Press Releases | General Education

“Academic Terrorists” Purge Outstanding Scholar, Teacher

ACTA Calls on College to Reverse Tenure Denial Academic Freedom at Stake
November 19, 2002

WASHINGTON, DC—The American Council of Trustees and Alumni today decried Brooklyn College’s denial of tenure to an outstanding scholar and teacher whose insistence on high academic standards apparently offended colleagues in the department and called on president Christoph Kimmich to reverse the decision.

A highly published young scholar, Robert David Johnson, has been denied tenure and a denial of reappointment is currently in process.

Johnson, known to his friends as “KC,” is an acclaimed young historian who received his PhD from Harvard where he received an award for “outstanding teaching fellow.” He has published three books (two with Harvard University Press), edited a fourth, and is editor of Volumes 2-4 of The Lyndon Johnson Tapes.

In two years of teaching evaluations, colleagues have described his class as “exemplary,” “truly exceptional” and “one of the best classes I have observed.” In addition, Johnson has worked outside the classroom, leading discussions on American history at a local high school and conducting field trips for his students.

Despite consistently high marks for his scholarship and teaching, Mr. Johnson was denied tenure on the basis of a new standard—nowhere to be found in CUNY rules—of “collegiality.” Senior faculty in his department—some of whom were described as “academic terrorists” by the department chairman because of their insistence on applicants’ ability to pass an ideological litmus test—opposed Mr. Johnson’s hiring after he objected to a one-sided panel on the September 11 attacks and opposed hiring someone he regarded as unqualified.

The same “academic terrorists” were responsible for blocking an honorary degree for Eugene Genovese, with whose political views they differed, even though he is an alumnus of the college and has been named by the Organization of American Historians as one of the two most admired historians in the country.

On October 23, ACTA president Jerry L. Martin wrote CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein, an advocate for high academic standards, alerting him to the impending decision. However, tenure denials do not require the approval of the system’s central administration.

Since then, ACTA has supported efforts by scholars and students to oppose Johnson’s dismissal.

On October 13, 20 distinguished historians from across the country expressed “shock and dismay” at the college’s denial of tenure to “one of the most accomplished young historians in the country.” The test of “collegiality,” the historians said, is “a grave threat to academic freedom.”

The letter was spearheaded by Akira Iriye, chairman of the Harvard University History Deparment and included Alan Brinkley, chairman of the Columbia University History Department, Yale classics and history professor Donald Kagan, and Philip Zelikow, Director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Yesterday, students announced that they will hold a public protest in the Brooklyn College Quadrangle on December 4. Students also sent a letter to CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and Brooklyn College President Kimmich condemning the tenure decision and also outlining a campaign by the history department chairman to turn students against Johnson.

“This is more than just a tenure case,” said ACTA president Jerry L. Martin. “This is a test case to decide whether any young professor, no matter how outstanding, can be purged by politically intolerant colleagues. If Johnson can be fired, anybody can be fired. Academic freedom will be gone, and the only faculty who need apply are those with the ‘right’ politics.”

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a national educational nonprofit dedicated to academic quality, academic freedom and accountability.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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