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The Sandbagging of Robert "KC" Johnson

HNN: The Case of KC Johnson

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

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 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instead, they came up with a new standard that superseded anything else in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evidently superceded excellence in teaching and highly regarded scholarship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, CUNY's 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

While that endorsement gave me publicity and ammunition, it had no legal
standing. I then took one course this is apparently closed to Mr. Johnson. I
went to the faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), 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

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

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.

This article was first published in the New York Sun and is reprinted with permission of the author.