Petraeus and the Assault on Academic Freedom

Classes have started at CUNY, and at least one highly troubling event has occurred. Last week, NRO revealed that CUNY students and at least six members of the CUNY faculty union, the PSC, had descended upon the Macaulay Honors College campus to harass David Petraeus, a visiting professor at the Honors College this term. The harassment appears to be a continuation of the anti-Petraeus campaign waged by the PSC and some of its faculty allies when the retired general’s appointment first was announced.

The protesters aren’t claiming (because they couldn’t do so credibly) that a former DCI and commanding general in two wars is unqualified to serve as a visiting professor of public policy. And certainly no one could possibly claim that the Macaulay administration hired Petraeus because they shared his beliefs on foreign policy matters. Instead, the activists are demanding that the retired general be fired because the protesters don’t like Petraeus’ views on national security issues.

Faced with such an obvious threat to academic freedom, the response of CUNY faculty organizations has been curious indeed. The University Faculty Senate (UFS) issued a statement criticizing the protesters. But the organization linked its action to its earlier support for the Brooklyn Political Science Department, which hired a Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a fanatically anti-Israel graduate student who hadn’t even passed his qualifying exams, to teach a graduate class. Surely the UFS can’t seriously maintain that Petraeus, like Peterson-Overton, was unqualified for the position for which he was hired.

(For good measure, Petersen-Overton, the supposed paragon of academic freedom, signed a petition demanding Petraeus’ dismissal.)

At least the UFS issued a statement, no matter how half-hearted. The usually trigger-happy leadership of the faculty union has remained utterly silent. Prominent members of the union, however, have enthusiastically joined the anti-Petraeus crusade. More than a dozen CUNY professors, including PSC stalwarts Ros Petchesky and Renate Bridenthal, signed onto a statement earlier this week denouncing Petraeus as a “war criminal” and demanding that—three weeks into the semester—CUNY immediately “terminate Petraeus’ appointment.” The statement continued the bizarre approach of anti-Petraeus faculty describing him as an adjunct, rather than what he is—a visiting professor, with full faculty rank.

Why, according to these union activists, does CUNY need to remove Petraeus from the classroom? Because, since resigning as DCI, “Petraeus has continued his involvement in U.S. foreign policy. Most recently Petraeus has called on Congress to back a military strike on Syria, stating ‘failure of Congress to approve the president’s request would have serious ramifications not just in the Mideast but around the world.’”

Do these union activists support the termination of all CUNY professors who called for military action against Syria after the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against innocent women and children?

Hopefully neither the CUNY administration nor Petraeus himself will be bullied by such thuggish tactics. But the union’s response should be remembered the next time New Yorkers hear the PSC allege violations of academic freedom.

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.

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