A Brooklyn College professor who described religious people as "moral retards" said he is dropping his bid to become chairman of the department of sociology after the college's president expressed outrage over his views.
Timothy Shortell, an associate professor in the sociology department at the CUNY senior college, sent a bitter e-mail on Monday to several departmental heads saying he had decided to step down as chairman-elect and claiming he was a victim of a political attack.
Yesterday, the college's administration, led by the president, Christoph Kimmich, announced that Mr. Shortell declined the appointment but would be consulting on the future leadership of the department.
In his e-mail, Mr. Shortell expressed anger at the treatment he received from some members of his department and at what he called the administration's "inadequate" defense of his academic freedom.
"After witnessing the amount of venom directed at me by some members of the department during the last two weeks," he wrote, "I have come to doubt the possibility of any amicable solution." The e-mail was forwarded to The New York Sun by the chairman of the department of television and radio, George Rodman.
Critics of Mr. Shortell's appointment, including at least one CUNY trustee, opposed giving a leadership role to a professor who has used inflammatory language to describe religious people, fearing he would be incapable of fair treatment to people of faith in his department.
"If he's dropping his bid, it would be the first recent wise move on his part," a member of CUNY's board of trustees, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, said. "While he's entitled to his voice, the school is certainly better off served by a different chair."
A Brooklyn senior, Eldad Yaron, who is president of a student group opposed to what it sees as faculty bias in the classrooms, said: "For a man who says religious people are inherently violent and incapable of moral action, to actually hire, promote, or evaluate a religious professor in good faith would be an impossible thing to do."
Mr. Shortell's supporters at the school said that his comments about religion were taken out of context and that academic freedom should be granted to department heads.
"He was elected by his peers who work with him, and in all of that, he's never been accused of any bias," an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, Steve London, who is a senior member of CUNY's union, the Professional Staff Congress.
Tenured faculty members in the sociology department elected Mr. Shortell its chairman May 5 in a secret-ballot vote. Mr. Kimmich put the appointment on hold following press reports, including those on the editorial page of the Sun, about Mr. Shortell's attitude toward religious people. The president called Mr. Shortell's writings "offensive" and appointed three high-ranking officials to review the appointment. At CUNY, elections of department chairmen are subject to the approval of the president and the board of trustees.
The controversy surrounding Mr. Shortell involves an essay he published in 2001 in the online journal Fifteen Credibility Street, in which he argued that religious people are "incapable of moral action."
"On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoying - like bad taste," he wrote. "This immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. One only has to read the newspaper to see the results of their handiwork. They discriminate, exclude, and belittle. They make a virtue of closed-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot."
The dispute over Mr. Shortell's appointment has polarized the campus and has sparked a debate on the limits of academic freedom, an issue that is increasing taking center stage on college campuses across the nation.
Brooklyn College professors, echoing the alarm bells sounded by some Columbia University faculty members during the last academic year over the academic rights of anti-Israel professors, accuse the administration of bowing to pressure from so-called outside groups - particularly the Sun.
Members of the Brooklyn College chapter of the Professional Staff Congress vented their complaints yesterday at a meeting in a campus lounge, which happens to be decorated with a series of posters from the Anti-Defamation League on the Dreyfus Affair.
The faculty union is requesting that the American Association of University Professors, which investigates violations of academic freedom, review the administration's handling of the matter.
A senior program officer at the AAUP, Robert Kreiser, questioned the extent to which a department chairman - who holds an essentially administrative post - is covered by the protections of academic freedom. He said a college administration may not want to have as chairman someone whose views "are outside the mainstream" of the department or the college.