Reading about the case of Robert David "KC" Johnson, the popular Brooklyn College Professor of History who has been denied tenure and promotion, gave me a feeling of déjà vu.
Mr. Johnson is a young and upcoming historian who taught at and turned down tenure at Williams College to teach at CUNY. At this early stage in his accademic career, he has already published four major books. Usually, a man of his caliber would be an advertisement for why people should study at CUNY. He already had been made a member of the Graduate Faculty in History, a distinction awarded only the best scholars in any school. Students loved him, and he had regularly been given excellent reports on his teaching, scholarship, and overall performance by his Department Chair. He holds both a B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, and an M.A. from The University of Chicago.
Because of his exemplary record, Mr. Johnson filed an application to be promoted to full professor in October of 2001. He expected that those who supported him would continue to do so. Instead, he learned some hard lessons about academic politics.
Mr. Johnson fell on the outs following a search for a new candidate for a position in European history in which he and blanched at hiring a candidate on grounds of gender and race, rather than merit.
Those who turned against him would and could not admit the real reasons, instead, they came up with a new standard that superseded anything else in his record, that of "collegiality." This highly unusual and subjective term evidently superceded excellence in teaching and highly regarded scholarship as the main criteria for a promotion to full professor.
What really was at stake was the desire of department feminists and radicals to hire a woman, no matter her credentials. The chairman himself e-mailed Mr. Johnson that he wanted "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." The comment, though blatantly sexist, nevertheless satisfied feminists who wanted preference for hiring on the basis of gender alone.
Mr. Johnson's denial of promotion created a storm among scholars, including such prominent figures as Ernest May and Akira Iriye of Harvard University, Alan Brinkley of Columbia University, and 15 others.
Mr. Johnson has also obtained the help of a legal firm, which has prepared a memorandum of law showing the ways in which denial of his promotion violates not only CUNY's own rules, but state and federal law as well.
And then there is the political agenda of Mr. Johnson's opponents. The chairman of his own department had e-mailed Mr. Johnson in February of 2001, saying that his main opponents on the campus were two professors he labeled "academic terrorists," who wanted to drive Mr. Johnson out because he was opposed to staffing the department with left-wing ideologues.
Mr. Johnson not only opposed "politically correct" hiring based mainly on gender and race, he also opposed the none too subtle efforts of hard-line leftists to create solidly Marxist- and feminist- oriented departments that would help in their self-appointed task of creating a socialist university.
That Mr. Johnson himself is no rabid conservative or right-winger is irrelevant to his foes; it was enough that he favors fairness in the hiring process and is an opponent of those who seek to use their power to create an overtly left-wing center of scholarship. For those sins, Mr. Johnson is being pushed out of Brooklyn College.
As Mr. Johnson's ordeal gains national attention, the reputation of CUNY as a serious institution of higher learning is at stake. In no small part because of this attention, Mr. Johnson is likely to win his fight, and to have his appointment restored, along with a well deserved promotion to full Professor of History.
None of what has happened to him surprises me. Mr. Johnson's experience is much the same as my own at CUNY over 25 years ago, but with one major difference. I was then an outspoken activist and a published author of well received books, in which most reviewers referred to me as a "New Left historian." Back in the 1960s and 1970s, CUNY¹s humanities departments were not yet dominated by the left, and people like myself were in the minority. We faced fierce opposition from other faculty members and the college administration. Indeed, my own sometimes obstreperous actions on campus provided many reasons for my opponents to accuse me of far worse things than a lack of collegiality.
In 1975 (11 years after my initial appointment to the City University) I applied, for the third time, for a promotion to the rank of full professor of history. I had received solid ratings from my colleagues in the areas of teaching and scholarship, had served on the requisite department and college committees, and had published widely, including three books which had received major reviews and comments by historians and scholars of note. At my home college, Queensborough Community College, I stood alone in having scholarship that had given me a nation-wide reputation. Like Mr. Johnson, I was appointed to the Graduate Faculty in History at the CUNY Graduate Center. I was the only professor in the school to be awarded that honor.
Nevertheless, I was consistently turned down in my quest for promotion. I thought that the citation of my professorship at Queensborough in my articles, lectures and publications would be seen as a mark of pride by the institution. Instead, as one dean told me at the time, "your publications don't do anything for us; we're a glorified high school and they just help you." Off the record, it was made clear to me by my department chair that my outspoken left-wing political views and my constant activism were the reasons the administration sought to hold back my promotion.
Like Mr. Johnson, I took two courses of action. First, I sought to avail myself of support from major mainstream historians. I appealed formally to the American Historical Association, and asked that they investigate my case as a blatant example of discrimination on grounds of denial of academic freedom. The appropriate AHA subcommittee sent a delegation of distinguished scholars from major universities to interview me, the administration, and my opponents. The committee's report rebuked the college, and concluded that at any other college or university I long ago would have been promoted to full professor.
While that endorsement gave me publicity and ammunition, it had no legal standing. I then took one course that is apparently closed to Mr. Johnson. I went to the faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, and asked that they file a grievance on my behalf. The union, despite its leadership's opposition to my radical positions on political and educational issues, immediately agreed to come to my defense. In a grievance filed in February of 1976, they wrote that "Dr. Radosh is eminently qualified to hold the rank of Professor of History. In terms of scholarship, he has achieved a reputation of renown and more than meets the Bylaw requirements for that rank." When that course of action did not produce results, the union decided to take things one step further. They proceeded to file suit in federal court, and their legal staff produced documentation of legal precedents, similar to those cited by Mr. Johnson's counsel in his memorandum of law.
After one fact-finding session was held with University counsel and union lawyers, the administration backed down and in September of 1978, I was promoted to full professor of history.
In Mr. Johnson's case, the PSC (now under the control of the far left) refused to even file a grievance on his behalf. Johnson was told by a PSC representative on his campus that a lack of "collegiality" was a valid ground on which to refuse promotion, and that he had no legitimate grievance. Clearly, the union leadership, which is on the record in favor of policies opposed by Mr. Johnson, does not see fit to represent him, despite the solid case he has presented.
In my time at CUNY, the union stayed out of ideological politics and represented anyone with a legitimate grievance, no matter the professor's political views. I had written publicly that the American union movement was not representative of labor's true needs, and was in cahoots with industry to crush incipient radicalism. Though they vigorously disagreed with my arguments, the PSC's leaders came to my defense in as strong a fashion as possible.
Mr. Johnson represents the best of what CUNY has to offer its students; educated at top universities, he left a college many aspire to teach at to come to CUNY. He found that while his students appreciated and applauded his work and his commitment, the left-wing professoriate now dominant in the academy could not tolerate his insistence on quality standards in hiring, his dismissal of politically correct criteria, and his non-ideological approach to his field. Similarly, the left-wing union now representing CUNY professors obviously was angry at his open opposition to the new union leadership's positions on scores of issues. If Johnson does not gain his promotion and tenure at Brooklyn College, it would send a message to New Yorkers and to institutions of higher learning throughout our nation that CUNY puts politics above quality when it comes to rewarding its professors and is more afraid of the organized "academic terrorists" then they are of New Yorkers who want a quality institution staffed by the best professors they can hire.