All posts by KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

Alabama’s New Department

A “Kinsley gaffe” comes when a politician inadvertently reveals a politically inconvenient truth. Perhaps in higher education, we can now speak of an “Alabama gaffe,” named for the University of Alabama, which recently decided to combine (“blend” was the university’s preferred verb) its women’s studies and African-American studies programs, creating a new entity called the “Department of Gender and Race Studies.”
Although the University doesn’t say so, it’s clear that financial concerns are playing a role here—especially given that virtually no students (16 in all) are affiliated with the two programs, either as undergraduate majors or as graduate students.
That said, universities everywhere are facing budgetary shortfalls—so why combine these two departments? Such a move would make little intellectual sense if the two programs were actually engaged in the pedagogically diverse scholarship, since they wouldn’t seem to have all that much in common. What common roots would apply to, say, a study of the pro-life movement among women of faith and an examination of the roots of the African slave trade? But, explained the new “blended” department’s chair, DoVeanna Fulton Minor, Ph.D, the move makes sense, because “together we create a critical mass of faculty and students who have similar research interests and can work together.”

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Foolishness At Hofstra

As president of a university that experienced a high-profile false rape claim, Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz would have a long way to go to match the poor performance of Duke president Richard Brodhead.
That said, Rabinowitz certainly would win no awards for profiles in courage. In response to the filing of false sexual assault charges by one of his institution’s students, Danmell Ndonye, Rabinowitz announced that Hofstra administrators “will redouble our educational efforts and try to increase awareness among students, faculty, and staff of any potential signs of danger or dangerous behavior, and the need to pass that information on to Public Safety so that it can be adequately and appropriately addressed.”
And these were not merely words. Rabinowitz appointed a presidential task force “to undertake a review of all aspects of security, including operations, communications, programs, policies and procedures to insure that we are taking every possible precaution to maintain a secure and safe campus. In addition, we will once again be seeking to utilize the services of an outside consultant to conduct a security audit and make recommendations as to best practices and possible enhancements to our program.”
If, as Ndonye claimed, she had been lured into a campus bathroom by several men, tied up, and then raped, Rabinowitz’s proposal would make perfect sense. The failure of Hofstra’s campus security to have protected Ndonye would be a major scandal for the university. Indeed, the Hofstra rape would be another Kitty Genovese affair, with the focus in this instance on the callousness of the myriad Hofstra students in the dorm who remained indifferent to Ndonye’s screams of horror.

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CUNY Union: Challenge Gratz?

I have written elsewhere on how academic unions tend to attract the most extremist voices even in an academy that overwhelmingly tilts to one side ideologically. Within the category of extremist academic unions, however, the CUNY union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), stands out.
Since 2000 headed by a faction called the New Caucus, the PSC has seemed to be far more interested in play-acting as 1960s radicals than in doing to hard work of negotiating or building popular support for higher education. The union leadership criticizes Israeli national security policy. It demands a return to the disastrous open admissions policy of the 1970s. Its president, Barbara Bowen, was the only New York union head to oppose military action against the Taliban in 2001. It has spent countless hours advocating for striking Stella D’Oro workers, or striking teachers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, or various other causes that have nothing to do with what’s supposed to be its central mission—ensuring the economic well-being of CUNY faculty and staff.
Yet even given this record, the PSC’s latest initiative is off the wall. The union leadership (whose president and vice-president are both white), has just announced that it :has convened an advisory group on CUNY and Race . . . to investigate the impact of racism and racial inequality within the University and without – as a possible factor in the history of public funding for CUNY.”

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The History-Only College

Last week, the Boston Globe reported on the founding of a two-year college (for junior and senior transfer students) in New Hampshire. The curriculum of the American College of History and Legal Studies will consist solely of history classes. The college will accept community college transfer students, and has promised small classes that focus largely on discussion.
The founding dean, Lawrence Velvel, described the project: “In a sense, the whole school is the history major you would get in a traditional college . . . This is sadly a very ahistorical country, and we think that perhaps some mistakes could be avoided if Americans knew some history.”
In an earlier interview with Inside Higher Ed, Velvel explained the institution’s pedagogical rationale. IHE reported, “The focus in hiring, [Velvel] said, would be on generalists in history. While there will be a range of courses on different topics in history, most courses will look broadly at periods or regions (especially the United States) as opposed to highly specialized offerings. The new college will assume that general education has been covered in students’ first two years at a community college or elsewhere, and will not attempt to offer a breadth of courses.”
In one respect, Velvel’s approach raises intellectual concerns. Any good History Department should have a wide array of courses, ranging from more generalized surveys to more specialized offerings that reflect either differing pedagogical interpretations of the past or narrower topics on which to focus. Velvel’s description sounds a little like the curriculum at most community colleges, which typically offer general surveys in Western Civilization, World History, and U.S. history, and perhaps a few History electives. If this is what the American turns out to be, it would contribute little to the broader discussion about higher education.
On the other hand, self-interest dictates a reasonable curriculum: it’s clear that Velvel and the school’s founders view it as a feeder program for law schools (and particularly, it seems, for Massachusetts College of Law, where Velvel is dean). It’s hard to see how the American College of History and Legal Studies could prepare students for law school with the typical History department fare of fidelity to the holy trinity of race, class, and gender at the expense of “traditional” topics such as political history, diplomatic history, and constitutional history. Self-interest, therefore, suggests that the American College of History and Legal Studies will offer far more pedagogically diverse fare than what exists in most History departments around the country today.
In the end, instead of experiments such as the American College of History and Legal Studies, I would prefer to see the trustees and administration of one college or university, anywhere in the country, commit to pedagogically diverse hiring and curricular practices as a prime goal of their institution. As we wait for a university’s leadership to show some courage, we can hope that the the American College of History and Legal Studies succeeds.

The Power of Academic Blogging

I want to say how pleased I am to join Minding the Campus as a regular blogger. My first in-depth exposure to the power of the blogosphere came during my tenure battle, when I received timely and extremely effective support from bloggers Erin O’Connor and Jerry Sternstein. I quickly discovered that in commenting on technical academic matters, academics had a better sense than most members of the mainstream media.

I started my blog on the lacrosse case to perform a similar service; I thought that relatively few reporters recognized how substantially the behavior of Duke’s “activist” faculty violated professional norms. My original hope was that the blog could provide some context to the academic side of the case for the mainstream media, and to bring to light some of the more obscure writings of Duke’s campus activists. My favorite post in this regard explored the slim volume published by Grant Farred—who Cornell quickly snatched up—which preposterously claimed that Houston Rockets center Yao Ming “the most profound threat to American empire.”

Of course, as the lacrosse case proceeded, I wound up breaking a few more stories, thanks in part to the work of the New York Times. The “paper of record” displayed little interest in actually bringing facts about the case to light (since doing so would have undermined the politically correct metanarrative it eagerly promoted), and as a result produced coverage so slanted that virtually every article the Times published was ripe for fisking.

Those looking for more recent quality academic blogging that also impacted public policy developments need go no further than an extraordinary series of posts by David Bernstein on the anti-Israel bias of Human Rights Watch. Like many observers, Bernstein had wondered why HRW—an organization founded in the wake of the Helsinki Declaration, whose central purpose had been to monitor human rights abuses in authoritarian societies—had developed a “maniacally anti-Israel” perspective in recent years.

Virtually alone among American commentators, Bernstein noticed that Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, had made a spring fundraising visit to Saudi Arabia, where she had solicited funds to counter “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations.” That find—and the incredibly defensive reaction of HRW—led Bernstein to look more closely at HRW’s staffing patterns. It turns out that the HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division is about as balanced as the typical Middle East Studies department at an elite university. In addition to Whitson, who had worked on “Palestine activism” before joining HRW, the list included a former editorialist for a journal that had celebrated the Munich massacre and a staffer who on his free time collected World War II German military memorabilia.

Thanks to Bernstein, we now know why HRW is hopelessly compromised in its handling of Middle Eastern matters. His was a case of academic research put to excellent use.

Not Your Grandparents’ AAUP

AAUP president Cary Nelson recently e-mailed his membership about an important new venture for the academic union. Proclaiming “this is not your grandparents’ AAUP,” Nelson celebrated the work of the “Department of Organizing and Services,” which had discovered “a faculty band from Ohio performing original songs about the ironies of current academic life.”
Perhaps Nelson should spend less time thinking about new songs and focus more on the central task of “your grandparents’ AAUP”—upholding the principle of academic freedom. In two recent, high-profile controversies, the self-described “tenured radical” has seemed intent on transforming the AAUP from an organization devoted to promoting academic freedom into a battering ram to perpetuate the groupthink that dominates so many quarters of the contemporary academy.
The first episode occurred in July, after NYU extended a visiting professorship in human rights law to Thio Li-ann, a professor at the National University of Singapore. The appointment generated understandable controversy after revelations that Li-ann, while a member of the Singapore parliament (a body not known for its commitment to human rights in any event), had wanted to continue criminalizing gay sex acts, on the grounds that “diversity is not license for perversity.” Li-ann eventually decided not to come to NYU, using as an excuse the poor enrollment of her courses.
As the controversy brewed, Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik drew from Nelson a highly unusual conception of academic freedom:

Nelson also said that in a tenure decision, he would judge a candidate—however offensive his or her views on unrelated subjects—only on a question of whether the person’s scholarship and teaching in his or her discipline met appropriate standards. But in a hiring decision (whether for a visiting or permanent position), he said, it is appropriate to consider other factors, and . . . professors can appropriately ask prior to appointments, [Nelson] said, whether hiring someone whose views on certain subjects are “poisonous” could limit “the department’s ability to do its business.”

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Three Groupthink Conferences—No Dissenters Please

Several years ago, in a seminal Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Mark Bauerlein lamented a campus in which “the simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they’ve reached an opinion through reasoned debate—instead of, in part, through an irrational social dynamic. The opinion takes on the status of a norm. Extreme views appear to be logical extensions of principles that everyone more or less shares, and extremists gain a larger influence than their numbers merit.”

The Bauerlein hypothesis projected that this “groupthink” environment would produce a more one-sided academy, with extremist voices becoming more prevalent. Three recent academic conferences, on topics of obvious academic and national import, confirm the point.

The first such gathering, which occurred a few weeks ago at NYU’s Ewen Academic Freedom Center, examined academic freedom in contemporary America. In the post-9/11 world, the topic was certainly timely, although differing viewpoints exist on whether a serious threat to academic freedom exists from outside the academy. Moreover, in an era of academic mobbing, in which by almost any standards most humanities and some social science departments are becoming more one-sided ideologically and pedagogically, any serious conference on academic freedom would surely examine whether the majority in the academy is truly committed to fostering dissenting points of view.

The NYU conference, however, wasn’t interested in viewpoints that challenged prevailing academic orthodoxy. The conference led off with remarks from Alison Bernstein, a Ford Foundation vice president and co-author of Melting Pots and Rainbow Nations, which one reviewer gushingly described as “nothing less than a new feminist approach to global issues.” At Ford, Bernstein has developed a program called “Difficult Dialogues: Promoting Academic Freedom and Pluralism on Campus.” The “model” for this initiative? The Ford Foundation’s earlier “Campus Diversity Initiative,” a program implemented most aggressively by the “diversity”-obsessed AAC&U. Many non-academics, I suspect, would wonder about the relationship between protecting academic freedom and promoting a “diversity” agenda. But for the academic majority that Bernstein personifies, the two causes are very much interlinked: the threat to the academic majority’s “diversity” agenda, and therefore by extension “academic freedom,” comes almost exclusively from outside critics of the academy.

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Was Nan Keohane Worse Than Brodhead?

In October 2006, 60 Minutes offered a searing examination of the Duke lacrosse case. Reported by the late Ed Bradley, the broadcast exposed then-Durham D.A. Mike Nifong for what he was: an unethical prosecutor advancing a non-existent case to secure the votes of African-Americans he needed to win an upcoming Democratic primary. The broadcast also represented a public relations low point for the Duke administration. Speaking to Bradley, Duke president Richard Brodhead declined to condemn Nifong’s behavior. Nor did he question the dubious and in some cases unprofessional conduct by his own university’s “activist” faculty members.
Brodhead, instead, targeted the victims of the prosecutor’s and his faculty’s misconduct: his own students. With a pronounced smirk, he defended Duke’s actions by accusing the lacrosse players of having engaged in “highly unacceptable behavior.”
More than two years after Brodhead’s ill-fated introduction to the national media, Duke has made a reported eight-figure settlement with the three falsely accused lacrosse players. The university also settled lawsuits with former lacrosse coach Mike Pressler and the family of a lacrosse player who suffered grade retaliation from an anti-lacrosse Duke professor. Duke still faces a civil rights lawsuit filed by the unindicted lacrosse players, and the university recently learned that its insurance carrier is refusing to cover any defense or settlement costs arising from the lacrosse case.

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Obama And The Campus Left

Apart from Barack Obama’s call for students who perform national service to receive a college tuition credit, issues related to higher education received scant attention in the 2008 campaign. Yet for those interested in meaningful reform on the nation’s college campuses, the election provides some intriguing possibilities—provided that Republicans move beyond the perspectives offered in the campaign and return to the higher education agenda articulated by conservatives and libertarians over the past 15 years.
On issues relevant to higher education policy, Obama was clearly the most centrist of the three major contenders for this year’s Democratic nomination. John Edwards, who hitched himself to the far left of the party, surely would have been a paragon of political correctness. And before her reinvention as a tribune of the white working class, Hillary Clinton employed an often crude, gender-based identity politics.
A January New York Times op-ed typified how the Clinton campaign and its supporters reflected the excesses of 1970s feminism. Gloria Steinem (erroneously) rejoiced that “women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.”

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NYU’s Middle East Problem

This past winter, Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich, a men’s doubles team who captured the 2008 Australian Open championship, announced plans to enter the ATP tournament in Dubai. Normally, tennis players’ schedules aren’t big news. But Ram and Erlich are citizens of Israel, and the government of the United Arab Emirates prohibits holders of Israeli passports from entering the country. (Indeed, a UAE visa page can’t even bring itself to concede that the country’s name is legitimate: “Nationals of ‘Israel’ may not enter the UAE.”) At the last minute, despite ATP rules that should have guaranteed both their entrance into the tournament and their safety while in Dubai, the duo withdrew – acting under pressure, it was widely believed, from the ATP tour and the UAE government.
Given the contemporary academy’s professed celebration of “tolerance” and “diversity,” at first blush it might seem inconceivable that a major research university would establish a co-equal branch of its institution in a country that discriminates on the basis of national identity. Yet NYU is planning to do just that. A university press release described “NYU Abu Dhabi,” which will open in 2010, as “a major step in the evolution of NYU as a ‘global network university.”

The university, which the Abu Dhabi government will fund, “will be a residential research university built with academic quality and practices consistent with the prevailing standards at NYU’s Washington Square campus, including adherence to its standards of academic freedom. The development of all the programs at the Abu Dhabi campus will be overseen by the New York-based faculty and senior administrators.” And graduates will receive the same NYU degrees given to students who attend the university in Manhattan.

NYU Abu Dhabi is the handiwork of NYU president James Sexton, who sees the new university as a step ahead in globalization. It’s also a step ahead for NYU’s finances. The Abu Dhabi government has already given a $50 million “down payment” for the institution, with promises of more money to come – including assistance for NYU’s endowment, which lags well behind that of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.

In an interview with New York, Sexton came across as at best a naif and at worst an academic version of George W. Bush peering into Vladimir Putin’s soul. The NYU president recalled an instant “electric” connection in which “the crown prince told me that he felt it in my handshake, in my eyes, in my aura at that first meeting… I knew right then and there that we had found our partner.”

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Ward Churchill And The Diversity Agenda

This week, as expected, the University of Colorado regents dismissed Professor Ward Churchill from his tenured position in the Ethnic Studies Department. (A university committee had found that Churchill committed plagiarism and misused sources.) And, as expected, Churchill has filed suit, alleging First Amendment violations.

The move against Churchill – who first attracted attention after describing those who perished (except for the terrorists) in the World Trade Center attack as “Little Eichmanns” – came over the opposition of the ACLU, which charged that the “poisoned atmosphere” of the inquiry into Churchill’s scholarship rendered meaningless the committee’s findings. ACTA president Anne Neal, on the other hand, welcomed the dismissal as “a very positive message that higher education is cleaning up its own.”

The viewpoints of both organizations raise additional questions. The ACLU’s position, if established as a precedent, would invite academics who (like Churchill) had engaged in research misconduct to issue inflammatory public statements, in the hopes that a public outcry (preferably from “right-wingers”) could then provide a First Amendment shield for their academic misdeeds.

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Duke Lacrosse And The Professions of Diversity

[Robert “K.C.” Johnson is the indefatigable chronicler of the Duke non-rape case, turning out a thousand words of brilliant reportage and analysis a day for more than a year on his Durham-in-Wonderland site. On the Volokh Conspiracy, Jim Lindgren writes” “If bloggers were eligible for Pulitizer Prize… I would nominate Brooklyn Professor K.C. Johnson… No self-respecting journalist would think of writing anything long and evaluative on the Duke case without first checking “the blog of record,” Durham-in-Wonderland.”]

On April 6, 2006, 88 members of Duke’s arts and sciences faculty endorsed a full-page ad published in the campus newspaper, the Chronicle. The professors suggested that men’s lacrosse players had triggered a “social disaster” by holding a spring-break party. The faculty members unequivocally asserted that something “happened to this young woman,” accuser Crystal Mangum. And, in the aftermath of anti-lacrosse rallies featuring banners reading “Castrate” and “Time to Confess,” the Group of 88 said “thank you” to the protesters “for not waiting and for making yourselves heard.”

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