Harvard Prof Appeals on Behalf of CUNY Colleague
Warren Professor of American History Akira Iriye spearheaded a drive by two dozen prominent historians who sent a letter last week to the chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY) protesting the system’s decision not to reappoint Robert David “KC” Johnson ’88.
Iriye joins a fray that has embroiled students and faculty members across the Brooklyn campus.
Students have flocked to Johnson’s support, forming an organization on his behalf called Students Against Academic Terrorism and planning a protest rally for Dec. 4, which could attract up to 150 students, said Daniel W. Weininger, one of the group’s founding members.
Yesterday the college’s student government filed a formal resolution condemning the way administrators handled Johnson’s case and claiming their actions violate freedom of speech guarantees in the school’s constitution.
According to Johnson, his dismissal came after he fell into disfavor with the history department. The first clash occurred over the make-up of a post-Sept. 11 panel. Then Johnson had a series of run-ins with department chair Phillip F. Gallagher—over the search for a new professor, over the students Johnson admitted to his classes and generally over the way he conducted himself with colleagues.
Finally, in an Oct. 29 letter, the president of the college informed Johnson that he would have to leave at the end of the academic year.
According to former Brooklyn history department chair Paula S. Fichtner, the series of events leading up to the dismissal letter amounted to “a campaign of harassment” to oust Johnson.
Last Tuesday, Iriye, Fichtner and 19 other historians from around the country—including Warren Professor of American History Ernest May and Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley—sent their letter to the CUNY chancellor expressing “shock and dismay” at Johnson’s treatment.
They accused Brooklyn College of overlooking his scholarship and teaching ability and judging him on a subjective standard of “collegiality,” a criterion for evaluating professors that does not appear in CUNY’s written guidelines.
“This decision reflects a ‘culture of mediocrity’ hostile to high academic standards,” the letter says. “Introducing a redundant category of collegiality rewards young professors who ‘go along to get along’ rather than expressing independent scholarly judgement.”
“It poses a grave threat to academic freedom, since the robust and unfettered exchange of ideas is central to the pursuit of truth,” the letter adds.
Since Iriye sent the letter, three more scholars have added their names and he said he continues to look for more signatories.
“This is the first time in my experience that scholars have gotten together to protest a decision like this,” Iriye said. “I am terribly upset and mystified by it. KC is a very visible scholar and a spectacular teacher.”
Johnson said his treatment by college officials had been “ethically wrong.”
“The outpouring of support from the leading scholars in my field makes me feel good, because they value my work,” he said. “But it is embarrassing to be denied tenure. People say you’re a failure.”
Gallagher and other CUNY officials declined comment, but Brooklyn College released a statement last week defending its procedures in the Johnson case.
“All aspects of a person’s performance are considered as part of these processes, including his or her relationship to students, faculty and the department,” the statement said.
One member of the CUNY board of trustees, which could be called on to review the case in the future, said he objects to the way Brooklyn College judged Johnson’s bid for tenure and “can’t imagine” that the trustees would favor his departure.
“Collegiality is an appropriate criterion if I wanted to join a prestigious country club and play well with the other children,” said Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, “but it is not that which is necessary to determine whether someone is a good professor.”
Fall From a Department’s Graces
The relationship between Johnson and Iriye, his intellectual mentor, goes back nearly 15 years.
After graduating from the College with honors in 1988, Johnson continued his study of history at the University of Chicago—where he went expressly to work with Iriye.
When Iriye received an appointment at Harvard in 1989, Johnson followed him back to Cambridge to continue his graduate work. As he worked on his dissertation about progressives in American foreign policy in the 1920s and ’30s, Johnson taught extensively for Iriye and May and won the Levinson Prize for outstanding teaching fellow.
He taught at Williams College for four years as an untenured assistant professor—then declined an offer of tenure from Williams to accept an untentured position at Brooklyn College.
When he arrived in 1999 as an associate professor, he was initially greeted with enthusiasm.
“It was clear from the outset that KC was a truly exceptional person,” said Fichtner, who recently retired from the department and had served three stints as its chair. “In general he met with enormous approval, including the approval of the chair. The chair’s evaluations generally said that KC could do no wrong.”
By Johnson’s account, his relationship with Brooklyn College started to sour last fall.
When the college hosted a discussion last November on international affairs following the Sept. 11 attacks, Johnson sent an e-mail to the provost objecting that the panel included no pro-Israeli or Middle East scholars.
A more serious run-in—this time with Gallagher—occurred during the history department’s search for a 20th-century central or eastern European studies professor. At the time, Johnson sat on the department’s appointments committee, which had narrowed the field to five candidates.
In an e-mail to the rest of the committee last winter, Johnson cited what he called “grave problems” with one of the two women on that short list. He called her teaching evaluations unsatisfactory and her scholarship inadequate.
“I expressed the opinion that we should hire based on scholarship and ability,” Johnson said. “In my opinion one of the candidates was not qualified.”
Gallagher responded in an e-mail to the committee about a week later, saying that Johnson’s opinions were “preposterous, specious, and demeaning.”
According to Fichtner, who was not directly involved in the search, the department had an “unofficial agenda” to hire a woman for the position.
Johnson said he believes that when he went against this agenda, he incurred Gallagher’s displeasure.
“Over the next several weeks the chairman began to build a case against my promotion,” Johnson said.
The tension between Johnson and Gallagher over the search soon resulted in a more serious showdown.
On January 25—three weeks after their e-mail exchange and one day before the start of the spring term—Gallagher told seven students who had enrolled in Johnson’s course on the CIA that they couldn’t take it because they had not completed the prerequisite class. He also removed eight students from Johnson’s independent study courses.
Gallagher then wrote a memo saying Johnson was flouting department policy by admitting unqualified students into his CIA colloquium, as well as his independent studies.
Johnson fought back with a memo of his own, citing statistics that show the department had “overlooked rules about prerequisites for the last several years—without comment.”
Weininger, the leader of the pro-Johnson student group, was one of the students removed from the CIA course. When he met with the history chair in protest, he recalled Gallagher saying “Johnson is trouble and those who associate with him will find themselves in trouble as well.”
Things came to a head when Johnson applied for tenure last spring. Given his length of service at Brooklyn, CUNY rules dictated that he could not be reappointed as an associate professor. He would have to be made a tenured member of the faculty or let go.
And since tenure decisions at CUNY are made through a panel of department heads at each college, Gallagher’s opposition would have been enough to defeat his bid for a full professorship.
According to Johnson, when Gallagher surveyed the history faculty for opinions on his case, the chair only talked with professors who had disagreed with him in the past.
Johnson said he believes these members of the department accused him of speaking arrogantly and dismissively about their work—accusations that Johnson says stem from the panel and search controversies.
After the reappointment committee met this fall, Johnson received the Oct. 29 letter from Brooklyn College President Christoph M. Kimmich, saying he was unable to recommended his promotion.
Kimmich declined to comment, and several history professors did not respond to requests for comment.
Johnson has submitted a request for written justification, but as of now he will be leaving Brooklyn College at the end of the academic year.
“Before this happened, I thought I would spend the rest of my life here,” he said. “Although I feel I have been treated incredibly unfairly by the institution, I will stay if they change their minds, because as many as 200 people have helped me throughout this, both colleagues and students.”
But if the college stays its course, Johnson said, he’s not sure where he would end up next year.
“I am very much hoping that the trustees and chancellors of CUNY will review and reopen KC’s case and candidly go over the records,” Iriye said. “I am quite confident that if they review everything, they will agree that an injustice has been done.”