As officials at Brooklyn College grapple with charges that its provost has discriminated against Orthodox Jewish academics, more than three dozen faculty members — including several Orthodox Jews — have signed a letter defending the administrator.
The allegations come principally from Hershey Friedman, deputy chairman of the college’s Finance and Business Management Department, who says the provost, William Tramontano, has rejected the bids of several Orthodox professors for appointments and promotions, creating a pattern that suggests bias.
While Friedman told The Jewish Week last week that he doesn’t “use words like anti-Semitism lightly” and wasn’t doing so in this case, he told the New York Post earlier, “Jews are having a problem with this provost. He’s making it harder and harder to bring in Jews. He doesn’t want Jews.”
Friedman also accused Tramontano of speaking dismissively of Orthodox faculty members and staff. In one instance, he said, Robert Bell, the chairman of his department, was talking to the provost about a job candidate when Tramontano responded, “You already have a Miriam.” Bell was out of the country in recent days and couldn’t be reached by The Jewish Week, but he told that story last week to the New York Post.
The accusations, first reported by the Post, have prompted a letter to Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York, from state Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) and another from 20 elected officials, including Hikind and members of the state Assembly, the state Senate and the City Council. Both letters call for an investigation of the matter by CUNY, which operates Brooklyn College.
The Anti-Defamation League is also calling for an investigation after speaking with faculty members and staff in Friedman’s department, said Ron Meier, the organization’s New York regional director.
Goldstein has responded to those calls by ordering a review of the charges, along with a full report, said Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor for university relations. He added that the review would be conducted by Frederick Shaffer, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor for legal affairs and general counsel.
One of the provost’s defenders is Robert Cherry, an economics professor and a board member of the college’s Hillel Foundation, who said Friedman has launched personal attacks before on those who disagree with him.
“Whenever individuals voiced disagreement with Professor Friedman on employment or curricula issues, he would immediately try to impugn the motives of his detractors rather than dealing with the disagreements on a substantive basis,” Cherry wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Week. He called Friedman’s behavior “malicious” and said he attempted “to damage individual reputations.”
Asked about Cherry’s assertions, Friedman said he and Cherry have had a long-running feud and that the economics professor has a “hatred” for him. He also said Cherry has engaged in the same sort of behavior of which Cherry now accuses him.
As for the letter signed by Cherry and other members of the faculty defending the provost, Friedman said he’s “not surprised. They’re going with who has the power. It’s human nature, unfortunately.”
The letter expresses “outrage” over the allegations against Tramontano. “Those of us who are signatories to this letter have worked closely with the provost since his arrival” at Brooklyn College, they wrote, adding that their “experiences with him run counter to the accusations that have been made.”
The letter also said that the college’s president, Karen Gould, and not the provost, has ultimate discretion over promotion and tenure positions, and that the charges against the provost were “without merit.”
Among the letter’s signatories is Yedidyah Langsam, chairman of the college’s Department of Computer Information and Science, who, in an interview with The Jewish Week, described himself as “a frum religious Jew” and a steering-committee member of the Faculty Council, the top faculty body on campus.
“Unambiguously, for all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never had any experience I would even remotely describe as anti-Semitic,” Langsam said.
Similarly, Ellen Tremper, who initiated the letter, said she’s worked with Tramontano as chairwoman of the English Department and as a member of the college’s Council on Administrative Policy, a body composed of all the college’s chairs and its administrators. She also chairs the college’s Promotion and Tenure Committee, a position that requires her to meet at least twice a month with the provost.
“He and I don’t always agree by a long stretch … and anyone [on campus] would say that I’m not afraid to argue with the man,” said Tremper, who calls herself ethnically Jewish. “But his heart is in the right place. I’ve never experienced any animus from the man and certainly no anti-Semitism.”
Tremper acknowledged hearing Tramontano refer to another faculty member as a “rabbi” during one of her meetings with him and her mentioning it to others. The reference, made about a religion professor behind his back, is another indication of the provost’s insensitivity, according to Friedman and Hikind. But Tremper suggested it was no more than a weak attempt at humor.
“It’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t say, but he makes jokes,” Tremper said. She added that she should have said “something like, Bill, I wouldn’t say something like that,’ which is the way I normally deal with things like that.”
The article in the Post named four Jewish academics who, it said, had been recommended by the business department for jobs or promotions and were rejected by the administration: Miriam Gerstein, chosen by the department for an accounting professorship; Nava Silton, selected by the department’s appointments panel to teach marketing; Dov Fischer, rated the best of three finalists for a business-teaching position; and Frimette Kass-Shreibman, an associate professor who sought promotion to a full professorship.
Gerstein was later hired on appeal, but only after she threatened litigation, Friedman said.
As for the others, Jeremy Thompson, a spokesman for the college, said the administration agreed that Silton’s experience was “extremely impressive, but not relevant for the position that had been posted.” In fact, he said, her Ph.D. is in psychology, much of her scholarship concerns pastoral counseling and she has since been hired as a psychology professor at Marymount Manhattan College.
In Fischer’s case, the business department hadn’t been following proper practices for hiring mandated by CUNY, Thompson said. And Kass-Shreibman’s request for promotion first went to the college’s Promotion and Tenure Committee, whose members were divided over the request, and was then rejected by the college’s president, not the provost. The president, Thompson said, determined that Kass-Shreibman “had not yet fulfilled the requirements for scholarship and teaching” for a full professorship.
“Based on all the information we have,” Thompson said, “there are clear justifications and reasons” for each of those decisions,” which were all made “on the merits.”
All four cases came during a hectic time for the college’s business department, which was recently split into three departments — the Finance and Business Management Department, the Accounting Department and the Economics Department — and placed into a newly created School of Business.
At the same time, some on campus say, the college is trying to raise standards for all schools and departments, including the School of Business, which is applying for accreditation. As a result, they add, administrators aren’t approving promotions as automatically as they once did.
Meanwhile, Silton, one of the job candidates rejected by the administration, told The Jewish Week she’s “not necessarily sure” that anti-Semitism played a role in her case. The provost said nothing that would have suggested any kind of bias, she said, and he even told her he would have viewed her candidacy differently had the job involved teaching psychology, her discipline.
“Maybe he was a business purist,” Silton said.