"Threats to Faculty" a Bad Reason to Suspend Prof

National Association of Scholars

New York, NY (October 2, 2017)—The City University of New York Association of Scholars (CUNYAS) challenged John Jay College President Karol Mason on her justification for suspending Professor Michael Isaacson after he wrote a controversial post on Twitter.

Professor Isaacson had tweeted, “Some of y'all might think it sucks being an anti-fascist teacher at John Jay College but I think it's a privilege to teach future dead cops.”

Five scholars, representing five colleges in the CUNY system, wrote in a letter that while Professor Isaacson had acted in a disrespectful and unprofessional way, President Mason’s justification for suspending him—because of threats to “members of the John Jay faculty”—was inappropriate. They argued that this would open the door to future suspensions of professors who find themselves at the center of controversy. 

The CUNY scholars wrote, “Mr. Isaacson’s own words make clear that John Jay has ample grounds not to reappoint him as an adjunct. We worry, however, that President Mason’s rationale for suspending him has created a precedent that will be used to silence other CUNY professors in the future.”

CUNYAS is the City University of New York chapter of the National Association of Scholars (NAS). NAS’s mission is to uphold the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.

Contact: David Gordon / President, New York Association of Scholars / [email protected]

Full text of the letter:

We write to express our concerns about how John Jay College President Karol Mason has handled the controversy over Adjunct Professor Michael Isaacson. We share the outrage that greeted Mr. Isaacson’s tweet. We further note the extraordinary lack of professionalism in another Isaacson tweet, in which he fantasized about executing students whom he previously taught. And public statements about his counseling students to avoid careers as police officers raise questions about whether Mr. Isaacson had allowed non-relevant issues to infuse the course he was paid to teach—an Economics class, not a course in criminal justice.

That said, the justification used by President Mason to suspend Mr. Isaacson was wholly inappropriate, and we urge CUNY to issue a clarification. President Mason announced, “Members of the John Jay faculty received threats, and our students expressed concerns for their safety in the classroom. Out of concern for the safety of our students, faculty and staff, we are immediately placing the adjunct on administrative leave as we continue to review this matter.”

President Mason’s statement was hardly a model of clarity regarding how many “members of the John Jay faculty” were subjected to outside threats. But her use of these alleged threats to justify placing Mr. Isaacson on administrative leave validates the heckler’s veto—and all but invites future outside threats to faculty. Any threat to a John Jay professor should have been immediately reported to law enforcement, and President Mason should have made clear that neither she nor any CUNY president will allow outside threats to dictate personnel decisions. CUNY professors often comment on contemporary political and policy debates, sometimes passionately so. President Mason’s message is that ideological foes can now silence any John Jay professor by issuing threats to faculty members in response to that professor's views.

We note that the CUNY faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, issued a statement vaguely promising to defend Mr. Isaacson’s “due process” rights, but avoiding all comment about the improper criterion offered by President Mason. We hope that its silence does not mean that the PSC agrees that outside threats can justify suspending a professor.

Mr. Isaacson’s own words make clear that John Jay has ample grounds not to reappoint him as an adjunct. We worry, however, that President Mason’s rationale for suspending him has created a precedent that will be used to silence other CUNY professors in the future.

On behalf of the CUNY Association of Scholars,

Martin Burke, History Department, Lehman College and the Graduate Center

David Gordon, History Department, Bronx Community College and the Graduate Center

KC Johnson, History Department, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center

Dorothy Lang, Business Department, College of Staten Island (retired)

David Seidemann, Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center

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