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September 8, 2005 [feather]
Brooklyn College attacks KC Johnson AGAIN

Brooklyn College administrators should know better by now than to try to punish history professor KC Johnson for expressing opinions that are critical of the school. The last time the College tried to do that--by denying Johnson tenure essentially for criticizing ideological imbalances in departmental procedure--Johnson got the better of them and then some: He not only won tenure, but became the subject of a massive media frenzy that did a great deal of damage to BC's reputation. Since then, Johnson has made it a point of honor to act as a sort of institutional watchdog at Brooklyn College. He has written extensively, and in uncompromising terms, about administrative irregularities at the school as well as about instances when the school has attempted to impose an openly doctrinaire set of constraints on students and faculty. Now it seems that some people at Brooklyn have had just about enough of the whole free speech thing and are seeking to have Johnson punished--ironically for threatening "academic freedom." The occasion? Johnson's criticisms of the BC School of Education, which has instituted a restrictive and intrusive "social justice" curriculum that evaluates students according to how well they conform to the school's highly politicized definition of what social justice is, and that punishes those who complain that this system of evaluation amounts to a political litmus test. The manner of attack? A threat: if Johnson fails to cease his "attacks," an "integrity committee" may subject him to an entirely unwarranted investigation. FIRE has the details.

UPDATE 9/10/05: Linda Seebach takes up Johnson's case in the Rocky Mountain News. Meanwhile, the Fordham Foundation has published a highly critical assessment of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Excellence's (NCATE) push for teachers to be evaluated according to whether they possess a proper "disposition" toward "social justice"--precisely the issue that concerns Johnson in the articles that so offended the Brooklyn College School of Education. The article quotes Johnson's articles, and even recounts some of the instances of misbehavior Johnson describes taking place in the BC School of Ed.

posted on September 8, 2005 11:09 AM


An integrity committee? Shades of HUAAC, no?

Thanks, Erin, as always, for bringing this the kind of light it needs to have.

Posted by: RP at September 8, 2005 12:13 PM

As far as I can tell, the FIRE letter to BC is preemptive—while KC may be concerned about a secret investigation, there is nothing in the FIRE notice to suggest they have concrete evidence that there is something underway.

Having made that caveat, I will say that the politics of Brooklyn College are looking mighty funny, so that I wouldn't be all that surprised if the end result is a set of accusations about whose favorite bagelry is really Stalinist.

Posted by: Sherman Dorn at September 8, 2005 8:41 PM

I think the letter to Johnson from the School of Education is especially interesting: it begins by affirming that it is Johnson's "right to make whatever claims" he wishes, and says that the letter's signers simply want him to "understand" their "views" on these matters. What could be more gracious and benign? Then they copy the letter to the administrative leadership of CUNY and of Brooklyn College, plus the members of CUNY's Board of Trustees, and, just in case the big guns misfire, every single department chair at BC. But don't let appearances deceive you: they don't wish to intimidate, they just want free and open exchanges of "views." Obviously.

Another interesting point: Johnson easily refutes every charge in his answering letter, and provides clear documentation for each of his points. This is precisely what happened in his previous conflict with BC: the institution made a series of unsubstantiated charges the groundlessness of which Johnson was able to expose simply because he had kept records of his correspondence. It would appear that in controversies of this kind being a historian -- and one with great respect and care for documentary evidence -- is a big advantage.

Memo to BC faculty and administrators: save your correspondence with K. C. Johnson, and try reading it with some care before flailing away at him with accusations -- because you can be damned sure that *he* has kept every word!

Posted by: Alan Jacobs at September 8, 2005 8:51 PM

It's the flailing that I noticed in that letter from the education school -- no one ever taught these people to restrain themselves verbally. They write like the bullies I suppose they are. This will not help their cause.

Posted by: Margaret Soltan at September 8, 2005 11:05 PM

I think the arrogance displayed in this letter is simply breathtaking. Much of tenured academia is behaving like members of a landed aristocracy, and an especially nasty one at that.

Posted by: David Foster at September 9, 2005 11:07 AM

The letter back to KC has some big problems, and doesn't speak well for its authors in several places.

But I guess I'm missing something. Where's the actual threat to haul KC before an integrity committee? There's no evidence at all, even in FIRE's summary of the case, that any investigatory process or integrity committee or anything of the kind exists. None. Zilch. There's no transcript or document of the June 7th meeting provided. The term "insinuated" is used, which, I'm sorry, is a classic verb of obfuscation. It means "I think that's what I heard, but it's not quite what they explicitly said". It's not clear what authority the Professional Staff Congress actually has over administrative matters. It's not even clear to me that Brooklyn College has any established provisions for the formation of "integrity committees": I can't tell from FIRE's description whether that was just union officials inventing (insinuating) an ad hoc mechanism. At the very least, if its faculty handbook had a description of an existing process that KC would have some reason to suppose he might be subjected to, that might give some extra urgency to FIRE's concern.

The only visibly concrete thing here is the "demand" in the Education School's letter. But that's not language that necessarily invokes a concrete threat: it might just be petulance. They're as entitled to be petulant in their letter as KC is to write what he does.

If KC knows more than what FIRE's alert says, then he ought to do something to chase it out into the open. That's the downside to mobilizing public support: you've got to get the goods, and the goods in this case have got to be more than a petulant letter or a reported insinuation.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at September 9, 2005 11:17 AM

With all due respect, Tim, the word "insinuations" first occurs in the School of Education faculty's letter to KC and your criticism of the word's use would apply to their collective letter as it would to any retort. Secondly, I suspect that you can assume that KC has taken the initiative to chase any inquiry out into the open in order to preclude the possibility of it being conducted in the dead of night.

Posted by: Ralph Luker at September 9, 2005 11:48 AM

The "insinuations" in the School of Ed's letter is a different insinuation, though. Of course, it's also lame: most of their letter is a nasty piece of work. It's worth criticizing as such. I'm just saying that let's not get ahead of ourselves in complaining that KC's about to be subjected to a tribunal. What Erin says here, that a threat has been made, just doesn't seem confirmed by the available evidence. What's available to people outside the situation at the moment is a petulant letter from people defending their turf, which may give KC's criticisms of their program more credibility but which does not anywhere indicate that any institutional reprisal is threatening.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at September 9, 2005 2:50 PM

I'd say that the nastiness of the language combined with the "dogpile" as seen by the number of signatures, indicates that even if there is some mass irrational behavior afoot here, Tim. An (irrational) drunk swaggering infront of you in a way that indicates that he is not happy with you may not be a threat in itself and he may not be making explicit threats but rather eyeing you in a rather unfriendly manner... but you would be a fool not to be at the ready to defend yourself. And there is a lot of swagger in their letter.

I read this letter as a definite move to make Johnson feel... uneasy.

Posted by: Bill at September 9, 2005 3:36 PM

Sure. It has something of the bully about it, no doubt. I just don't want folks to be reporting things at a higher level of certainty than is warranted, e.g., that a threat was in fact made and that an investigation is in fact under way.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at September 9, 2005 4:19 PM

It's not from the ed. school letter that the possibility of an investigation is inferred. The relevant quote comes from FIRE's site: "After publicly criticizing perceived indoctrination and viewpoint discrimination by members of the Brooklyn College faculty, Johnson is facing a possible investigation by a Brooklyn College 'Integrity Committee' for his constitutionally protected speech." But FIRE does not cite any source for this information, so we can't tell whether it's at all likely that Johnson will be called before this committee.

Posted by: ayjay at September 9, 2005 8:42 PM

Tim.. Well I don't think an investigation is underway. Given the fact that Johnson is seen by his "colleagues" as a gadfly, troublemaker and malcontent, methinks any needed "investigation" was done some time ago. At this point, they've tagged him as trouble and are circling their wagons accordingly.

Posted by: Bill at September 10, 2005 7:39 PM