posted 2011-02-09 13:30:54

The Battle at Brooklyn College: Academic Freedom, or Intolerance?

Petersen-Overton is a smbol of academic Freedom. (Photo: Zoe Zenowich)
Petersen-Overton is a smbol of academic Freedom. (Photo: Zoe Zenowich)
The Battle at Brooklyn College: Academic Freedom, or Intolerance?

Brian Fallas

Contributing Writer

For those who haven’t been following the story, a small scandal has erupted over the past week surrounding a political science professor at  Kristofer Petersen-Overton, 26, was set to teach a graduate course in Middle Eastern politics this semester when he was informed his appointment had been abruptly canceled. Ostensibly, his qualifications were at issue.

It seems more likely, however, that Petersen-Overton was fired not so much over his credentials as over his political beliefs. One prospective student, offended by a perceived “pro-Palestinian” bias in Petersen-Overton’s course syllabus, had taken their complaints to State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who had in turn written to the president of Brooklyn College, Dr. Karen Gould.

Among the more egregious allegations in his letter, Hikind accuses Petersen-Overton of being “an overt supporter of terrorism,” whose “personal biases should not be allowed to pollute the academic realm,” and who “would be better suited for a teaching position at the Islamic University of Gaza” than at a CUNY. All this despite the fact that Petersen-Overton has repeatedly and explicitly condemned acts of terrorism, and that CUNY, as a public institution, is bound by the First Amendment, and not Assemblyman Hikind’s personal political views.

Fortunately, Petersen-Overton’s dismissal was followed by an immediate backlash in the academic community. Students at the CUNY Graduate Center circulated a petition demanding his rehiring, and prominent political scientists from around the nation (including Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer, authors of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy) sent letters of support, as did the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). It is thanks to these efforts that Petersen-Overton has his job back, and freedom of expression remains intact at Brooklyn College.

The whole controversy, however, raises several troubling questions. If this alleged “pro-Palestinian” bias was in fact real, why would it be offensive? The Palestinian people have legitimate concerns and grievances against the state of Israel, which must be addressed if any progress is to be made in the region. Dismissing arguments as “pro-Palestinian,” as if that in itself makes them invalid, is foolish and short-sighted. It is also sadly indicative of the debate over the Middle East in America, where criticism of Israel is too often greeted with personal attacks or, in the worst cases, baseless accusations of “anti-Semitism.”

However, even staunch supporters of Israel (or any cause, for that matter) ought to realize attempting to silence opposing opinion only serves to undermine their own credibility. The facts of Israel’s history and its treatment of the Palestinians are all readily available, thanks to organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and books such as The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé. People can interpret these materials as they wish, but they cannot silence anyone who disagrees.

This is something the anonymous graduate student behind this mess should’ve realized. Rather than try to get his professor fired, he should’ve approached the class with an open mind. If a point was made that he found particularly disagreeable, for whatever reason, he should’ve spoken up and explained why. He should’ve argued openly and honestly for his beliefs. At worst, a lively debate would’ve ensued. At best, he may have learned something new. It’s truly a sad state of affairs when you only want to take classes that confirm your preconceived opinions, and it’s even sadder to try to force that same intellectual myopia on others.

As it stands, however, Brooklyn College reversed their mistake before any real harm was done. Kristofer Petersen-Overton will once again teach his course, and hopefully the students of Brooklyn College will have a productive semester learning about Middle Eastern politics. For that, we can be thankful. But it would be a mistake to become complacent. As Thomas Jefferson said, and as this situation has so aptly illustrated, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”