At its monthly meeting on Monday, May 2nd, the CUNY Board of Trustees denied authorization to John Jay College to grant an honorary degree to Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner at its spring commencement. After a firestorm of protest, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, on Monday, May 9th, reversed the Board's initial decision and voted to grant Kushner an honorary degree.
Inside Higher Education reported that the original May 2nd vote was the first time the Board had ever denied authorization to any of its colleges to grant an honorary degree.
Board trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld pushed the issue to a vote on May 2nd, arguing the Kushner was anti-Israel. In a subsequent letter to both the Board and the John Jay community, Kushner stated that Wiesenfeld had "delivered a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I’ve given."
In an editorial, "CUNY Shamed Itself," on Saturday, May 7th, the New York Times called on the Board to reverse its decision and added that Jeffrey "Wiesenfeld, who told The Times’s Jim Dwyer that some Palestinians are not human, should resign."
On Monday, May 9th, PSC President Barbara Bowen addressed the media outside CUNY headquarters before and after the Trustees Executive Committee convened to reverse the full Board's earlier decision to block Tony Kushner's Honorary degree. Here is the PSC statement released at that news conference:
FACULTY UNION CALLS FOR TRUSTEE WIESENFELD’S RESIGNATION
CALLS FOR REFORM OF TRUSTEES SELECTION PROCESS
“Reversing the decision on Tony Kushner’s honorary degree is good, but it does not address the fundamental problem,“ said Professional Staff Congress President Dr. Barbara Bowen at a news conference held outside CUNY headquarters.
She spoke just minutes before a special meeting convened by the Executive Committee of the CUNY Trustees to consider reversing the full Board’s earlier decision to block the playwright’s honor, which overrode the decision of the Faculty Senate and president of John Jay College and the the unanimous recommendation of the college’s honorary degree committee. The Trustees dropped Kushner’s name from a list of honorary degree recipients after Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld attacked Kushner with a distorted account of his views on the Israel/Palestine conflict, based on a few out-of-context quotations. Neither Kushner nor the faculty of John Jay College was given an opportunity to respond.
“The attack on Kushner represents an attempt to narrow public debate, disregard recommendations of the faculty, and limit the range of views that CUNY students are entitled to hear,” said Bowen, president of Professional Staff Congress, the union representing faculty and staff at The City University of New York (CUNY). “In bowing to that attack, the Trustees’ decision was an offense against open intellectual discussion and freedom of thought, and it is essential that it be reversed.”
But Bowen said that the incident also highlights a more fundamental problem with CUNY governance: trustees are political appointees who are not required to have any real experience or knowledge about higher education. Simply awarding Kushner an honorary degree does not address that problem, she said, and also leaves Trustee Wiesenfeld in a position to impose his political views inappropriately on the University again.
“Jeffery Wiesenfeld has abused his position as CUNY Trustee on numerous occasions,” said Bowen. “He should resign immediately and the trustee selection process should be reformed so that the Board is composed of qualified people with genuine expertise in higher education, who will respect the faculty, staff and students in whose interests they serve .”
On Wednesday, May 4th, PSC President Barbara Bowen issued the following statement on behalf of the PSC calling on the Board to reverse its decision.
“The Board of Trustees’ decision to block John Jay College from awarding Tony Kushner an honorary degree at this year’s commencement is a serious mistake and should be reversed by the Board’s Executive Committee as soon as possible.
Kushner is known not only as one of our greatest playwrights, but particularly for the way his work grapples with the complexity, both personal and political, of the conflicts of our age. The faculty and president of John Jay College chose Kushner on the unanimous recommendation of the college’s honorary degree committee. To allow a one-sided attack that distorts Kushner’s views beyond recognition to stand in the way of the College’s decision is an insult to the academic judgment of the faculty.
The vote on the proposed honor for Kushner is especially perverse in light of Kushner’s long history of public defense of CUNY and his courage as a speaker of truth to power. More than once, as CUNY funding has come under attack, Tony Kushner has been among the first and most eloquent public figures to spring to the defense of its students and its democratic mission. A more courageous writer would be hard to find.
The attack on Kushner represents an attempt to close off and narrow public debate. In bowing to that attack, the Trustees’ craven decision is an offense against open intellectual discussion and freedom of thought. It dishonors our University, and the values for which we ought to stand.
Kushner faced similar distortions of his views when Brandeis University decided to grant him an honorary degree in 2006. That university remained true to the example set by Justice Brandeis, famous as a defender of free speech, and did not back down. CUNY, as a university built on the principle of openness, must rise to the same standard.”
--PSC President Dr. Barbara Bowen
- NY Times, "The Tony Awards", 5/12/11
- Inside Higher Education, 5/5/11
- Jewish Week, 5/5/11
- The Gothamist (including the full text of Kushner's letter to the Board and John Jay Community)
- Guardian (UK), "Tony Kushner row deepens as supporters renounce honorary degrees" 5/6/11 (Includes quotes from PSC President Barbara Bowen)
- NY Times, "In Reversal, City University Trustees Approve Honorary Degree for Tony Kushner," 5/10/11.
- Democracy Now, "Tony Kushner Speaks Out," 5/10/11. At the end of the interview, Kushner expresses his appreciation of support from PSC members.
- PSC statement included in NY 1 report on Board's reversal, 5/10/11
- WNYC, 5/10/11, including report of PSC call for Wiesenfeld to resign.
- NY Times, "Pressure Mounts Against CUNY Trustee Who Opposed Kushner," 5/11/11. The article includes comments by PSC President Barbara Bowen.
- NY Times, "The Playwright and the CUNY Trustee: Act II," 5/12/11. Two letters on the makeup of the Board, one of which is from Barbara Bowen.