Re: Petraeus – An Open Letter to CUNY Chancellor William Kelly

Peter Wood

On Monday, September 16, 2013, NAS president Peter Wood delivered the following letter to CUNY interim chancellor William P. Kelly in response to the recent student protests against Gen. David Petraeus's teaching appointment at CUNY Macaulay Honors College.

UPDATE: On Friday, September 13, CUNY's Executive Committee of the University Faculty Senate released a statement in support of Petraeus and academic freedom. We have heard no word yet from Chancellor Kelly.

September 16, 2013

William P. Kelly
Interim Chancellor
205 East 42nd Street
New York, New York 10017

Dear Chancellor Kelly,

            I would like to express the concern of the National Association of Scholars for the academic freedom of Dr. David Petraeus. In the last several days, Dr. Petraeus has been subject to a campaign of verbal abuse by individuals including some students enrolled in Macaulay Honors College and some CUNY faculty members. As I write, some members of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress are planning a demonstration this afternoon at Macaulay Honors Building and another tomorrow. According to their announcement, they are “demanding that his appointment be rescinded.”

            We do not doubt that individuals have a First Amendment right to express their views in opposition to Dr. Petraeus’s appointment to the CUNY faculty. But the First Amendment and the principle of academic freedom are not one and the same. Academic freedom is the foundational principle of the university that allows scholars of diverse views to meet and exchange ideas within a setting that protects reasoned debate and civil discourse. As the canonical statement on academic freedom, the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles, puts it, a key reason the university needs academic freedom is because of “the dangers connected with the existence in a democracy of an overwhelming and concentrated public opinion.”

            The campaign to intimidate Dr. Petraeus and to pressure CUNY into rescinding his appointment exemplifies this danger. An energetic and vocal faction that appears to have no regard for academic freedom has mounted a campaign to silence a scholar on the grounds that they disagree with the policies he carried out in his professional roles as a general in the U.S. Army, commander of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Director of the CIA. The organizers of the protests also object to what they suppose will be his policy advocacy in his new role as chairman of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts’s Global Institute and the content of his course, “Are We on the Threshold of the North American Decade?”

            Dr. Petraeus is fully qualified by his Ph.D. from Princeton, his extensive experience in teaching at the U.S. Military Academy and at Georgetown University, and his decades of deep experience in high-level positions in the military and civilian government to teach the seminar in question. Objections to his appointment are based on animus to his views, not to his qualifications.

            This is a situation that calls for the university strenuously to protect a faculty member’s academic freedom. The First Amendment rights of protestors do not extend to harassing a faculty member. The chant of the protesters on September 10, caught on video and reported in The Daily News, “every class, David,” strongly suggests a collective intent to disrupt Dr. Petraeus’s teaching on campus. A CUNY student quoted in the Guardian made this even more explicit. He told the Guardian, “This will be a recurring thing…Whatever it will take to push him off our campus we will do.”

            If allowed to continue, this harassment will hinder Petraeus’s ability to teach and obstruct the opportunity of his students to learn. Freedom to learn, Lernfreiheit, is no less important to academic freedom as the faculty member’s right to express his scholarly judgments free from menace and coercion.

            The university, as the AAUP pointed out nearly a century ago, should be “an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate.” This sometimes requires forbearance on the part of those who may oppose those new ideas, and when that forbearance falters, the university must actively intervene to maintain both the atmosphere of respect for open inquiry and the substance of due procedure for all involved. By all means, the protestors should have their say, but their say cannot be allowed to spill into persecution and disruption. The right way for intellectual disagreement to unfold on campus is through debate and collegial exchange.

            I urge you as interim chancellor of CUNY to articulate a strong position in support of Dr. Petraeus’s academic freedom. The National Association of Scholars takes an interest in this matter because part of our mission is to uphold the centrality of genuine academic freedom in American colleges and universities. We also take a particular interest in CUNY because one of our board members, David Gordon, and more than a dozen of our regular members hold CUNY faculty appointments. Thus the vitality of academic freedom at CUNY matters to us both as a matter of general principle and as something that bears on the teaching and scholarly lives of NAS members.

                                                            Yours sincerely,


                                                            Peter Wood



Image: Briantelevision1 via YouTube

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