Convicted terrorist Susan Rosenberg must be counted among the unlikeliest candidates ever to be awarded a university teaching post. As recently as the year 2000, she was serving out the 16th year of a 58-year sentence for the possession of more than 700 pounds of explosives and a stockpile of illicit weapons. Moreover, the onetime member of a leftist terrorist outfit called “The Family” was also a suspect in a 1981 robbery-gone-awry that left three people dead in Nyack, New York.
Notwithstanding Rosenberg’s violent past, Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, hired Rosenberg (whose prison sentence was commuted by Bill Clinton on his last day in office) to teach a one-month writing course — in January 2005 — entitled, “Resistance Memoirs: Writing, Identity, and Change.” The half-credit class (which Rosenberg, just prior to the start of the semester, decided not to teach) was to have drawn on Rosenberg’s time in prison. According to the directors of the Kirkland Project, the campus leftwing “social justice” organization that contrived to bring Rosenberg to Hamilton, the aim of the class was to get students to examine “how the memoirist uses the writing to survive particular circumstances and to change.”
Given her continued belief in revolutionary violence, one could ask if Rosenberg has changed at all. A former student activist in the 1970s, Rosenberg’s radical ties include involvement with several terrorist groups, including the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground. It was through her association with the aforementioned “Family,” a Weather Underground affiliate group, that Rosenberg became a suspect in the October 1981 robbery of a Brinks armored car carrying $1.6 million, a robbery in which two policemen and an armed guard were murdered. Though Rosenberg has steadfastly denied any part in the robbery, she was indicted both for plotting the robbery and driving the getaway car. Contrary to the claims of many of Rosenberg’s devotees, prosecutors never retreated from those charges; they only dropped these charges in 1984 after Rosenberg had been sentenced to 58 years in federal prison for the possession of dynamite and a weapons cache.
What rankled more than a few Hamilton professors is that one would know none of the darker details of Rosenberg’s past by taking the Kirkland Project directors at their word. In one announcement, notable more for what it did not say, the Kirkland Project touted Rosenberg as “a writer and teacher, but also an activist and AIDS educator. She was incarcerated for years as a result of her political activities with the Black Liberation Army and was released through a grant of executive clemency by President Clinton in January 2001.” While in prison, Rosenberg had indeed worked with AIDS sufferers. But the Kirkland Project was silent on the far more objectionable aspects of Rosenberg’s biography. The Kirkland Project further hailed her as “an award-winning writer, an activist, and a teacher who offers a unique perspective as a writer.” It gave not a hint of Rosenberg’s extensive terrorist rap sheet, her confessed commitment to violent revolutionary struggle, and her less-than-distinguished academic background.
This glaring omission left several Hamilton professors furious. Steve Goldberg, a professor of art history at Hamilton, took heated issue with what he called the Kirkland Project’s “laundering” of Rosenberg’s biography. “This is not truth in advertising,” said Goldberg. “She’s being presented as someone who was wrongly imprisoned, and who was a victim, rather than the perpetrator of terrorism. And I find that to be absolutely reprehensible.” History professor Robert Paquette agreed: “In the case of Susan Rosenberg, the Kirkland Project presented a remarkably sanitized version of a convicted terrorist.”
It is Susan Rosenberg’s choices, once the subject of newspaper headlines, which lay at the heart of the professors’ objection to this hiring: Far from a model of rehabilitation, many at Hamilton warn, Rosenberg is an unreconstructed extremist who has never disowned her radical faith or her belief in violent extremism.
Upon her arrest in 1984, for instance, a New York Times report quoted an unrepentant Rosenberg, who exclaimed, “We’re caught, but we’re not defeated. Long live the armed struggle!” Rosenberg’s revolutionary fervor had not appreciably mellowed by 1989, when she told an interviewer, “I don’t want you to come away thinking that I’m repudiating revolutionary struggle for the United States because I’m not. I think all kinds of resistance are necessary.”
“I think that the most extreme and difficult forms of violence stem from the system under which we live and I think it’s the system that’s responsible for a multitude of these faces of violence,” Rosenberg has maintained.
Rosenberg’s pardon by President Clinton in December of 2000 occasioned an outpouring of public condemnation. Critics, who included family members of the slain officers, stressed that not only had Rosenberg not fully paid her debt to society, but her long record of extremist cheerleading raised serious questions about whether she was ready to rejoin it.
Paquette has studied the “memoir” writing that Rosenberg discussed in class. “Yes, she has renounced the use of ‘individual’ violence. Of course, now that she’s in her fifties, she might have some physical difficulty running around with an Uzi submachine gun.” However, Paquette notes, “I have read a good deal of her own writings, and she has openly proclaimed herself to be a communist revolutionary committed – please note – to collective violence.” That has Paquette wondering, “Does the new Susan Rosenberg merely represent a tactical shift in her radical thinking?”
It is a question the Kirkland Project’s director, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, resolutely refuses to answer. Rabinowitz, a feminist author and professor of comparative literature at Hamilton and a longtime champion of Rosenberg, was principally responsible for offering her a position at Hamilton. Rabinowitz has in the past praised Rosenberg as “an exemplar of rehabilitation.” As she told the Syracuse Post-Standard, “Her story is about how you can make something productive out of something that was really awful.”
Ranbinowitz’s romanticized version of Rosenberg’s resumé persuaded few at Hamilton. Although few were willing to challenge Rabinowitz publicly (“I’ve never seen a faculty so spineless,” quipped professor Steven Goldberg), many noted that Rosenberg continues to maintain her innocence, casting herself as the victim of an unjust American system, which she views as the real source of violence. Rabinowitz had no trouble giving this woman an academic forum in which to spread her views.
Neither did Stephen Orvis, an associate professor of government at Hamilton and one of Rosenberg’s few campus defenders who consented to be interviewed. Acknowledging that he was not familiar with all the details of Rosenberg’s radical past, Orvis nevertheless contended that the issue was freedom of speech. “I see no reason why she should be denied [the teaching position] because of violent acts she may or may not have committed,” said Orvis. “There are some who believe in violence, and I have no problem with the airing of those views.” (Emphasis added.) He further stated, “The college should be open to all points of view.” Orvis, who describes himself as a “radical civil libertarian,” reasoned that denying Rosenberg a post at Hamilton College because of her violent past would be “like saying you shouldn’t vote for [George W.] Bush because he had a drinking problem.”
More surprising, perhaps, is that the leadership of Hamilton College seemed to share Orvis’s assessment. Reached for comment, Hamilton communications director Mike Debraggio offered a prepared statement. The statement acknowledged that college administrators had embraced without question the Kirkland Project’s whitewashed account of Rosenberg’s biography, allowing that “the College may need to vet non-standard appointments more carefully in the future.” But it also carried the following caveat: “It is not, however, certain that further vetting of the appointment in question would have yielded a different outcome.”
Ian Mandel, a sophomore at Hamilton, had personal reasons to oppose Rosenberg’s appointment. Although he was born several years after the Nyack robbery in which Rosenberg was indicted, Mandel, a Nyack native, grew up with the names Waverly Brown and Edward O’Grady etched into his mind. They were the two Nyack police officers killed in the 1981 robbery. “Every day of my life until I left for Hamilton, I drove by the memorial to officers Brown and O’Grady located about one mile from my house,” he remembered. Mandel explained that Nyack’s tight-knit community was profoundly shaped by the murders of the two officers. “To this day it is a tough subject for many to speak about,” he confided.
It was a measure of the anger and disgust he felt about Rosenberg’s hiring that Mandel, a member of the Hamilton College Democrats, agreed to speak about it. Like many Nyack residents, Mandel had thoroughly researched the robbery. He concluded that Rosenberg was indeed involved. “To me, and I’d assume to most members of the Nyack community and of the larger law-enforcement community, that makes Susan Rosenberg a cop-killer,” he said. Haunted by Rosenberg’s grim legacy at Nyack, Mandel was determined not to let it follow him to Hamilton. “I think that bringing Susan Rosenberg to teach a class at Hamilton is a disgrace and a black-eye to the college,” he said.
Nor did everyone in the faculty applaud Rosenberg’s swift trajectory from lockdown to lectern. Hamilton has a broadly left-leaning campus, but the notion that campus diversity ought to extend to convicted terrorists provoked fierce opposition. Dispensing with political differences, professors and students on both sides of the political aisle allied in a fight to deny Rosenberg a place on the faculty, hold the college’s hiring practices to account, and reclaim the respectability of their institution.
Several Hamilton professors charged that Rosenberg – who earned a Masters degree in writing via correspondence from Ohio’s far-left Antioch College, and whose teaching experience was limited to a stint as adjunct professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice – owed her slated post not to any eminent academic qualifications, but to her credentials as a leftist extremist. In bringing Rosenberg to Hamilton, they charged, the college would imperil its expressed commitment to academic standards and trampled the line between scholarship and activism. “By approving of the appointment, both faculty committees and the administration have abdicated their proper responsibility to act as guardians of the educational mission of the institution,” said Robert Paquette.
“I disagree with the administration’s presenting this as a matter of free speech, which it is not,” said James Bradfield, a professor of economics at Hamilton. “It is a matter of standards.” As Bradfield saw it, Rosenberg’s backers “inappropriately conflated” academic freedom with freedom of speech. “Freedom to speak at the college, and freedom to offer a course for academic credit while enjoying the status accorded a member of the faculty, are separate issues. I would not object if some of my colleagues invited Susan Rosenberg to speak gratis,” Bradfield said. “But I think that we can make better use of scarce resources than to pay someone like Susan Rosenberg to visit us.” Moreover, said Bradfield, “Even if Susan Rosenberg possessed the intellect or had achieved the scholarly or artistic preeminence of people such as Albert Einstein, Milton Friedman, Lionel Trilling, or Leonard Bernstein, I would argue that her character, as manifestly demonstrated by the choices that she made as an adult over a sustained period of years, would preclude her appointment to the faculty of Hamilton College.”
Nonetheless, Hamilton College concluded that a curriculum vitae as a convicted felon with a history of dalliances with terrorism and a long record of support for militant tactics was not grounds for Susan Rosenberg’s disqualification from a teaching post. “If the administration cannot see the contradiction between this hire and the clearly stated mission of the college to foster scholarship and ‘academic excellence,’ then God help us all,” said Robert Paquette. “Perhaps if Hitler were alive, he could get a job here, too, so that he could offer us his ‘unique perspective’ on German history as ‘a writer and an activist.’” That the college should toe the leftwing line on Rosenberg came as no surprise to Professor Steve Goldberg. “If this were a terrorist on the Right, a Terry Nichols or someone of his ilk, they would of course never allow it. If it’s a terrorist on the Left, then it’s excusable,” said Goldberg. “Then everything is excusable.”
This profile is adapted from the article “Terrorist Teacher” written by Jacob Laksin and published by FrontPageMagazine.com on December 2, 2004.