Jewish students at Brooklyn College are standing behind a beleaguered history professor who claims his ongoing problems with the administration began when he protested alleged anti-Israel bias in a campus forum two months after 9-11.
About a quarter of some 500 students who signed a petition in defense of associate professor Robert "K.C." Johnson said they were backing him because of his stance on the November 2001 teach-in, said Daniel Weininger, a BC senior who founded Students Against Academic Terrorism, an ad hoc group supporting Johnsonís bid for tenure.
Weininger said Johnson was known for a balanced approach to the Middle East crisis.
"What students want is knowledge, not to be fed dogma," said Weininger.
But college officials say the 9-11 teach-in issue is a smokescreen raised by Johnson and has little or nothing to do with his battles with other faculty and his recent denial of tenure.
"This is a new issue," said Professor Sara Reguer, chair of the college’s Judaic studies department, who was asked by the college to respond to questions on the matter. "I don’t recall until about a week ago that it was discussed at all."
Johnson, a well-regarded scholar of 20th century U.S. foreign policy and international affairs with two degrees from Harvard, has been an associate professor at Brooklyn since 1999.
When he applied recently for promotion to full professor, which would come with tenure, he reportedly was rejected because of the objections of several colleagues in the history department.
Johnson had expressed concerns about the college’s method of searching for a European history professor, reportedly objecting that the slot had been predetermined for a woman.
But in an interview in his cluttered Whitehead Hall office Friday, Johnson said it was his response to the 9-11 teach-in, sponsored by the City University’s faculty union, that began to roil the waters.
"It all started with the teach-in," he said.
Johnson recalled that on Nov. 12, 2001, he received an "unprecedented" e-mail from college Provost Roberta Matthews urging professors to have their classes attend the teach-in, which was to explore the causes of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on America. The event was similar to a "teach-in" at the City College of New York, also sponsored by the faculty union, which was widely panned.
Having previously seen the list of speakers, Johnson said he was concerned that no one at the event would speak in support of American policy or of Israel, and in a reply to Mathews he opposed college sponsorship of the event.
Johnson said that although he was one of three professors who criticized the program (the others were history professors David Berger and Margaret King, both of whom are tenured) he alone was called to Mathews’ office the following week, where she told him the forum was appropriate.
"I did not publicly protest. It’s not as if I took out an ad in the Kingsman," Johnson said, referring to a college paper.
In a telephone interview, Matthews said: "If [Johnson] was summoned to my office it was probably in relation to his duties with the Honors College during that year. I never would have summoned any faculty member to my office to discuss the teach-in, although it might have come up in conversation."
Several weeks later, in December 2001, Stuart Schaar, a professor of Middle Eastern history who participated in the controversial teach-in, lashed out at Johnson in the Kingsman for criticizing his work, although Johnson had never mentioned Schaar. A source said Johnson and Schaar had sparred previously over the content of a course on the Israeli-Arab conflict taught by Schaar, although their differences had more to do with the quantity of reading materials than ideology.
Schaar could not be reached for comment Monday. But in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, forwarded to The Jewish Week by Brooklyn College, Schaar claimed Johnson was invited to participate in the teach-in but refused.
Johnson says adding one person to the panel reflecting a pro-Israel viewpoint would amount to "tokenism," and instead urged a "neutral committee to select speakers."
Johnson said that in his evaluation for tenure in May, history department chairman Philip Gallagher wrote that Johnson had engaged in "uncollegial" behavior by speaking negatively about colleagues.
"All this should have been a tempest in a teapot until the difficulty with the [European history] search committee," said Johnson. After that point, he said, members of the faculty were determined to run him off the campus.
Lisa Daglian, a college spokeswoman, said the college was hampered by confidentiality requirements in discussing the case. But she said professors generally put in far more time in the classroom than Johnson has before they are promoted.
"It is extremely rare for someone with 22 years of experience to get tenure," said Daglian. "We have great confidence in the process, which is a time-tested process."
Brooklyn’s president, Christoph Kimmich, has extended Johnson’s appointment another year, although critics want him fired.
Twenty-three Brooklyn College colleagues have filed a letter with the chancellor of the City of New York in support of Johnson.
Reguer, the Judaic studies chair, noted that she took part in the 9-11 teach-in, offering a comparison of Islam to other monotheistic religions.
"I’m certainly a supporter of Israel," she said, although she conceded that Israel was not part of her presentation. "At that point the Israel issue hadn’t really reared its head" in relation to 9-11, she noted.
But the director of BC’s Hillel Foundation, Linda Askenazi, said the teach-in "had a slant that was not particularly positive about the United States and Israel, although that was more out of omission than commission."
Askenazi organized a follow-up event with the campus’s Newman Catholic Club that she hoped would be more balanced, although attendance at that event was a fraction of the teach-in’s.
Askenazi, who is not a member of the college faculty, said she believed that Johnson’s views on "a variety of issues" made him unpopular in his department.
"But it would seem that regardless of that, or because of that, the college should want to keep him because it has always been committed to civil discourse," she said.