Letter in Support of KC Johnson


HNN: The Case of KC Johnson

Chancellor Matthew Goldstein
The City University of New York
535 East 80th Street
New York, New York 10021
November 12, 2002

Dear Chancellor Goldstein:

We react with shock and dismay to Brooklyn College's denial of tenure to one of the most accomplished young historians in the country, Associate Professor Robert David Johnson of the History Department. This decision reflects a "culture of mediocrity" hostile to high academic standards-to use a term from The City University of New York task force.

Professor Johnson is a young scholar whose accomplishments are already worthy of a lifetime's achievement. Nine years after receiving his Ph.D. at Harvard, where he received an award for "outstanding teaching fellow," Johnson has published three books (two with Harvard University Press), edited a fourth, and is editor of two forthcoming volumes of The Lyndon Johnson Tapes. Currently he has two additional books under contract, one with Norton, the other with Cambridge University Press.

Students and faculty report that he is an extraordinary teacher. Some students have taken six or seven of his courses before graduating. Colleagues who have observed his class have offered comments such as "exemplary," "truly exceptional," "one of the best classes I have observed," and "one of the best instructors we have at Brooklyn College."

In addition, Johnson has carried a heavy load of departmental service, has conducted out-of-town history field trips for his students, and has spent time leading discussions on American history at a local high school.

Tenure should be judged on the basis of scholarship, teaching, and service. Nobody denies Johnson's outstanding success as a scholar and as a teacher. But in the spring of 2002 opponents of Johnson invented a fourth category-"collegiality"-and argued that it should outweigh sterling accomplishments in scholarship, teaching, and service combined.

Introducing a redundant category of collegiality rewards young professors who "go along to get along" rather than expressing independent scholarly judgment. It poses a grave threat to academic freedom, since the robust and unfettered exchange of ideas is central to the pursuit of truth.

If an outstanding young scholar such as Johnson is refused tenure, it will send a signal to the profession that the university is not hospitable to scholars with high standards, making it more difficult for the university to recruit promising young scholars.

We urge you to reverse this disastrous and unjust decision.


Akira Iriye; Charles Warren Professor of American History and Chair of the Department of History, Harvard University

Alan Brinkley; Allan Nevins Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Columbia University

Philip Zelikow; Director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs and White Burkett Miller Professor of History, University of Virginia

Donald A. Ritchie; Associate Historian, United States Senate

Ernest May; Charles Warren Professor of American History, Harvard University

Donald Kagan; Sterling Professor of Classics and History, Yale University

Charles Dew; Charles R. Keller Professor of History, Department of History, Williams College

Randall Bennett Woods; Distinguished Professor, Department of History, University of Arkansas

John Milton Cooper, Jr.; E. Gordon Fox Professor of American Institutions, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Robert Schulzinger; Professor of History, University of Colorado; editor, Diplomatic History

Eugene Genovese; Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, University Center of Georgia

James Shenton; Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University

Paula Fichtner; Professor Emerita and immediate past Chair of the Department of History, Brooklyn College

Frank Ninkovich; Professor of History, St. John's University

Timothy Naftali; Associate Professor of History and Director of the Presidential Recordings Project, Miller Center for Public Affairs, University of Virginia

Dennis C. Dickerson; Professor of History, Vanderbilt University

Gertrude Himmelfarb; Professor Emerita of History, Graduate School of the City University of New York

David Schmitz; Robert Allen Stokheim Chair of History, Whitman College

Thomas Alan Schwartz; Professor of History, Vanderbilt University

Margaret King; Professor of History, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

T. Christopher Jespersen; Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, North Georgia University

Leonard Gordon; Professor Emeritus of History, Brooklyn College

Fredrik Logevall; Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara

Martin Burke; Associate Professor, Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York