State Assemblyman Hikind.
“Several students and I were already in communication with Hikind about decreasing anti-Israel activism on campus,” Kupfer explained. “Then this happened, so we voiced our concern to Hikind.”
Despite Kupfer's relationship with Hikind, she said it was not her intention to have gotten Petersen-Overton fired and that she could not take responsibility for Hikind's actions.
With Brooklyn College's episode drawing to a close, Petersen-Overton was optimistic with the outcome. “This whole thing has actually given a great boost to my career,” he said. “I've been contacted by several academic journals encouraging me to submit my work to be published.”