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HNN: The Case of KC Johnson
Nearly two dozen historians, among them Alan Brinkley, have rallied in defense of Brooklyn College historian Robert David"KC" Johnson, who was recently denied tenure. This page will keep track of media accounts of the controversy. Entries are listed in reverse chronological order.
We, the undersigned members of the faculty of Brooklyn College, want to assure our colleagues within the City University of New York–and around the country–that Robert David Johnson’s tale of persecution must not be taken at face value. Brooklyn College has not yet responded to Johnson’s allegations because it plays by the rules, and the rules do not permit the public airing of confidential personnel information–not even to defend the good names and reputations of the people Johnson has impugned, among them the widely-respected chairman of our History Department. As scholars, moreover, we have not forgotten that the search for truth often requires a suspension of judgment until all the evidence has been produced, which you may be certain it will be, in due course. Brooklyn College’s commitment to the very highest standards of academic integrity and intellectual honesty remains as strong as ever.
Note: Jerome Sternstein has posted a lengthy comment on this petition on HNN. Click here.
The CUNY Association of Scholars strongly . . . denounce[s] the denial of promotion and tenure to Brooklyn College Professor Robert David Johnson, and we urge Chancellor Matthew Goldstein to reverse this unjust and untenable decision with all possible speed.
Brooklyn College president Christoph M. Kimmich effectively fired Dr. Johnson by recently declining to recommend him for promotion with tenure. However, extensive documentary evidence shows that Johnson, a history professor, is eminently deserving of both tenure and promotion by virtue of his stellar scholarship and accomplishments as an educator. Twenty-four leading national scholars have attested to Professor Johnson’s scholarly credentials; his teaching evaluations from both students and colleagues are glowing; and the college itself has termed Professor Johnson’s performance as a scholar and teacher “extraordinarily productive.”
Professor Johnson’s difficulties at Brooklyn College started when he adopted public positions questioning the desirability of affirmative action quotas in hiring and the suitability of a college-sponsored “teach-in” containing no known supporters of U.S. or Israeli policy in the Middle East. When Professor Johnson championed the need for quality in academic and hiring standards within his own department, the department chairperson termed this position “preposterous, specious, and demeaning.” Extensive evidence documents that this chairperson then launched a campaign of retaliation designed to taint Professor Johnson’s reputation and ultimately, with the aid of numerous violations of due process ignored by the college, deny him tenure.
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.
Johnson (whom Sternstein doesn't know personally) is indeed"regarded as a highly accomplished scholar."
Sternstein's contacts at Brooklyn, however, suggest that the" collegiality" concerns are quite real, and many of them have nothing to do with politics."[Johnson] has somehow alienated practically everybody, no matter what political orientation, whether left-wing, right-wing, or no wing." Sternstein"seriously doubt[s] that the opposition to Johnson is based on his politics, whatever they are."
Sternstein goes on:"As far as Johnson eventually getting tenure, I predict that he will. The process is far from over, and Brooklyn College made several procedural errors that are crucial whenever faculty members at CUNY appeal tenure and promotion denials. The most glaring apparent error in Johnson's case is that in his annual evaluation in 2001, he was told that he had 'performed in an exemplary manner,' and he thus can argue he didn't receive the necessary direction to improve his performance, if that performance indeed needed improving. I speak from experience in these matters, since I was once very active in the CUNY faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), representing faculty members in grievance hearings over tenure and promotion issues. Invariably, such procedural errors resulted in negative tenure or promotion decisions being overturned on appeal."
Note: Since this comment was posted Mr. Sternstein has revised his views. He now believes that Johnson is the victim of a" corrupted tenure process."
Two City University of New York trustees spoke out about the case, students announced plans for a rally in the professor’s defense, and more details emerged about the hiring process in the college’s history department. In one e-mail about a search for a professor, the history department’s chairman, Philip Gallagher, suggested “finding some women that we can live with, who are not whiners from the word go or who need therapy as much as they need a job.”
Twenty-three of the nation’s most prominent historians — including Donald Kagan of Yale and Ernest May and Akira Iriye of Harvard — have written a letter to the CUNY chancellor describing the decision to deny tenure to Robert David “KC” Johnson as “disastrous” and “unjust,” The New York Sun reported yesterday. The historians’ letter calls Mr. Johnson “one of the most accomplished young historians in the country,” and says the college’s decision was based not on scholarship or teaching but on a newly invented category of “collegiality,” which the professors said “poses a grave threat to academic freedom.”
The collegiality category was troubling to at least one City University of New York trustee. “This is not a country club. This is a university,” Jeffrey Wiesenfeld told The New York Sun. He said that scholarship should be the overriding issue in tenure decisions. Mr. Wiesenfeld said he was confident that the CUNY chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, would make “the right decision” after reviewing the matter.
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S. Morrison - 12/30/2002
It seems that the biggest issue at this point - once the objective truth seems to have been aired - is not so much a singular bad move by the embittered faculty. Academic pride, stagnation, and arrogance seem to be the disease plagueing Kimmich, Gallagher, and the like.
D Sevier - 12/27/2002
Seems to me that President Kimmich and Gallagher both ought to be sacked. And if I were a parent sending my child (and paying those kind of fees) to Brooklyn College I think I would demand a cleaning of the so called history department. If they will treat a fellow teacher in this manner what are they teaching our children about history and is it a true version of history or their left-wing version. Brooklyn College you have become a disgrace.
David C. Menges - 12/25/2002
Having just read David Orland's article, I think President Kimmich is the real loser here. Sure, Gallagher started it, but Kimmich failed to do the right thing and correct the problem. Why should he be a leader? He's bound to make more bad decisions.
nicole douglas - 12/12/2002
I am a student in his history class. I feel that he has been treated unjustly because of his execellent scholastic ability and confidence. Brooklyn College faculty are biased and discriminatory. He is the best Prof that I ever had in brooklyn college, by far. I am hoping to see him get through this whole ordeal.
Vern - 12/10/2002
KC is RIGHT. Affirmative Action OFTEN equals reverse racism.
I'm thoroughly sick and tired of un-worthy, un-qualified people getting jobs in the name of "affirmative action". It also makes me SICK to my stomach when I see lazy, almost worthless employees who are allowed to KEEP their jobs because they are a woman and/or a minority (when they should be fired due to a million problems and complaints). The system needs to CHANGE. Poeple need to be judged FAIRLY on their work performance, rather than given preferential treatment because they are a minority or a female. In California, white males are often the recipients of racism now, but we can't complain about it. We are silenced, because of the old days of slavery in America.
Bradley Appell - 11/30/2002
As a graduate of Stuyvesant High School in New York, and a current student at Brooklyn College, I have seen many, many educators. Some of them have been good, some bad, and a tiny fraction of them great. KC Johnson clearly falls into the category of great.
I have been passionate about history since I was old enough to read. I can recall reading books about Jefferson, World War II and Watergate all before I was 10 years old. This passion has continued through my educational life. No teacher I have ever come across has a passion for history like KC Johnson.
What then makes it so essential for his receiving tenure? For one, his aformentioned passion. I have never seen a teacher devote so much time to his scholarship than KC. Whether it be teaching, preparing lessons, writing, researchig - this man is truly devoted to the study of history. Second, his teaching style is wonderful. He not only provides detailed yet always captivating lessons, but he listens to students. So many times, I have been in a class where a teacher or professor is in love with the sound of their own voice. Not here. Not with KC - he finds the student's comments and questions to be a vital part of the educational process. This level of respect that he bestows upon his students has earned him the respect of us, the student body of Brooklyn College.
Lastly, to step outside of the educational spectrum, KC Johnson, above all else - the intelligence, the passion, the devotion - is a decent human being. He is there for his students, he is there for those who need to talk about anything, academically or otherwise. We at Brooklyn College are truly a lucky bunch of students to have the opportunity to take his classes, read his books, or just converse with the man. We are all better off for having known him.
This is why he must stay at Brooklyn College.
gus seligmann - 11/25/2002
i would love to comment on Burner's comment. However, Burner's comment is not printed. This strikes me as somewhat akin to the famous crap game in GUYS AND DOLLS. Gus Seligmann
Margaret King - 11/25/2002
It was nice to see Hector Colon’s letter supporting Robert David (KC) Johnson, my colleague in the Brooklyn College (CUNY) History Department. Thanks, Hector, for speaking up.
Hector is right about Johnson’s great popularity with students. I’ve seen them thronging his office and his classroom. He talks to them about the issues that interest them: the politics of this nation in the last 100 years, the presidency and the Congress, foreign policy and the Supreme Court. He does, as Hector say, CARE about students, spending unlimited time with them – more, treating them like intelligent and capable adults, not like dependents in need of handouts. So why would the college act to deny promotion with tenure, and effectively terminate, this kind of teacher? And one who comes loaded with scholarly credentials few can match?
Not merit, but other issues have been at play in this terrible drama. These include Johnson’s skepticism about the goals of a recently-installed, left-leaning faculty union; post-9/11 rhetoric, which, as Johnson and few others had the courage to point out, left the pro-US and pro-Israeli positions, to put it mildly, underrepresented; and an insistent feminist agenda at work in departmental “leadership” and recruitment.
And then there have been, as Jerry Sternstein points out, a string of procedural violations. Even in the absence of other complicating issues, these argue for only one just way out of this imbroglio: to award Johnson promotion, tenure, and vindication.
David Burner - 11/23/2002
You no doubt saw this.
Hector Colon - 11/20/2002
I'm shocked that BC, my alma mater, would even consider denying tenure to Prof. Johnson. As a Graduate student, he was my faculty advisor, my favorite teacher, and a mentor as well. His scholarly reputation is beyond dispute; what's important is that he really CARED about his students and was (still is) a great teacher. Sadly, the same can't be said for most college professors.
If Prof. Johnson is let go by BC, many inner-city students (like myself) will be denied the privelige of being taught by a scholar who is good enough to be in the Ivy league, yet is available to the masses at an affordable price.
The solution is for alumni like myself to let BC know that they can count on NEVER receiving any donations from me in the future. In addition, we can convince older ulumni to stop contributing as well. Maybe this is what it will take for BC to come to its senses.