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Why I Was Denied Tenure

HNN: The Case of KC Johnson

I admit that I am surprised (as, no doubt, is the college) with the attention that Brooklyn College's decision to deny me promotion and tenure has received, both from the press and from the national academic community. It is my sincerest hope that such coverage will help correct the injustice done to me and warn the American academic community at large of the risks it runs in allowing such incidents to occur.

My difficulties began on January 5, 2002, when my department chairman denounced as "preposterous, specious, and demeaning" my written argument that we should not tender a job offer to an applicant possessing neither a complete dissertation nor strong teaching evaluations. Immediately thereafter, for reasons still not entirely clear, the chairman began what his predecessor has publicly termed a "campaign of harassment" designed to ensure my dismissal.

Since that time, I have spent at least 700 hours on my defense--preparing memoranda and for-the-record emails, researching curricular data, federal and state law, and college and CUNY guidelines, meeting with union representatives or my attorney. A central element of this defense has been the evidentiary base that I possess, which includes large numbers of retained emails that use my critics' own words to disprove the allegations made against me.

Alone, I never could have overcome the physical, emotional, and financial strain that resulted from this fight. I could mount a defense only because of support from current and former colleagues, old and new friends, and current and former students, some of whom (and one person in particular) stood up for me at considerable risk to themselves. That this backing has increased since news of my denial of promotion and tenure became public affirms that the academic community nationally shares the values that some of my colleagues at Brooklyn and I championed--namely, that academic personnel decisions should be based on a candidate's academic credentials. In this sense, I have experienced "collegial" support in the truest sense of the term.


There are two items that have not yet appeared in the (very good) press coverage of my case. First, I never wanted any of these matters to become public. Who among us would desire historians nationally to know he or she had been denied promotion and tenure? Brooklyn College administrators, up to and including Provost Roberta Matthews and President C.M. Kimmich, were contacted by people supporting me--to no avail--no less than 59 times between January 5, 2002 and my ultimate denial on October 28, 2002 to call attention to the massive procedural violations in my case.

Second, while the college ultimately rested its claims against me on "uncollegiality," it did so only after trying two earlier charges--"manipulation of workload" and "failure to follow departmental rules and regulations"--that I rebutted through curricular and documentary data. Ironically, less than 12 months before, the department chairman had gone out of his way to praise my "collegiality," which he then defined as commenting upon drafts of colleagues' scholarship, working hard on department committees, and appearing when asked in colleagues' classes. By March 2002, however, when the "uncollegiality" allegation was first leveled against me, my continued good performance in even these qualifications was no longer relevant to a determination of my "collegiality." In addition, unlike in 2001--when the chairman mentioned my record of "collegiality" only as an add-on to a complete discussion of my teaching, scholarship, and service--by March 2002 my performance in scholarship, teaching, and service was set entirely aside. Instead, my candidacy for promotion and tenure was evaluated solely on the basis of the redefined concept of "collegiality."

The importance of my case lies in the fact that in determining my "collegiality," the chairman--for reasons he has never explained--polled only those senior faculty members who had disagreed with me on a variety of departmental and political issues over the previous 12 months. At the heart of academic life lies the free exchange of ideas, and the policies for which some senior colleagues criticized me--opposing college sponsorship of a "teach-in" on the Middle East that contained no known supporters of either U.S. or Israeli policy in the region and favoring rigorous standards in all departmental hires--involved issues on which all professors, not simply those with tenure, can and should engage themselves.

My situation is unusual in the backing that I have received from prominent scholars in my field--which began with a letter to CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein from 24 leading national professors denouncing Brooklyn's decision. But the issues raised by my denial obviously extend beyond Brooklyn College, and I hope that the publicity generated will have two longer-term effects.

First, academic institutions around the country need to think about how to ensure academic freedom for both tenured and untenured faculty. At Brooklyn, several senior colleagues adopted the same positions that I took regarding both the "teach-in" and the search; tenure afforded them the freedom to speak out. By soliciting feedback from only those tenured colleagues who disagreed with me on these issues and then basing its denial of my promotion and tenure solely on "collegiality," the college, in effect, used tenure as a club to silence a junior faculty member who voiced opinions on controversial issues.

Second, the wholly subjective standard of "collegiality" tempts faculty members, temporarily blinded by the emotionalism of philosophical disputes or interpersonal squabbles, to abandon the academic ideals that scholars have championed for decades. CUNY Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld articulated the point when asked about my case: "Collegiality is an appropriate criterion if I wanted to join a prestigious country club and play well with the other children, but it is not that which is necessary to determine whether someone is a good professor." As for me, I hope that President Kimmich will soon remedy the error of his previous decision, and that I will be able to continue, without this distraction, the scholarship and teaching that I love--to which even those who have opposed me admit I am deeply committed.