KC Johnson: Historian…Centrist?

   Brooklyn College has often found itself in the crosshairs of right-wing groups alleging that higher ed is too ideologically rigid, obsessed with diversity, infested with “social justice warriors,” etc. Given these groups’ antipathy towards BC’s liberal arts ilk, it may come as a surprise that one of our most well-regarded professors says he owes much of his success to such an organization.

   Such is the anomaly of KC Johnson, longtime BC history professor and occasional controversy lightningrod. Johnson’s spent much of the past decade criticizing many a liberal cause – Obama-era Title IX legislation, CUNY’s faculty union, and most recently, the New York Times’ 1619 Project – sometimes by himself, and sometimes on Minding the Campus, a long-running academic blog critical of what the site calls “the absence of intellectual pluralism” at college campuses. Critics claim that “intellectual pluralism” is code for “right-wing opinions,” but Johnson, a self-described centrist Democrat, isn’t so sure.

   “Certainly I would be among the 10 percent most conservative professors on this campus,” Johnson told the Vanguard, “which is problematic, because on a whole swath of issues – economic, environmental, educational – I’m not conservative at all! [… But] I am perfectly willing to cooperate with conservatives on campus issues.”

   Johnson’s main “beat” this decade has been Title IX. When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed amendments to the federal sex-discrimination law in January 2019, a panel of CUNY administrators led by BC President Michelle Anderson (herself an expert on rape law) attacked these changes for “unreasonably constrict[ing] the circumstances in which colleges may respond to sexual assault or harassment.

   In sharp contrast, Johnson has taken DeVos’s side. In his book The Campus Rape Frenzy, Johnson (along with co-author Stuart Taylor) argues that Obama-era adjustments to Title IX have been restrictive on the accused, denying them due process. Johnson got interested in Title IX after blogging about the criminal case brought against a trio of Duke lacrosse students in 2006 – what he calls “an incredibly high-profile example of a false rape allegation.”

   “It’s not so much that rape on campus doesn’t ocur – the statistics on campus rape are unimpeachable,” Johnson said. “[But] the core argument of the Obama policy, that campus policies were too lenient towards the abused, was contrary to my experience with Duke.”

   Obama-era Title IX policies re-entered the news cycle when presidential contender Joe Biden called for a “swift end” to DeVos’ proposed adjustments to Title IX’s sexual assault regulations while his campaign weathers a rape allegation from former Biden staffer Tara Reade.

   “We live in an era where most politicians are hypocritical, but the brazenness of Biden’s hypocrisy is just astonishing,” Johnson said. “Here you have this man who’s done more than anyone in public life to weaken due process rights of students, but comes up with a different standard for himself.”

   Johnson, a registered Democrat, says he intends to cast a blank ballot this November.

   “Trump is obviously… Trump, but I think there’s very little reason to believe that Biden would be a particularly good president,” Johnson said. “For me, what is depressing about the Biden candidacy is that I think this is a year in which Democrats had a significant number of quite talented figures – Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Booker in particular – who were younger and would move the party beyond these kind of Baby Boomer nominees and restore us to the Obama track.”

   Johnson’s praise for centrist figures has put him at odds with his colleagues, many of whom preferred progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The May 2020 issue of Clarion, PSC-CUNY’s official newsletter, ran a piece boasting of the faculty union’s “historic” and “overwhelming” decision to endorse Sanders. Some on the American right might point to this as evidence of a bias against conservatives in higher ed. Among these would be BC economics professor Mitchell Langbert, who’s authored multiple studies on party affiliation across American universities, and used them to support his arguments against what he claims is the “conversion of the American education system to far-left propaganda purposes.”

   Langbert is better known these days for a 2018 blog post insinuating rape was a “rite of passage” for men, which outraged students and colleagues. Johnson was among the history professors who signed onto a group letter condemning Langbert’s words. He says that he’s only signed onto three such letters in the two decades he’s been teaching.

   “Even when we’re commenting on nonacademic matters, we’re speaking as academics, and therefore what we say reflects our credibility,” Johnson said. “We quote[d] the comments, and we [made] clear that they were hateful and inflammatory statements.”

   As for Langbert’s claims of partisan bias in the university, Johnson has a more nuanced explanation than malfeasance.

   “This partisan imbalance is more or less irrelevant because it’s very, very, rare that you see this very outright ‘we don’t want a Republican,’” Johnson said. “But the subquestion of ‘are we missing intellectual areas, research areas on our faculty?’ That’s a question we’re not asking enough.”

   He points to the field of military history, which he says was once omnipresent at colleges in the ‘50s but has since almost entirely vanished.

   “You could have a Marxist [teaching that subject], but more likely, you’d have a conservative who’s enamored with the military.”

   The underfunding of higher ed also plays a role. Johnson notes that conservatives gung-ho about big business tend to gravitate away from low-paying teaching work.

   This ties into his criticism of the 1619 Project, a series of educational resources and essays published by the New York Times predicated on the idea that the American Revolution was meant to protect the institution of slavery. (Johnson characterized this claim as “simply absurd.”) The Times has said the 1619 Project is intended as a supplement to the high school history curriculum, rather than as a replacement; Johnson considers this claim “misleading at best,” saying that the project will likely become a primary source for budget-strapped schools.

   “In an era where school districts are going to be crushed financially, having this large, very glitzy project that can be incorporated for very little cost will be very appealing,” Johnson said. “Not for ideological reasons, but financially.”

   While he objects to the series’ central premise, not to mention the Pulitzer it received, Johnson says he intends to work some 1619 Project materials (in particular, a Kevin Kruse essay about segregation in Atlanta) into his classes next semester. 

   “No one knows what we’re going to be doing in the fall, Johnson said. “So we have to prepare for two different courses.” In the meantime, while he prepares for what could be another semester of distance learning, he intends to keep writing on Title IX, among other issues.

   Where this writing will be published, however, remains up in the air. Johnson intermittently wrote for The Weekly Standard, a neoconservative publication (“right-leaning, but […] they allowed for high quality arguments”) that shut down in late 2018; Minding the Campus, which Johnson has written over 450 articles for, shuttered less than a week before our interview. He has no interest in writing for “hard-right” campus watchdogs like Campus Reform or Breitbart.

   “I’m not comfortable writing for the far right publications, and the far left publications are not going to cover the sort of stuff that I do,” Johnson said. “There’s not a huge number of publications that are very open to me.”

About Quiara Vasquez 16 Articles
Quiara Vasquez is the current, highly frazzled editor-in-chief of Vanguard and the former, highly frazzled editor-in-chief of Vanguard’s predecessor, Kingsman.