School Officials Disband Student Government

November 19, 2004

By Jacob Gershman at The New York Sun

Brooklyn College’s administration has disbanded the school’s student government for violating election procedures. An organization critical of the unusual move described it as a way to target students who had complained that some faculty members were abusing academic freedom.

The administration at the school, a senior college of the City University of New York, dissolved the student assembly this month, accusing its leaders of inappropriately electing officers at a meeting in September. The dean for student life, Milga Morales, notified student leaders that the assembly would not be allowed to continue operating until another election was held.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia based civil-liberties group that investigates and publicizes what it sees as abuses of freedom of speech in higher education, is investigating whether the decision to disband the student government is connected to student concerns over freedom of expression.

On the same day that Ms. Morales said the election would be nullified, student leaders were meeting to consider a resolution calling for protections against abuses of academic freedom.

The resolution demanded “the right of students to develop, hold, and express political and social theories without being unduly influenced by faculty,” and it demanded that students not be graded “on the basis of their political or social beliefs.” It also said: “No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure solely on the basis of his or her politics, religion, or ideology.”

Those demands harked back to a dispute two years ago in which a professor who spoke up against what he saw as the politicization of the school’s curriculum was denied tenure but later granted it. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is questioning the timing of the administration’s decision.

“That any college would take such extraordinary action to prevent the passage of an academic freedom bill is both outrageous and shameful,” Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the civil-liberties group, wrote in a letter to Brooklyn College’s president, Christopher Kimmich.

Ms. Morales told The New York Sun “there is no relationship” between her decision to nullify the election and the resolution on academic freedom. She said she has not read the resolution and would not specify why the election was illegal. According to Mr. Lukianoff’s letter, the student political party urging passage of the resolution won the September election to determine the speaker of the assembly, at a meeting at which several members of the opposing party were absent. Ms. Morales said her office looked into the election after “some objections were raised.” She also said she would be meeting with students today to resolve the dispute.

The dispute over student government at Brooklyn College points to a broader debate at the school about academic standards. Some of the students pushing for greater academic freedom were among those who criticized the administration’s decision in 2002 to deny tenure to a prominent historian, Robert David Johnson, who accused the college’s provost, Roberta Matthews, of lowering academic standards and allowing politics to influence the curriculum. In February 2003, the CUNY board of trustees overturned Brooklyn College’s decision and granted Mr. Johnson tenure.

In an essay posted in August on the Web site of the History News Network, Mr. Johnson criticized Ms. Morales for hinting in a memorandum that the American government had advance knowledge of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

“Skeptics from the right and the left continued to question assumptions made about the perpetrators of those and other attacks on American communities,” she wrote in 2002. “Was it contrived? What did the United States government know and when did it know it? Whose rights would be violated now?”

Ms. Morales said, “many doubted that American citizens would be targeted either by those referred to as ‘terrorists’ or by other American citizens. Yet, both situations occurred and many Americans were caught by surprise.”

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Schools: Brooklyn College, City University of New York Cases: Brooklyn College: Administrative Attempt to Stop Academic Freedom Resolution