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Academic Freedom Fight Heats Up At B’klyn College

Academic Freedom Fight Heats Up At B’klyn College

President says ‘political agenda’ behind latest dustup involving adjunct Mideast prof.

Officials at Brooklyn College are hoping that their decision to rehire a controversial adjunct professor, reversing a decision made last week, will end the episode and reunite the community, they said in a statement issued Monday.

But at least one person who objected to the appointment, a trustee of the City University of New York, says he believes reaction will “get very, very messy” in the next few days, as public officials and pro-Israel groups become aware of the college’s latest action.

Monday’s decision involves Kristopher Petersen-Overton, a doctoral student at CUNY’s Graduate Center, who was hired by Brooklyn College’s political science department last month to lead a one-semester graduate seminar on Middle East politics.

College officials rejected the appointment last week, saying he lacked sufficient credentials to teach the course and that the department failed to observe proper procedures in hiring Petersen-Overton.

But others, including many of the college’s faculty members, called the move a political one, noting that it followed objections to Petersen-Overton raised by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the CUNY trustee, and Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind.

Both heard of the appointment through a graduate student at Brooklyn College who learned of what she believed were Petersen-Overton’s decidedly pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist views, including those he expressed in a paper about martyrdom in Palestinian society.

Wiesenfeld, a prominent activist in Jewish and right-wing circles, raised his concerns with CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, he told The Jewish Week. Hikind, a vocal supporter of Israel’s West Bank settlement movement, contacted Goldstein, as well. But he also objected to the appointment in a letter to Karen Gould, the college’s president, and, later, in a press release.

In his letter, Hikind referred to Petersen-Overton as a supporter of suicide bombing whose bias against Israel would “pollute the academic realm.” He called the syllabus for the course completely one-sided, without any material favoring Israel’s position, and attacked him for having worked in Gaza with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, an institution “known for its anti-Israel agenda.” The assemblyman also described the professor as “better suited for a teaching position at the Islamic University of Gaza, not at CUNY.”

In Monday’s announcement reinstating the professor, Gould referred to the debate over academic freedom sparked by the college’s earlier decision. Without naming names, she said the debate “has been fueled at times by inflammatory rhetoric and mischaracterization of the facts.

“It is unfortunate,” Gould added, “that matters of utmost importance to our college community can be so rapidly co-opted with a political agenda and distorted by the media.”

The college’s reversal capped what must have been a dizzying two weeks for all of the drama’s major players, each of whom reacted swiftly to Monday’s announcement.

Petersen-Overton responded on his website, calling the decision “a victory for academic freedom and an outcome I think we can all be proud of.”

Wiesenfeld hopes it generates a national dialogue over academic freedom and its abuse by left-wing professors who desire it for themselves and no one else, he told The Jewish Week. “They run a cabal that suppresses the very academic freedom they claim to represent, and the public is wise to it,” as illustrated by the low regard in which academia is held, he said.

Hikind went even farther, calling the decision a signal that Brooklyn College and CUNY themselves endorse terrorism.

“In rehiring 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,’” Hikind said in a statement released Tuesday.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Hikind said Petersen-Overton “must have taken a special course in the last couple of days that now makes him qualified” to teach the course. “I’m almost embarrassed that I have my master’s degree from Brooklyn College.”

The Brooklyn lawmaker also rejected any suggestion that his own involvement in the Jewish Defense League decades ago, and the admiration he still feels for Rabbi Meir Kahane, in any way compare with someone else’s admiration for Palestinian extremists. His association with Kahane took place during the movement to free Soviet Jewry, Hikind said, and he broke with Kahane after the rabbi moved to Israel in 1971 and made comments that disturbed him. Moreover, he added, there’s no evidence that Kahane ever supported any acts of terror, including the JDL’s 1972 bombing of Jewish impresario Sol Hurok’s office, which killed a secretary.

“I make very clear that I oppose any sort of terrorism,” whatever the source, Hikind said.

So, too, does Petersen-Overton, according to the new professor, who told The Jewish Week that understanding the motivations of terrorists is not the same as condoning their actions.

The paper he wrote concerning martyrdom mentions suicide bombers “only in the sense that they’re considered martyrs in Palestinian society,” Petersen-Overton said. “There’s nothing even remotely connecting me to support for suicide bombing — not in this paper, not in anything I’ve ever written. … I’m personally against the intentional targeting of civilians. Whether it comes from the Palestinian side or the Israeli side, both should be equally condemned.”

In fact, as critical as he is of Israel, Petersen-Overton favors a two-state solution. “I don’t want to see one injustice perpetrated to correct injustice by dismantling Israel,” he said.

He makes no secret of his political views, Petersen-Overton said, but he believes in leading open discussions with plenty of room for other opinions. The class is a discussion seminar, not a lecture course, he added, and if anyone feels intimidated, it would be Petersen-Overton, who, at 26, may be younger than some of the 20 or so students who’ve signed up.

Petersen-Overton’s victory followed a growing campaign to support his reinstatement. Students, faculty members and prominent intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky, Katha Pollitt and Israeli Professor Neve Gordon, sent letters to the college and signed a petition to back him. Two labor groups, the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY and the American Association of University Professors, issued statements of concern. And some of his supporters had called a rally, scheduled for Thursday, to “defend” Petersen-Overton and “academic freedom.”

As those efforts took place, Brooklyn College’s political science department and the department’s faculty appointments committee voted unanimously Monday to recommend that Overton-Petersen teach the course. It was those votes that led the college’s provost to make the same recommendation, which then received Gould’s approval.

Monday’s decision also followed a week of intense, often heated discussion concerning several issues raised by the episode, including academic freedom, what people mean when they use that term, and academic responsibility. It was the second time in five months that such a debate hit the campus, which was embroiled in controversy last fall over a “common reading” assignment required of all incoming freshmen. The assignment prompted a wealthy donor to withdraw support from the school because he objected to the book’s author, an English professor at the college, whom he considered a radical pro-Palestinian.

“We’ve run into other examples of professors who take very strong views, and it turns out that that’s what they teach — their views” and not a broad look at the subject, said Peter Haas, president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and a professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University.

Haas, whose group is supportive of Israel and includes academics from both sides of the spectrum, said he didn’t know how Petersen-Overton would teach his course, “but there’s precedent for worrying about it.”

Speaking from a different angle, Steve London, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and a vice president of the Professional Staff Congress, condemned “outside political interference in a hiring decision,” especially from Wiesenfeld.

“A trustee intervening in this decision is completely inappropriate and out of bounds,” London said. “He has a public trust, and he has violated that trust.”

Robert Cherry, an economics professor at the school and a board member of the college Hillel, praised Gould’s decision to rehire Petersen-Overton, saying it was “impressive” that she “acted decisively in this way instead of letting” the matter go.

“The whole question of academic freedom is not very well defined,” he said, adding that academic responsibility also exists, “and people have a right to make known their concerns.” On the other hand, he said, the college’s original decision disapproving the professor’s appointment seemed “heavy-handed,” especially before Petersen-Overton walked into the classroom.

Leonard Grob, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Fairleigh Dickinson University, agreed with Cherry.

“Academic freedom can be taken to an extreme, which would negate the responsibility of an academic to present a variety of perspectives, said Grob, vice president of the progressive-Zionist Meretz USA. “I come down with a creative middle between academic freedom and academic responsibility.”

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