Brooklyn College fired PhD student Kristofer Petersen-Overton yesterday, one day after New York state assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) sent a letter to BC president Karen Gould accusing Petersen-Overton of being an "overt supporter of terrorism." Hikind has complained in interviews that Petersen-Overton’s academic work is anti-Israel, and that his attempt to "understand" suicide bombing is unfathomable. Petersen-Overton and I are colleagues at the CUNY Graduate Center.
JS: You were preparing to instruct a course on the Middle East and were fired. What happened?
KPO: I was hired by Mark Ungar at Brooklyn College’s political science department on the recommendation of Dov Waxman at the Graduate Center. I went in for an interview, and he was impressed with my credentials. I have an MA and I’ve published on the situation [in the Middle East], and he said "I would be honored to have you." And this was for a grad level seminar, which is not lecture-based, meaning that our classes would be discussion-oriented and not some sort of alleged platform.
JS: What was the official explanation for your firing, and why doesn’t it make sense?
KPO: I have not once been contacted by the department itself, but I was told that the official reason I have been fired is that I don’t have a PhD, which is untrue, because no student teaching this course has a PhD, and there are of course many student teachers at BC who do not have their PhD’s. And I’ll point out that I am somewhat more qualified than many student teachers because I came into the program with a Master’s degree, which many students who are teaching for CUNY don’t have.
I was fired immediately after Dov Hikind contacted the school. He is an especially radical assemblyman who goes after people who he perceives as being anti-Israel. He’s actually made a career out of targeting people for alleged anti-Israel bias.
JS: And the charge of bias is doubly problematic. Because, one, it’s inaccurate. But, two, even if it were accurate, what does it imply?
KPO: We all come to the table with our personal political views; there’s not a single professor who doesn’t have their own views. So it all comes down to how one approaches those views, and I devoted an entire class in the syllabus to the subject of objectivity and humanism, meaning I wanted to put this issue of bias on the table to facilitate open and productive discussions.
JS: What does your firing suggest about contemporary politics and higher education?
KPO: They’ve targeted professors up for tenure for so long and have been relatively unsuccessful except for several cases, like with Norman Finkelstein (JS: and, among others, Nicholas De Genova and Thaddeus Russell, at Columbia University and Barnard College, respectively), now I think they’re going after graduate students before their careers even begin. One of the most direct implications of this which is deeply troubling is not the fact that people take issue with one particular class, which is inevitable, but the way in which the college administration caved so quickly – for it to occur within 24 hours is incredible to me, and the school never even consulted me. For this to be decided by a state official poking his nose in a college syllabus is Orwellian. I’ve received tremendous support, which I’m very grateful for. Norman Finkelstein wrote me, and after I contacted Neve Gordon he (Gordon) contacted BC’s provost, writing that he reviewed my syllabus and that it was excellent and reflected a number of different perspectives, noting that the textbook was mainstream and "emphasizes the Zionist narrative." He also read a scholarly paper I had written, and wrote that he was "struck by (my) academic rigor."
JS: What can people do to lend support?
I would be greatly appreciative if people can send an email to the provost, even better a letter, and tomorrow it would be great if people could call, and more importantly if people could disseminate this story. It’s especially disgusting that they would go after a grad student, because they have not only impacted my career but also my income and health insurance.
Office of the Provost (William A. Tramontano)
2900 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11210
JOSHUA SPERBER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org