The hiring of former Brooklyn College adjunct Kristofer Petersen-Overton was quite extraordinary. Even though New York’s fiscal problems have led to a slashing of the adjunct budget for required, undergraduate Core classes, Brooklyn’s Political Science Department chose to assign an adjunct to teach a Masters’-level elective course, on Middle Eastern politics. And then, even though graduate-level classes in the humanities and social sciences are almost always taught by full-time faculty, the department inexplicably hired to teach the class a second -year Ph.D. student (at the CUNY Graduate Center, Ph.D. students generally take their oral exams in their third year, so the student almost certainly hadn’t even completed his required coursework).
It’s hard to escape the likelihood that a department known for its close ties to the anti-Israel leadership of the CUNY faculty union hired Petersen-Overton because of his extremist views on Israel-related matters (he has, for instance, accused Israel of “colonial genocide,” and his website boasts of his close ties to “activists” in the West Bank and Gaza). Petersen-Overton certainly wasn’t assigned to teach an M.A. course because he possessed the educational credentials to do so.
Problems arose when one of the students in the class complained about the one-sidedness of the course syllabus. After the political science chair pooh-poohed the matter, the student took his concerns to State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an ultra-conservative Democrat who represents an Orthodox neighborhood in Borough Park. Hikind read some of Petersen-Overton’s writings, correctly detected the adjunct’s extreme views on contemporary Middle Eastern affairs, and complained to the CUNY administration.
Hikind’s intervention placed Brooklyn administrators in an impossible situation, since it appears that until a few days ago, the provost was unaware that the political science department planned to permit an unqualified person to teach a Masters’ course. Removing Petersen-Overton would generate attacks on the administration for failing to defend “academic freedom.” But allowing him to teach the course would mean that, contrary to educational standards, Brooklyn graduate students would be taught by a graduate student who hadn’t even completed his qualifying exams. The provost chose to remove Petersen-Overton from the class. On cue, the faculty union circulated a petition claiming that Petersen-Overton was fired because of his “alleged(!) pro-Palestinian bias,” while ten political science professors signed a statement claiming that “academic freedom” gave their department the right to act as it had in this instance—i.e., using the adjunct budget to assign 2nd-year Ph.D. students to teach M.A.-level classes.
The Peterson-Overton affair was the third time this academic year in which administrators at my home institution were embarrassed by the effects of faculty groupthink. To begin the year, a committee of English professors selected as the one and only book all incoming students would have to read a publication that wildly asserted that between 1987 and 2001, the U.S. government had attempted “to limit the speech of Arab Americans in order to cement U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” In the resulting outcry, the administration refused to override the committee’s decision, but also stated that it would not tolerate politicized teaching of the book.
Then, a faculty member sent an e-mail urging dozens of her colleagues to select search committee members for a new college deanship solely on the basis of the candidates’ race. In the resulting outcry, the professor “resigned” from the committee, and the administration issued a conciliatory statement.
And now comes the botched Peterson-Overton hire.
All three events exhibited a similar pattern: a faculty marinated in groupthink made decisions that in a more intellectually diverse environment almost certainly would have been exposed as deficient by the kind of open debate universities once featured. Then, after forces outside the college criticized the faculty’s actions, the administration was placed an unenviable position of either seeming to bow to outside attacks or defending indefensible decisions. My sense is that the Brooklyn administration handled each crisis as well as could be expected given the hands they have been dealt.
Because of the hiring patterns championed by the college’s previous provost, Brooklyn might be unusual in the one-sidedness of its faculty. But, as my colleague Mark Bauerlein observed several years ago, the problem of faculty groupthink is pervasive in humanities and social science departments nationwide. And as long as administrators are unwilling to address the problem’s root causes—the lack of pedagogical and intellectual diversity on the nation’s college campuses—I fear we will see more episodes like the Peterson-Overton affair, in which administrators are caught in the middle between an outraged public on the one hand and faculty ideologues, armed with a sense of entitlement, on the other.