Suicide Bombers and Academic Freedom

Ashley Thorne

A young adjunct professor just starting out in his academic career has had a rude awakening.  

Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a 26-year-old graduate student at City University of New York, was hired in December to teach a master’s level course at Brooklyn College, “Politics of the Middle East.” Last week the university fired him after a NY state assemblyman, Dov Hikind, wrote a letter to the Brooklyn College president complaining about him and saying his biases prevented him from teaching his course impartially.

This appears to be a case of neglect of academic freedom and fair treatment.

According to Inside Higher Ed, a student who was to take Petersen-Overton’s course met with the department chair, Mark Ungar, to express concerns after she learned that he had worked in Gaza as a research assistant for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. The student sent her findings to Hikind, a pro-Israel Orthodox Jew, who then wrote a letter to President Karen Gould which called Petersen-Overton “an overt supporter of terrorism.”

One element of Petersen-Overton’s background that Hikind took issue with was his unpublished manuscript that seeks to examine the Palestinian perception of “martyrdom,” including that of suicide bombers. Hikind said “There’s nothing to understand about someone who murders women and children,” he said. “You condemn.” Hikind here seems to take an attitude antithetical to the spirit of scholarly inquiry. There may be a legitimate place for scholarship studying a culture’s reverence for suicide bombing.

Hikind also objected to Petersen-Overton’s syllabus for his course, which Hikind said was “all basically one-sided.” Of the many texts listed as required and recommended reading, most do seem to be authored either by pro-Palestine writers Israeli critics of Israel, and a significant number are by Edward Said, the Palestinian-American literary theorist famous in his hostility toward the West and toward Israel, and his adherents.

These are antecedents that would raise doubts in our minds too that Petersen-Overton is someone who would scrupulously maintain the distinction between scholarly inquiry and political advocacy. But the time and place to have resolved that doubt was in the appointment process. Once his academic appointment was approved, Peterson-Overton should have had the opportunity to demonstrate his good will and capacity to teach “Politics of the Middle East” in a manner appropriate to the graduate program. Brooklyn College’s after-the-fact discovery of procedural irregularities it now claims as grounds for dismissing him from his appointment does not pass the test of simple credibility. 

For our part at the National Association of Scholars, we would wish that those who study the politics of the Middle East know something about the ideas of the late literary theorist Edward Said. He was and continues to be a major influence on the American academy. That influence in our view is largely lamentable. Said’s attack on Western scholarship about the Middle East as inherently biased in favor of Western colonial interests proved to be a destructive ideological formulation that has impeded legitimate scholarship. Nonetheless, any student going into the field needs to be familiar with Said’s work and it is not on its face improper to see writings by Said in a syllabus for a course on “Politics of the Middle East.” We would hope that Mr. Petersen-Overton or anyone else teaching the course would also pay suitable attention to scholars who dispute Said’s attacks on “Orientalism.” But rescinding the appointment of an instructor on the basis of complaints about the likelihood of his future bias strikes us a serious misstep and a very bad precedent.

NAS takes an interest in intellectual diversity. Last August we considered that Brooklyn College’s book choice for freshman reading opened the college to accusations of political one-sidedness. The sole book to be read by incoming undergraduates was Moustafa Bayoumi’s How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, which aims to establish Arab and Muslim Americans as victims and indict American society for making them so. While NAS noted the ideological nature of the book, we did not seek to censor the book or have its author, who teaches in the English department at the college, removed. Rather, we suggested that the common reading program assign books of greater intrinsic worth and lasting importance.

Brooklyn College says its decision to remove Petersen-Overton from his teaching post did not result from Hikind’s letter. According to Inside Higher Ed:

But the administration had begun reviewing his qualifications last week, before Hikind's letter, penned Monday, even arrived at the college, said Jeremy Thompson, a Brooklyn College spokesman.

"There’s a lot of factors at play that seem to be connected, but aren’t," he said. The issue isn't one of academic freedom; in fact, Thompson said, the course will continue under a different faculty member. The problem was that Petersen-Overton wasn't sufficiently credentialed to teach an upper-level graduate course. "He wasn’t qualified," he said.

Petersen-Overton said this was the first time he had heard of this requirement of additional qualification. In a press release published on his website, he said, “I was not contacted by Brooklyn College administration at any time during their decision-making process. This politically motivated action undermines CUNY’s longstanding legacy as a stalwart defender of academic freedom.”

Indeed, Brooklyn College seems to have created a cover story to justify a decision that violated academic freedom. Like Martin Gaskell, the astronomer turned down for a position at the University of Kentucky because he was suspected of being “potentially evangelical,” Petersen-Overton appears to have dismissed for his views, not for being under-qualified. Unlike in Gaskell’s case, there is no publicly available evidence documenting this on the college’s end.

Still, the most likely reason for Petersen-Overton’s discharge is that the Brooklyn College administration feared the effects of his political perspective and how it would reflect on the college’s reputation, just as a search committee member did at UK when considering Martin Gaskell: “[A non-committee member] suggested, in particular, that we might one day wake up to a [Lexington] Herald-Leader headline citing ‘UK hires creationist as Observatory Director.’” So both colleges appear to have acted in fear and resorted to ideological litmus tests.

If Petersen-Overton had been allowed to teach his course, it’s quite possible that he might have tried to push his views on students, and that he might not provide for intellectual diversity in his classroom. In that case, the college would have had reasonable grounds to question his teaching integrity. But it didn’t give him that chance. Petersen-Overton’s preemptive removal is like the PreCrime justice system in the movie Minority Report. We should not punish people for what we think they might do. 

Brooklyn College declares itself “a sanctuary of academic freedom,” which it grants on the basis of some conditions, such as “self-restraint.” It specifies that academic freedom “cannot be invoked by those who would subordinate intellectual freedom to political ends or who violate the norms of conduct established to protect that freedom.” Petersen-Overton did neither. If Brooklyn College truly believes its own statement that its tradition of academic freedom is “an honored one, to be guarded vigilantly,” it should reinstate this wrongly dismissed professor.

Update, 5:40 PM: We have learned that at 6:00 this evening, Brooklyn College will be making an official statement announcing its decision to rehire Kristofer Petersen-Overton unconditionally. Assuming this is accurate, this is welcome news. 

Update, 2/1: It's been confirmed that Brooklyn College made a statement last night saying that it would reinstate Petersen-Overton to his post. His course begins on Thursday. For details, see the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

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