Just over a year ago, Robert David (“KC”) Johnson, a much-admired associate professor of history at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Brooklyn College, formally requested tenure. Under normal circumstances, Johnson — whose record as a scholar and teacher is impeccable — would have been a shoo-in for promotion. But these weren’t normal circumstances: Instead of receiving tenure, Johnson found himself the victim of an organized campaign on the part of political enemies to run him out of the college.
If anyone had a strong case for promotion, it was Johnson. An up-and-coming young scholar who has authored 26 scholarly publications, including forthcoming titles from W.W. Norton and Cambridge University Press, the 34-year old Harvard graduate has already published more than many historians do in a lifetime. He also has a first-rate teaching record and consistently receives rave reviews from students. As Paula Fischtner, former chairwoman of Brooklyn College’s History Department, remarked “history doesn’t produce many prodigies but he’s one of them.” Johnson’s current boss, History Department Chairman Philip E. Gallagher, also had good things to say about him. In an April 2001 faculty review, Gallagher wrote that “in every category of measurement — in teaching effectiveness, scholarship, and in service to the department, the college, and the university — KC Johnson has performed in an exemplary manner.”
So what went wrong? According to a May 6 decision handed down by the committee responsible for reviewing his tenure application, Johnson was guilty of several breaches of “collegiality.” In particular, the committee charged that Johnson had failed to enforce course prerequisites, had manipulated his workload, and had spoken “arrogantly” of colleagues’ work.
A legal memo recently submitted by Johnson and his lawyers to Brooklyn College President Christoph Kimmich tells a very different story.
According to the memo, the trouble began late last fall when Johnson ran afoul of Gallagher during a politically charged search for a new professor of European history. In apparent violation of non-discriminatory hiring practices, several members of the search committee made clear their intention to hire a woman for the job; wishing to avoid trouble in the department and mindful that a new, left-leaning provost had been appointed to the college’s administration, Gallagher played along. As Gallagher allegedly explained at the time in an e-mail to Johnson, he wanted to bring to campus “some women we can live with, who are not whiners from the word go or who need therapy as much as they need a job.”
Gallagher seems to have found this part of his job distasteful. In e-mails to Johnson, he allegedly referred to Professors Bonnie Anderson and Stuart Schaar, both members of the search committee keen on hiring women, as “academic terrorists” and singled out Anderson, in particular, as “an unscrupulous and unprofessional mole.” Even so, Gallagher was astonished by Johnson’s reply. Academic qualifications, not gender, should guide their search for a new professor of European history, Johnson urged.
This was the beginning of the rift between Gallagher and Johnson. Furious at what he regarded as trouble-making on the search committee, Gallagher dismissed Johnson’s defense of academic standards as “preposterous, specious, and demeaning.” When Johnson still refused to back down, Gallagher decided to cut his losses: If Johnson wouldn’t play along, Johnson would have to go.
Gallagher found eager allies in the History Department’s left wing. As a member of the search committee, Johnson had consistently stood in the way of their efforts to staff the faculty with like-thinking ideologues. He had also broken the leftist monopoly on political speech by criticizing an October 2001, university-sponsored “teach-in” on the Middle East and Southeast Asia for failing to include a single supporter of American or Israeli policy. This incident was to provide the principal grounds for the charge of “uncollegiality” leveled against him when the tenure review committee met several months later.*
What followed, according to Johnson and his supporters, was an organized campaign on the part of Gallagher and his allies to stack the deck against Johnson’s chances for tenure. In the months leading up to the committee’s first hearing, Johnson charges, Gallagher pulled in old favors from committee members who might otherwise look favorably on Johnson’s application, arbitrarily changed the meaning and weight assigned “collegiality” in the tenure review process. He also pointedly failed to consult faculty members who had access to Johnson’s file and who might speak favorably of him while relying on the testimony of those who didn’t and wouldn’t, including known enemies like Anderson and Schaar.
Gallagher must now wish he hadn’t pushed so hard. Since it first went public, the Johnson case has proven to be a public-relations disaster, not just for Brooklyn College, but for the City University of New York more generally (for full details of media coverage of the case, click here. "It’s odd that they would choose to go after a historian and assume that he would not have retained all of his documents," Johnson recently remarked in conversation with the author, "that was a bad mistake."
Indeed it was. The memo supplied by Johnson meticulously details correspondence he had with other Brooklyn College professors in the months leading up to the tenure review. What emerges is a portrait of a department badly at odds with itself, racked by political hostility, petty rivalry and unscrupulous opportunism.
On the face of it, Johnson’s case might appear just another example of faculty politics gone bad. In pursuing his “vendetta” against Johnson, Gallagher seems to have been motivated by nothing loftier than a desire to enforce the departmental pecking order by reining in a junior colleague who, he felt, had gotten out of line. While such behavior is clearly unethical — and probably also illegal — Johnson is hardly the first junior faculty to suffer the wrath of an unscrupulous senior colleague.
And yet, to judge by the evidence, Johnson was punished less for his independence than for the fact that his independence was inconsistent with the demands of a powerful left-wing faction in Brooklyn College’s faculty and administration — a faction that Gallagher felt he must placate. When Johnson got in the way of Gallagher’s efforts to satisfy their demands to appoint a woman in the European history search, Gallagher offered them Johnson instead.
But by daring to dissent from his department’s left-wing consensus, Johnson was merely practicing the most basic kind of academic freedom. His insistence on high academic standards in faculty hiring and criticism of last fall’s bogus “teach-in” made him unpopular among those of his colleagues who favor affirmative action and going easy in the Middle East. Being unpopular, however, is hardly the same thing as being “uncollegial.” By confusing the two — and that, in the end, is what the tenure review board’s charge of “uncollegiality” amounts to — Gallagher and his allies have in effect written ideological conformity into the contract at Brooklyn College.
The Johnson case is in this respect just the latest example of how ideology has come to infect academics on American campuses. By punishing him, Brooklyn College has shown that it cares more about advancing the political agenda of a segment of its faculty than it does about scholarly achievement and excellence in the classroom. Should his persecutors have their way, not only will the students of Brooklyn College have lost a popular and well-respected teacher but a blow will have been delivered to academic freedom across the country.
To his credit, Johnson isn’t taking the college’s decision lying down. Though denied tenure, Johnson has decided to stay on at Brooklyn and fight for another hearing. In doing so, he’s gained support from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the CUNY Association of Scholars, and the Brooklyn College student government. Some students have even formed a group to protest the college’s decision; they call themselves Students Against Academic Terrorism and held an early-December protest on Johnson’s behalf.
Johnson’s professional colleagues have also rallied to his cause. In an unprecedented move, a group of 23 respected historians have submitted a letter to CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein protesting Johnson’s negative tenure recommendation. The letter, organized by Akira Iriye, Johnson’s dissertation advisor at Harvard University and a past president of the American Historical Association, characterizes Brooklyn College’s decision as “disastrous and unjust.” Denying Johnson tenure, the letter’s authors write, “poses a grave threat to academic freedom, since the robust and unfettered exchange of ideas is central to the pursuit of truth.”
The coming months will be a test, not just for the City University of New York, but for the American academic establishment more generally. By denying Johnson tenure, Brooklyn College has said ‘no’ to reasoned dissent. At a university, there can be no greater corruption.
Update: Under tremendous pressure from alumni and trustees to revise the tenure review committee’s decision, CUNY Chancellor Goldstein recently appealed to Brooklyn College President Kimmich to find a way out. Kimmich has since done just that: Johnson can stay another year if he likes, the administration recently informed him, but there will be no revision of the tenure committee’s decision. Clearly, CUNY hopes that this stratagem will succeed in killing media interest in the case. When Johnson’s contract next comes up for renewal, they will be free to quietly drop him.
* As it was presented, the charge of “uncollegiality” leveled against Johnson could just as easily have been made against any member of Brooklyn’s faculty. According to Johnson, he was guilty of “manipulating his workload” because he once helped out a colleague by swapping supervisions. As for failing to “enforce course requirements”, that, Johnson points out, is the responsibility of BC’s administration, not of individual professors. Indeed, according to Johnson, Gallagher settled on the charge of “uncollegiality”, not on its merits, but only because it would be the most difficult to refute. “Plaintiffs never prevail in collegiality cases,” Gallagher was reportedly assured by a lawyer for the college.