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instead, they came up with a new standard that superseded anything else in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evidently superceded excellence in teaching and highly regarded scholarship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
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.
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lyn palatt - 4/13/2007
lKC got his tenure. Currently one of the most well known and respected history Professors in America. Maybe soon, the world-He is goig to Israel to tach for a year on a highly acclaimed fellowship. Of course, he is the Durham in Wonderland author and has a book coming out in September called Until Proven Innocent. To give this guy tenure was a smart thing.
Terry Ahlstedt - 2/22/2003
Someone in a class I have asked if their were any conservative History professors and noone seemed to be able to think of to many. This fellowed looked all smug and said, "I quess thats because liberals are right" As a true liberal in the proper classic sense (some one who believes in personal liberty and as limited of government as possible I was not to terribly happy. My fellow student should consider that with the repressive environment at many colleges and universities being anything but a leftst might be dangerous to ones carrer. Its a shame that so many colleges history departments are run by backward regessive leftleaning radicals. The recent Michael Bellesiles scandal shows what happens when one view becomes to dominate and people lose perspective.
Chris Cage - 12/4/2002
I am posting this on behalf of the PSC. This is a letter--which the SUN has failed to publish--regarding the Radosh piece.
Letter to the Editor
New York Sun
105 Chambers Street, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10007
November 21, 2002
The charges against the Professional Staff Congress in “A Tale of Two CUNYs” (November 21, 2002) are baseless. Contrary to the claim in the opinion piece, the PSC has filed one grievance on Professor Johnson’s behalf in the past and is currently representing him in another. Clearly we did not “refuse to even file a grievance on his behalf.”
The union’s new leadership has gained a reputation for aggressive representation of CUNY faculty and staff in grievances. We are proud of that record and will continue to defend the rights of every one of our members—absolutely irrespective of their political positions or support for the union leadership.
Paul N. Hehn- retired- email@example.com - 11/30/2002
Anyone who has taught in the academic world knows that if you don't have tenure you'd better keep your mouth shut until you do. Once I was canned for disagreeing with a full professor in the mildest of ways about Vietnam. Once at another university when I inquired about the criteria the chairman said in surprise: "Oh, there are no critrial here. It's all based on personlality." Foolishly I replied: "What should I do now--break out into a soft shoe dance.? That was end of me there. At other pllaces the same thing. My sardonic, but truthful plebeian N.Y.C upbringing did me in every time. Let's face it. The academic world is just like other sectors--business, etc. Sometimes if you are talented you get ahead. But not necessarily. Others with no talent get ahead too. It's not fair, but c'est la vie. Academia is a system of clientage. I just refused to be anybody's client and I paid th price.
j schlanger - 11/30/2002
As an education major, I like to think that in the past four years here at Brooklyn College, I’ve learned a little something about the world of education and what it should be like. And being an honor’s student with a 3.8 GPA, I also like to think that I’ve come away with a decently rounded idea of what a good teacher is, the different ways they can implement their pedagogy, and the effectiveness they have on their students. I’ve been exposed to Professors who can barely remember their own name and Professors who remember my name four semesters later. I’ve had Professors who have taught me as best they can; who have truly showed that they care and I’ve had Professors who come into the classroom totally unprepared and unwilling to help anytime outside of their office hours. I’ve had the opportunity to be in classrooms filled with intelligent and well thought out lectures and discussions and I’ve also been in rooms where the text book would have done a better job at teaching if it could stand up and speak. I’ve seen both sides of the teaching spectrum here at Brooklyn College and to think that the Professor who holds my highest regard is being denied tenure and asked to leave come the end of his contract disgusts me. Year after year I’ve sat at my desks in the education department and year after year I’ve received the same lecture at least once from every Professor in it. And when they said that the most important thing that you must remember when you become a teacher yourself is to not let the politics and bureaucracy of the world of education effect you as an educator, I believed this to be possible; however, my beliefs have now swayed. For when someone who puts his whole heart into what he does, someone who goes out of his way to help anyone who needs it, someone who is truly brilliant and knows how to clearly relay his intelligence onto his students, someone who has published many times by the age of thirty-five is asked to leave Brooklyn College for, in its most basic form, a difference in opinion; I can longer sit back and trust that a good education is coming to me here and that the same kind of situation won’t happen to me when I become a teacher myself. What is happening is a true contradiction to learning. It is true that I may not know all the minuscule details of the Johnson situation but I do know what it means to be an arresting educator and I cannot simply let one of the best be taken for granted and then tossed out with the garbage.
Everyone who has taught and taught well, has experienced that light bulb moment when one or two or maybe all of your students say, “aha, I get it; I know what you are trying to tell me; you make sense to me.” And anyone who has had this happen to them cannot deny that it is the reason you continue to walk into that classroom everyday. You yearn for comprehension; you delight in understanding and you hope among many other hopes that you are not the only person getting through to your students in such a manner. You want them to be exposed to other teachers who can turn the light bulb on as well; you wish for them to succeed. You get a feeling deep down inside that lets you know you are doing some good in this world and now, in light of this situation, you have picked that feeling up, tore it to shreds and threw it away by taking Professor Johnson out the equation. You, the teacher who really got through, have now robbed your future students from the education they deserve. How does that make you feel?
I know that Brooklyn College may not be tops on the list of Universities students wish to attend. I know that the majority of students at BC are here because of its price tag. I know not to expect the same education that I would have received had I been able to attend an Ivy League school. But I trusted that by taking classes with Professors who come from the Ivy League, that really know how to teach, and that impact their students lives in uncountable ways would, at the least, put me in the running when it came to graduate school. The basic premise of education is to learn and by taking away Professor Johnson, you are taking away the most important element in the learning process. By doing what you are doing to one of the most knowledgeable Professors I have ever encountered, you are letting and adding to the idea that Brooklyn College is just another city school for poor kids. You are contributing to the low reputation Brooklyn College holds when it comes to academia (in comparison with private or state schools). And while you may continue to call Brooklyn College a place of higher education, I don’t know how high that education can reach when the standards it sets for those who educate us are laid so low. Professor Johnson is an outstanding teacher but even more, he is a genuine, good-hearted person that would come to the defense of any of his students. I only hope that they will do the same for him in these trying times.
michael wreszin - 11/28/2002
Much of what Radosh says about his own experience seems true to me but his inflation of his own dsistinction seems a bit much. He never ever had any reputation as a teacher. I was one of the mainstream profs who wrote in his behalf for his promotion and also as I recall to give him a slot at teaching at the
"Grad center. His statemenmt that it is a great honor or someting to that effect to be appointed to the graduate faculty is rubbish. I was appointed to that faculty and taught there more than Radosh and I had no great national reputation. However, I do agree that Radeosh was treated shabbily by
Queensboro as I wrote at the time, and probably byu the graduate Center. As afor his notion that the departments at Cuny colleges are dominated by leftists--oh that that were true but it is baloney. That an historian like Radosh even uses "far left" as a deswczription would suggest that he is out of touch with thye climate of his own times. Perhaps he would be willing to name all the leftists at the Graduate Center, or Queens, or Baruch.....his notion that he represents a little band of belealguered conservitives is a common absurdity of the neo con cadres. I can't cvomment on KC Johnson but his case sounds pretty solid to me. michael wreszin firstname.lastname@example.org
Thomas Gunn - 11/27/2002
I don't rotate in Historical circles, and I haven't read your book, so I kinda hafta come out and ask:
Did your attitude change regarding how, "the American union movement was not representative of labor's true needs, and was in cahoots with industry to crush incipient radicalism.", following the PSC coming to your aid? Did the PSC represent your needs?
Anyone that believes union representation is not an us vs. them relationship vis-à-vis organization/labor, labor/managment, management/organization is iving in a dream world. It has been an adversarial relationship from day one. Unionism like democracy may be the worst form of representation except for all the others. The only thing worse than the organization is no organization.
You were fortunate the oganization (PSC) wasn't in cahoots with the industry (the administration) "to crush [your] incipient radicalism."
The difference between then and now are the ethics displayed and lived. The union did the right thing, even when it was in conflict with their politics. And they continued to do the right thing right up until the incipient radicals put them out of business. Now that the industry, the union and the faculty are in cahoots, if a professor doesn't support the agenda he's out. They feel so secure in their position of power they even tell the truth; 'you're out because you won't play by our rules'. (Collegialism)
It makes no difference how radical you are either, you'll be protected. Lookit Michael Bellesiles, he got a pass for four years. It wasn't until scholars willing to take the risks like Johnson and said, 'the professor has no clothes' that anything was done. Recall too that the investigation started outside the ivory walls.
The pay back for the fairness you were aforded way back then may be much higher than you or anyone yet realizes.
Best of luck to you and Johnson, I'm afraid you guys are gonna need it.