On May 2, when the CUNY Board of Trustees blocked John Jay College from awarding playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree, everyone present seemed surprised. The rest of the board did not seem to expect that trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld would move against it, and Wiesenfeld seemed surprised when he prevailed.
The trustees also seemed surprised that their action drew such intense and widespread protest – but they should not have been.
“What sent shockwaves around the University and beyond was not so much what Mr. Wiesenfeld said, but the silence of the other trustees,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “That not one trustee spoke up – and that not one seemed to understand how their decision violated basic standards of academic discourse and respect for faculty – suggests that there are problems with the current selection process for trustees. That process needs to be reformed to ensure that CUNY has trustees with real knowledge of academia, rather than a board filled largely with political appointees.”
John Jay’s Faculty Senate and the college’s president had proposed Kushner on the unanimous recommendation of its honorary degree committee. The letter nominating Kushner cited him as one of the nation’s “leading literary figures.” It noted his Pulitzer Prize, Tony Awards, and other honors, and gave an extended account of his work – Angels in America, his other plays, his essays and more. It also described a 2010 lecture he gave at John Jay:
“What made the strongest impression...was Mr. Kushner’s response to the students in the audience. During the official Q&A, he listened attentively and provided patient and detailed answers to the students’ questions. At the conclusion of the event, [he] spent a long time talking to each student about his or her major and ambitions. We practically had to drag him out of the theater.”
But when Kushner’s name came before the trustees on a list of 22 honorary degree candidates, Wiesenfeld objected, citing what he presented as Kushner’s position on Israel and Palestine.
Wiesenfeld described three statements from Kushner he had found on the Internet. One, he said, criticized the Israeli army’s treatment of Palestinians as illegal; another held that “ethnic cleansing” had occurred during the establishment of Israel; while another held that founding a Jewish religious state had been a mistake. “I think you get the idea, I don’t want to bore you all with the details,” Wiesenfeld told his fellow trustees. He declared that he would vote against a degree for the dramatist, “even if I am the lone dissenter.” (In a subsequent interview with the Atlantic, Wiesenfeld called Kushner “a Jewish anti-Semite.”)
When the vote came, seven trustees supported awarding all the degrees, including Kushner’s, while four – Carol Robles-Roman, Peter Pantaleo, Judah Gribetz and Charles Shorter – joined Wiesenfeld in voting no. But a majority of those voting was not enough; the motion required nine votes in favor, a majority of the 17 trustees who have a vote. In a hurried proceeding, Chairperson Benno Schmidt then proposed awarding all degrees except Kushner’s, which was approved, and the trustees tabled consideration of Kushner’s degree. Because John Jay’s commencement would occur before the board’s next meeting, and no trustee proposed scheduling another session, the college was effectively prevented from awarding the degree.
The next day, University Faculty Senate Chair Sandi Cooper, a non-voting member of the board, wrote to trustees and the chancellor objecting to Wiesenfeld’s attack on Kushner as a distortion of the playwright’s views. She urged the board’s executive committee to meet and approve the tabled motion.
Cooper quoted from a letter that Kushner had written to the president of Brandeis in 2006, when he was similarly attacked over an honorary degree (one of 15 honorary degrees Kushner received before he was considered by CUNY). “I love Israel, but I am neither a Zionist nor an anti-Zionist,” Kushner wrote. “Though I think nationalist solutions to the problems of oppressed minorities are usually mistakes...I want a two-state solution to the crisis in the Middle East through courageous, honest peace talks supported by the international community. In every interview and essay on the subject I’ve declared that Israel’s existence must be defended, its borders secured and its people safe.”
“As Kushner says,” commented Cooper, his views involve “complicated thoughts not conducive to being understood in sound bites.”
Kushner himself wrote to the trustees the next day, taking exception to what he called “a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs...concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes” presented by Wiesenfeld. He was even more critical of the board as a whole, for acting without any effort to seek his response to this attack. “I’m not a difficult person to find,” Kushner wrote. (Kushner’s letter is online at tinyurl.com/KushnerBoT.)
Reaction to the board’s action was swift and widespread. Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University and a scholar of academic freedom in the McCarthy era, wrote to the trustees that she would have to return her own honorary degree from CUNY (“the greatest honor I have ever received”) if the board’s violation of academic freedom was allowed to stand. Academic freedom, Schrecker wrote, “is more than just the protection of the teaching, research, and public activities of college and university teachers. It also extends to the entire campus, fostering the openness and creativity that allow American higher education to flourish.” Other recipients of CUNY honorary degrees, including writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Cunningham, and civil rights attorney Sharon Minter, soon said that they would also return their degrees.
“The trustees’ craven decision is an offense against open intellectual discussion and freedom of thought,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “It dishonors our University, and the values for which we ought to stand.” Bowen called on the board to reverse itself as soon as possible. The trustees’ vote was based on “a one-sided attack that distorts Kushner’s views beyond recognition,” she added, an action that was “especially perverse in light of Kushner’s long history of public defense of CUNY.” More than 600 PSC members responded by sending their own letters of protest via the union’s website.
FOR OPEN DEBATE
“I can’t think of a dumber academic decision,” wrote former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, whose honorary degree the trustees had voted to approve. As for Kushner’s criticisms of Israel, he said, “What if I were denied an honorary degree because of my strong support for that state?”
The president of the PEN American Center, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and the director of its Freedom to Write program, Larry Siems, urged the trustees to reconsider, in the interest of “free and open debate in the university community, and in the country as a whole.” Meanwhile Elissa Bemporad of Queens College, where she holds the Jerry and William Ungar Assistant Professorship in East European Jewish History and the Holocaust, wrote from Jerusalem that “this decision has damaged CUNY’s reputation, both nationally and internationally.”
Letters from Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and Yale literary critic Harold Bloom were among the hundreds of other statements of protest. Seventy-five CUNY distinguished professors sent a joint letter of their own (see page 9), as did nearly 100 faculty members at Columbia and 34 faculty members at the CUNY School of Law. A Facebook page launched by CUNY faculty and a blog started by the Graduate Center’s Advocate emerged as online organizing centers, highlighting particularly eloquent protests and encouraging new ones.
On May 5, the trustees issued a statement that their action “should not be interpreted as reflecting on Mr. Kushner’s accomplishments.” The protests only grew louder. By May 6 it was too much, and Schmidt announced that the trustees’ executive committee would convene on May 9 with a single item on the agenda. In a short meeting that day, the honorary degree for Kushner was approved. “I am very, very grateful to everyone who protested,” Kushner told the Graduate Center’s Advocate. “I realize that it has a lot to do with things that are bigger than me,” he added.
May 5 was the date of both major PSC rally (see page 3) and a the opening of Kushner’s latest play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. A group of PSC members led by Hunter adjunct Sándor John went to the Public Theater after the rally to show their support, with signs such as, “CUNY Faculty & Students Honor Tony Kushner.” Kushner stopped by to thank them. In a later interview on Democracy Now he expressed deep appreciation to the PSC for the role it had played throughout.
In his own letter to the trustees, Ed Koch had gone beyond urging that Kushner’s degree be granted. “I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld’s action so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees,” the former mayor wrote. (In an interview earlier that same week, Wiesenfeld had told the Jewish Press, “If the city of New York were a person, who would it be? It would be Ed Koch.”)
Koch was joined in this stance by The New York Times, which published an editorial calling for Wiesenfeld’s resignation. The PSC took the same position. “Of course Mr. Wiesenfeld has the right to freely express his views at board meetings, however misleading and offensive his statements may be,” PSC President Bowen said. “The union is calling for his resignation not because of the positions he expresses, but because he consistently abuses his position as trustee.”
The union cited Wiesenfeld’s repeated attempts to limit academic freedom at CUNY, including denouncing faculty conducting an antiwar teach-in as “seditious,” interfering in the selection of a department chair, and seeking the dismissal of a PSC member Kristofer Petersen-Overton, an adjunct faculty member at Brooklyn College, this spring (see coverage in the March 2011 Clarion) – in each case because of his disagreement with their political views.
The more fundamental issue, the union said, was the need to reform the Board of Trustees as a whole. “The country’s most important urban public university deserves better than a board packed with political appointees chosen without regard for their understanding or even commitment to public higher education,” wrote the PSC’s Bowen in a May 12 letter in The New York Times. “Let this embarrassing episode be the occasion for a rethinking of the process through which CUNY trustees are chosen.”
Legislation has been introduced in Albany to create a new selection process, lead by a blue-ribbon commission that would screen candidates for their appropriateness for an academic governing board.