The chair of Harvard’s history department has come to the defense of a longtime friend and colleague who learned last month that Brooklyn College would let him go after several confrontations with his department chair.
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.”