CUNY’s Anti-Semitism Problem and the Campaign to Fire Michael Goldstein

Is a Kingsborough Community College professor a racist or a victim of ‘academic mobbing’?
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Michael Goldstein is a midlevel administrator and adjunct professor in the business department of Kingsborough Community College. For the past 10 months, he has been the target of a sustained campaign calling for his termination. In late May, as many as 1,500 flyers were distributed on the 16,000-student campus on the southern edge of Brooklyn calling for Goldstein, who is the son of the college’s late president, Leon Goldstein, to be fired. The notices featured examples of the “extreme racist, sexist, anti-Muslim Facebook screen shots of Michael Goldstein,” one of which happened to include an image of his 13-year-old daughter.

The flyers also hinted at more expansive ambitions, and promised future efforts against other Kingsborough employees. “These and all instances of racism and sexism will be exposed and fought!” the leaflet continued. “It will take as many of us as possible to unite and build a movement to fight back. We help build this movement by demanding the termination of Goldstein. We will continue to expose those who express similar ideas.”

Flyers were shoved under Goldstein’s office door; Goldstein says that students also banged on his office windows and doors and called his office phone. Security footage caught one Kingsborough College professor aiding in the distribution of the flyers, although the Kingsborough administration has yet to discipline or publicly identify that faculty member.

Between June 15 and Nov. 10, four articles on the website of the self-described communist Progressive Labor Party (see hereherehere, and here) have referred to an organized campaign to have Goldstein dismissed from the college. “KCC Students and Workers Fight Racist Goldstein” the first article was headlined; one article, from August, claimed that the as-yet unfired Goldstein was “protected by a network of Zionists among the faculty.” According to multiple sources, copies of the print edition of the Progressive Labor Party newspaper containing the Oct. 11 article were distributed on campus late that month—“The racists fear direct, mass confrontation and at KCC, they are getting it!” the unsigned statement read.

Months earlier, on Feb. 22, the words “fuck Trump Goldstein” and “kill Zionist entity” were scrawled on a photo of Goldstein’s late father that hung near his office. On Oct. 4, the same day as a college council meeting in which rising intrafaculty tensions on campus were discussed, nails were inserted into the tires of cars belonging to Jeffrey Lax, the head of the college’s business department, in which Goldstein teaches. A few days earlier, the Lawfare Project, a legal nonprofit representing the beleaguered professor, sent letters to Kingsborough faculty, several of them leaders of the school’s increasingly powerful Progressive Faculty Caucus, requesting that they preserve email and other records in anticipation of possible legal action related to the alleged harassment efforts.

The anti-Goldstein campaign has also enlisted his peers on the Kingsborough faculty. In March, Katia Perea, a sociologist who teaches in Kingsborough’s gender studies program, approached Jeffrey Lax, the head of Goldstein’s department, to try to convince him to bar the adjunct professor from leading any further classes. Perea also argued for Goldstein’s firing in meetings with other department heads, as well as with Kingsborough’s then-president Peter Cohen. In an April 17 memo to Victoria Adjibade, Kingsborough’s chief diversity officer, one of the administrators who met with Perea recalls that she was “concerned about exposing students to Mr. Goldstein’s ‘hateful’ views,” yet added “she does not believe Mr. Goldstein has violated any CUNY [Equal-Opportunity Employment] or Non-Discrimination policies.” Perea “conceded that she was not aware of any student complaints made about Mr. Goldstein but advised me to ‘delve a little deeper’ and to ‘start asking … more questions’ of any faculty members that had voted for Donald Trump. She explained that if she were a department chair, she would not hire someone who voted for Donald Trump.”

The administrator found Perea’s claims groundless: “In my 14 years at Kingsborough, …  I have never before seen such an aggressive campaign by one faculty member to harm another’s career where there were no communications or actions, whatsoever, taken by the latter against the former.”

Understandably, Goldstein, who now has a public safety officer and a security camera stationed outside of his office, says that he does not feel safe on the Kingsborough campus. “They’ve isolated me, I feel all alone at the college. There’s nobody who really supports me,” he explains. Kingsborough is “not the same place” for him after the campaign began. “I walk around in fear. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder. If somebody runs down a hallway, I jump.”

Goldstein describes the ordeal of the past year as “Kafkaesque.” Though he does not believe his job is in danger he acknowledges that his antagonists have won a crucial victory over him. “I think everyone now sees me as a racist homophobe anti-Muslim, pro-slavery person,” he says, in disbelief. “Whatever it is that they’ve tried to do to me has succeeded.”

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Goldstein’s opponents nominally link their activities to the perception that the professor is a Trump supporter and a Zionist. Yet whatever one thinks of the president or the Jewish state, denying professional opportunities at a public university based on the political candidates or countries they are believed to support probably isn’t legal—while barring public-sector employment to all of the nearly 63 million Trump voters in America is likely to also be impractical.

In response to such objections, Goldstein’s opponents have provided a related rationale, namely that the professor’s social media postings reveal that he is in fact a virulent racist. The flyers posted around campus include quotations in which Goldstein appears to wonder, “Aren’t the Politicians Who Protect the Illegals Who Rape & Murder Accomplices?” and “Which Christian or Jew Plowed Their Van Into 20 People in London?”

While some of the content on Goldstein’s Facebook page could be considered off-color or insensitive, it is debatable whether 10 months of flyers, vandalism, and tire-nailings would be a proportionate, constructive, or justifiable response—let alone whether it is a legal predicate for firing an employee at a public educational institution, absent even a single credible complaint from students or colleagues or a violation of the school’s nondiscrimination policies.

Goldstein isn’t the only or highest-ranking Kingsborough staffer to be the subject of an aggressive campaign of denigration. In June, leaflets appeared at Kingsborough targeting Joanna Russell, the college’s newly arrived provost. (Claudia Schrader, Kingsborough’s president, took over the job at the beginning of this latest academic year.) The flyers had a picture of four coffins with crosses, set against a background of clip-art coffins that also had crosses on them. “Do you want these programs on this campus?” the flyer asks, listing “liberal arts programs” and the college’s women’s center, along with developmental English and various study-abroad and mentoring programs that Russell has allegedly endangered. The flyer also calls on professors to be paid “for their work as director of programs,” and implores Russell to “respect governance.”

Russell is seen by some faculty as a micromanager who is consolidating administration control over the college’s intellectual life. Others, including members of the Progressive Faculty Caucus, note her alleged membership in an evangelical church in Sheepshead Bay. Like Goldstein, Russell now has security officers posted outside of her office.

Between administrative cuts, the Lawfare Project letters, and various ongoing investigations, left-wing faculty also believe that both they and their students are being subject to a form of harassment. “There’s so much tension right now,” one of the school’s left-leaning professors told me. “There’s a lot of hostility, there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of fatigue. There’s a lot of people trying to get out who have been there for 30 years. It’s just a really, really negative environment.”

The academy is rife with disagreement over the proper place of emerging or less traditionally recognized areas of inquiry—the fight for gender studies, queer studies, and ethnic studies to be accepted alongside, say, English or chemistry was one of the defining fault lines in American higher education in recent decades. Yet it isn’t a given that the mere presence on campus of someone believed to be a political conservative or a churchgoer or disagreements over curricula would escalate the way they have at Kingsborough.

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In recent weeks, Dawn Smallwood, the second highest-ranking public safety officer in the 274,000-student City University of New York system, has been discreetly interviewing staff to get a firsthand sense of why the atmosphere has soured so badly.

The community college is an unlikely flashpoint within the larger City University system. For much of the past 15 years the New Caucus, a leftist and activist-minded faction within the 27,000-member CUNY Professional Staff Congress, has come to dominate nearly every campus-level chapter of the university’s union, as well as many of the executive positions within the union itself. Kingsborough is one of two out of 23 institutions in the CUNY system where the New Caucus isn’t fully in control of the campus-level union. As a result, the faculty is highly factionalized by CUNY standards, and the situation could worsen with campus union elections scheduled for 2019. “This is not going to be an easy year at Kingsborough,” one faculty member predicted to me.

But there are even more straightforward explanations, too. Academics are as susceptible to the pressures of the herd, or to even less covert forms of prejudice, as the rest of us.

In the early 2000s, a seemingly minor dispute over the recommendations of a hiring committee on which he served led to a lopsided faculty vote to fire K.C. Johnson, a tenure-track history professor at Brooklyn College, which is also part of the CUNY system. In the midst of his successful legal battle against his dismissal, Johnson, who is now a tenured professor at the college, discovered the work of the Canadian sociologist Kenneth Westhues, who had identified a phenomenon that he called “academic mobbing.”

Westhues’ work showed how administrative power vacuums and an incipient desire to “send a lesson more broadly to intimidate others who might be inclined to speak up,” as Johnson put it, created environments in which academics and their student followers could easily persecute perceived enemies on campus. Johnson, who has emerged as an outspoken advocate for due process rights on college campuses, was the target of just such a mob. The same might also be true of Goldstein.

And then there’s the specter of anti-Semitism, the presence of which on the Kingsborough campus is difficult to totally discount. Lax and Goldstein are both observant Jews, as is the campus’ New Caucus-opposed faculty union rep. One of the articles about Goldstein refers to “a network of Zionists” arrayed against the forces of progress.

In a faculty-wide email thread in March of 2018, one of the leaders of Kingsborough Progressive Faculty Caucus wrote, “As the College collapses due to low enrollment and lack of funds, the true nature [of Lax and another Jewish professor] come out for the world to see. ‘Mine, mine, mine,’ just like the seagulls in Finding Nemo.”

Johnson doesn’t discount the influence of anti-Semitism. “It’s not a David Duke anti-Semitism. There’s no right anti-Semitism at CUNY,” he explains. “But you know, in a charged atmosphere of lots and lots of people expressing anti-Zionist beliefs, I do think that occasionally it does spill over into something beyond that.”

Of course, that’s not how left-wing faculty sees things. They view themselves as academics whose freedom and programs are under threat from a hostile and bigoted administration. In talking to Kingsborough faculty, one quickly loses track of the New York Human Rights Commission complaints, lawsuits and lawsuit threats, and ongoing investigations. “Everyone’s suing everyone else,” one professor observed. As in plenty of other historical moments, the treatment of Jews exposes other, barely hidden fissures, even at a community college in the midst of one of the most Jewish places on earth.

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CUNY’s Anti-Semitism Problem and the Campaign to Fire Michael Goldstein

Is a Kingsborough Community College professor a racist or a victim of ‘academic mobbing’?
  • 1
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