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Slush Money in the Groves of Academe By: Mitchell Langbert
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, February 15, 2006

In the Kafkaesque world of academic politics, even those organizations established to protect professors' interests have now forsaken that responsibility in favor of striking radical poses.  Take as an example the current leadership of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the faculty union of the City University of New York. In 2002, the PSC made a statement by contributing on behalf of Professor Sami al-Arian, the University of South Florida professor at that time under indictment for terrorism.  But the following year it let CUNY's most accomplished non-tenured professor, Robert David ("KC") Johnson, pay $20,000 out of his own pocket to defend himself against an effort to deny the promotion that might have meant his CUNY career.  Not only this, but the organization has now tried to cover its actions by bureaucratic bird-walking and hairsplitting.

With respect to the al-Arian money, Frontpagemag.com published a column on January 23 jointly authored by Candace de Russy, Phil Orenstein and me that describes the PSC's symbolic support via a contribution for the defense of Sami al-Arian.  In response, last Friday, my Brooklyn College colleague and vice president of the PSC, Steve London, forwarded to me a copy of PSC President Barbara Bowen's letter to Frontpagemag.com stating that the "PSC did not send donations to the defense of Professor Al-Arian.  PSC does, however, unequivocally support academic freedom, and proudly sent a $100 contribution to the United Faculty of Florida (UFF), in support of its academic freedom campaign."

But Bowen's statement contradicts the minutes of the PSC Delegate Assembly's April 25, 2002 meeting, which state that the contribution was for a professor who made comments about the Middle East. It is possible that the professor to whom the minutes refer is not Professor al-Arian (who was eventually found not guilty on eight criminal counts related to terrorist support, perjury and immigration violations in early December, with the jury deadlocked on the remaining nine counts against?  I e-mailed Bowen and London about the identity of the individual to whom the April 25, 2002 minutes refer. I received no reply as to the identity of any professor other than al-Arian who was dismissed because of speech relating to the Middle East.


At the same time that the PSC was sending slush money to its brothers and sisters in the faculty union of South Florida, it was ignoring the plight of one of its own distinguished members. In our column, de Russy, Orenstein and I wrote that "(the PSC) refused to support the tenure grievance of CUNY Professor Robert David ("KC") Johnson, who had been denied a promotion because of his moderate Democrat political views."  PSC President Bowen replies that the "PSC represented Professor Johnson in two issues related to his reappointment and promotion.  One was settled and the other was withdrawn-both with his approval and consent."


Most academics believe that research and teaching ought to be the chief criteria for promotion and tenure. When he applied for a promotion several years ago, Professor Johnson had written several books and numerous articles. He was (and is) a popular teacher.  Because he was a respected historian with a strong research record, promotion to full professor should have been a breeze.  But Professor Johnson had argued with his colleagues, taking the unpopular positions that merit ought to be the basis for hiring new faculty and that pro-Israel speakers ought to be included in a colloquium about the Middle East.  As a result of these disagreements, several Brooklyn College faculty committees claimed that Professor Johnson lacked "collegiality," and on this   basis the committees denied his promotion.  He then filed a grievance and CUNY's chancellor, Matt Goldstein, overturned the faculty review committees' decision, giving Professor Johnson the promotion. 


PSC President Bowen's claim of the union’s warm support for Professor Johnson in her  letter markedly differs from her attitude toward him as expressed in a letter published in the New York Sun on July 29, 2004 which states, "Robert David Johnson reveals a crudeness of thought that has no place in  public discourse, much less in a university."  Such remarks about a colleague whom Bowen's organization is obligated to represent are shocking.  Indeed, given the record, it astonishes me that Bowen can straight-facedly claim that the PSC supported Professor Johnson in any but the most perfunctory way.


In fact, one PSC executive committee member at Brooklyn College contributed a letter to the "shadow file," a cache of secret, denunciatory letters about Professor Johnson that was compiled in violation of the PSC-CUNY contract.  The PSC did not denounce the existence of the shadow file.  And in addition to Bowen's letter in the New York Sun, a member of the Brooklyn College PSC executive committee published a letter critical of Professor Johnson in the student newspaper, the Kingsman. The PSC legal staff compiled a memo endorsing the legality of the college's claim that it could deny tenure solely on the basis of "uncollegiality."  By e-mail, I offered to set up a meeting to reconcile the long-simmering hostility between Bowen and the PSC and Professor Johnson that arose when the union leadership failed to adequately support Johnson. Neither Bowen nor her second-in command Steve London replied.


In the context of the grievance about his promotion Professor Johnson hired a private attorney, at a personal cost of approximately $20,000.  Had the PSC truly supported him, as it retroactively claimed, he would not have been forced to take such a desperate measure.  But in addition to forcing him to use his own money to defend himself, the PSC allowed a member of its executive committee to use this expenditure as grounds to attack and defame Professor Johnson.  Professor Susan O'Malley, university-wide PSC officer, president of the CUNY faculty senate and ex-officio member of the CUNY Board of Trustees, published a statement asking, "What kind of message does this give to faculty coming up for promotion? That it is better for a faculty member who anticipates any difficulty to hire a private lawyer and ask the Chancellor to form his own committee?"


Professor O'Malley, like Bowen an officer of the union with a duty to represent Johnson, also understated Johnson's achievements when she wrote in the Senate Digest that "he (Johnson) has one other monograph in press" and "he has not published since his tenure clock (or pre-tenure  period)."  Professor Johnson's tenure clock had begun in 1999 and  Professor O'Malley had made this statement in 2003.  The fact is that  Professor Johnson's curriculum vita shows that during his pre-tenure  Johnson had published a book,  20 January 1961: The American Dream, and six articles. Professor Johnson's pre-tenure publication record excelled all of the other faculty members at Brooklyn College who went up for tenure at that time.


The issues surrounding this assault on a colleague and union member involve not just defamation but in addition breach of duty to a faculty member whom the PSC leadership did not like politically and personally because he demanded rigorous hiring standards and did not follow the faculty's suppressive, left wing party line.  As Professor Johnson wrote, "If (the PSC's) record constitutes 'support' of my tenure grievance, I'd hate to see what constitutes opposition!"


Few competent academics would argue that "collegiality"—especially when that means sailing with the politically correct winds--ought to supplant publication as the chief determinant of tenure.  Even if Johnson's personality is unapologetic or abrasive (which I would emphatically add does not seem to be case) abrasiveness in the pursuit of knowledge is no vice.  The groupthink and party-line-think that characterizes academia in 2006 requires an abrasive response.  The argument that professors ought to "fit in" and have "collegiality" amounts to anti-intellectual suppression of the sort of free inquiry that the academy ought to value, not derogate.  For the PSC to allow this to happen suggests that it has abdicated its role as an advocate of academics in general and of conservatives in particular.


The union seems to consider criminal charges against someone like al-Arian an urgent "academic freedom" matter.  It allows one of its own, who is a fine and courageous scholar, to go begging. The full-time faculty  members at the City University of New York who are forced to contribute hundreds  of dollars per year in dues might want to consider pressing for the  revision of the Taylor Law, the New York State law that regulates  public sector labor relations.  Right now what they pay amounts to consumer fraud.


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Mitchell Langbert is Associate Professor at the Department of Business and Economics at Brooklyn College.

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