Give and take at the
City University of New York
CUNY awards honorary doctorate to playwright Tony Kushner, takes it away, then — after ‘firestorm’ of protest — gives it back.
By Michael Meeropol / The Rag Blog / June 8, 2011
NEW YORK — On June 3, the playwright Tony Kushner, whose work Angels in America has been justly celebrated as an outstanding contribution both to American theater and to our general understanding of life in the late 1980s, received an honorary doctorate from John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York (CUNY).
Since this was his seventeenth honorary degree, it probably would not have warranted much attention. However, as he acknowledged in his speech to the graduates that day, this honorary doctorate would remain “the most interesting one I had to work the hardest to get.”
You see what should have been a routine ratification of the decision made by John Jay College by the CUNY Board of Trustees at their May 2, 2011, meeting became anything but.
Their decision that day to table Mr. Kushner’s degree — in effect denying him that degree — launched what The New York Times called a “firestorm” of protest.
At that May 2 meeting, Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld [see picture on right below] attacked Kushner for being “anti-Israel.” He read some snippets of quotes from Kushner that had been assembled as part of an effort to have Brandeis University rescind an honorary degree that Kushner had received in 2006.
”Israel was founded in a program that if you really want to be blunt about it was ethnic cleansing and that today is behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people. I’ve never been a Zionist, I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state… it would be better if it’d never have happened…” The Israeli reporter questioning Mr. Kushner says, “But you are saying then that the very creation of the state of Israel as a Jewish state was not a good idea,” and Mr. Kushner answered, “It was a mistake.” (1.)
Without a word of discussion, without a word raised in Kushner’s defense, four other members of the CUNY Board joined with Wiesenfeld to block Kushner’s honorary degree. The opinions of the faculty of John Jay College — the college that nominated him and where I am currently working — were swept aside.
To get an idea as to how disrespectful this was to the process by which honorary degrees are awarded, we should note that nominations are made by faculty members at any City University College for degrees to be awarded at that college’s commencement exercise. The nominators are kept secret from the faculty committee that, after extensive deliberations, makes recommendations to the college’s administration.
By the time it gets to the CUNY Board of Trustees, three levels of the academic hierarchy, the faculty of the nominating school, the administration of the nominating school, and the Chancellor of the City University, have all made their considered judgment. The Chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies program, Dr. Amy Green, and I were the two nominators and we wrote a very detailed letter describing Mr. Kushner’s artistic achievements that in our view made him eminently qualified to receive such an award. [See picture of Michael Meeropol on left below.]
The Board’s decision on May 2 was the first of its kind. Since being established in 1961 the Board had NEVER overruled a nomination that had passed all three stages.
Neither Mr. Kushner nor the faculty of John Jay College took this insult lying down. Mr. Kushner penned a vigorous response to Mr. Weisenfeld’s attack, explaining that the views attributed to him were false and that the direct quotes from him had been taken out of context.
The chair of the faculty senate of John Jay sent a strong protest letter demanding that the executive committee of the Board immediately meet to authorize the degree. Had they waited till the next scheduled meeting of the full Board, it would have been too late, as John Jay’s commencement was June 3.
Seventy faculty with the rank of Distinguished Professor from all over the City University signed their own letter of protest.
A number of individuals who had previously received honorary degrees from the City University publicly asked how they could return their degrees in protest at the outrageous action.
Despite his strong differences with Kushner on Israel, former New York Mayor Ed Koch was quoted as saying that not only should the Board reverse the decision, but that Mr. Wiesenfeld should be removed from the Board for abusing his authority.
Trustee Wiesenfeld was clearly expressing an extreme point of view. He was quoted in The Atalantic that his mother would call Tony Kushner a CAPO — a Jewish guard at a Nazi Concentration camp. In an interview with The New York Times he revealed even more about himself:
I [THE REPORTER] tried to ask a question about the damage done by a short, one-sided discussion of vigorously debated aspects of Middle East politics, like the survival of Israel and the rights of the Palestinians, and which side was more callous toward human life, and who was most protective of it.
But Mr. Wiesenfeld interrupted and said the question was offensive because “the comparison sets up a moral equivalence.”
Equivalence between what and what? “Between the Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “People who worship death for their children are not human.”
Did he mean the Palestinians were not human? “They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history,” he said. (2.)
However, all this is beside the point. Though Wiesenfeld grossly mischaracterized Kushner’s views, even if he hadn’t, it would not be grounds for the denial of an honorary degree.
Board Chairman Benno Schmidt candidly acknowledged that the Board’s action had been a violation of principle and called an Executive Board meeting to rectify the error.
He said the following:
Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name … it is not right for the Board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here.(3)
The story has a happy ending. On May 9, exactly one week after the outrageous action taken by the trustees, the Executive Committee unanimously approved Mr. Kushner’s honorary degree. Unfortunately, as I and my students watched the proceedings of the Executive Committee meeting, we noted that there was no apology tendered to Mr. Kushner and we feared the experience had left such a bad taste in his mouth that he would refuse the degree. We should not have been concerned.
In an extraordinary display of magnanimity, Mr. Kushner did accept the honorary degree. Chairman Shmidt’s statement served as such an apology.
In an even greater act of generosity, since John Jay has such a large student body, commencement occurs in two sessions. Mr. Kushner agreed to attend both — something honorees rarely do — and he basically gave the same speech twice.(4)
But the story remains a cautionary tale. Four members of the Board allowed themselves to be swayed by Trustee Weisenfeld’s accusations.(5) No one saw fit to respond the way Chairman Schmidt did four days later. And this failure to respond applies to Chairman Schmidt as well. (Though his silence at the first meeting is partially corrected by his decisive action four days later.)
At least one of those four was quoted in The New York Times as changing her mind on this issue, but why did it take a firestorm of protest to wake these people up?
I believe it would be a very legitimate question to ask those members of the Board: What they were thinking when they blindly followed Wiesenfeld after he had launched a vicious and unjust political attack on Mr. Kushner, undeniably a great creative artist and one of our foremost public intellectuals.
What were they thinking?
Photos above: (Right) CUNY Trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld. Photo by Michael Appleton / New York Times; (Left) Rag Blog contributor Michael Meeropol who, along with Dr. Amy Green, nominated playwright Kushner for the honorary degree. Photo by Thomas Good.
[Michael Meeropol is Visiting Professor of Economics, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. Read more articles by Michael Meeropol on The Rag Blog.]
1. The full transcript of Mr. Weisenfeld’s remarks as relates to Mr. Kushner follows:
Now to Mr. Kushner: I chose with Mr. Kushner not to look at pro-Israel websites that would give insight into his feelings of Israel. Rather, I went to the website of one Norman Finklestein, another discredited individual that mercifully we rid ourselves of at this University and he pridefully displayed key quotes of Mr. Kushner on his website… which are accurately reflected elsewhere and by Mr. Kushner’s record itself and I quote Mr. Kushner.
First while Mr. Finklestein praises the candidate, Kushner also deplores the brutal and illegal tactics of the IDF, which I might add is the only force of its kind in the world that has the high code of ethics that the Israel defense forces has and the deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture in the systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people. He is also on the board of an organization which opposes the security fence, a unified Jerusalem, or military aid to Israel, recommends Norman Finklestein’s notorious books and supports boycotting and divesting from the state of Israel.
Now to Mr. Kushner’s quotes: “Israel was founded in a program that if you really want to be blunt about it was ethnic cleansing and that today is behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people. I’ve never been a Zionist, I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state… it would be better if it’d never have happened.“ Kushner said that “establish a state means F-U-C-K-I-N-G people over, however I think that people in the late 20th and 21st century having seen the Holocaust, having seen the 20th century and all of its horrors, cannot be complacent in the face of that.” The Israeli reporter questioning Mr. Kushner says, “But you are saying then that the very creation of the state of Israel as a Jewish state was not a good idea,” and Mr. Kushner answered, “It was a mistake.”
I think you get the idea… I don’t want to bore you all with the details. Let me just say that when people identify themselves politically in principal or principally by these types of viewpoints, yes, it could be said by other trustees or by members of faculty that it has a chilling effect when a trustee brings up these types of matters but I think it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and to consider these things especially when the state of Israel, which is our sole democratic ally in the area, sits in a neighborhood that is almost universally dominated by administrations which are misogynist, anti-gay, anti-Christian and societies that are doing today to the Christians what they did to 500,000 Jews who lived in the Arab world in 1948 at the time of the creation of the state of Israel: dispossessing them, murdering them, deporting them.
And so I have to say that even though I am the lone dissenter that it’s time that… It would be much worse for the reputation of the University not to mention this, especially after the appointment of an individual at Brooklyn College, Mr. Overton, who has some equally specious scholarship. Thank you, Mr. Chairman!”
2. The New York Times: A University Trustee Expands on His View of What Is Offensive
3. Board Chairman Schmidt’s full statement issued on May 6, 2011 follows:
I believe the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees needs to reconsider the Board’s decision to table the motion to approve the award of an honorary degree to Tony Kushner. I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken. But when the board has made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy, review is appropriate and, indeed, mandatory.
Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name. If it were appropriate for us to take politics into account in deciding whether to approve an honorary degree, I might agree with Trustee Wiesenfeld, whose political views on the matters in controversy are not far distant from my own. But it is not right for the Board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here.
The proposed honorary degree for Mr. Kushner would recognize him for his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater. Like other honorary degrees, it is not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored. Any other view is impractical as well as wrong in principle. Would we want it thought that we approve of the politics of everyone who receives a CUNY honorary degree? Certainly I have moved the approval of honorary degrees for persons with whose opinions I differ.
In addition, I am concerned about the procedural unfairness of our action. The objection arose at the eleventh hour without any opportunity for research and preparation necessary for the presentation of a full and balanced appraisal. Accordingly, the Chancellor and I agree that reconsideration of the motion to table the honorary degree for Mr. Kushner is not only the right thing to do, but is our obligation.
I will ask the Secretary of the Board to convene an Executive Committee meeting to reconsider this matter.
4. In the morning he told the students that he was going to deliver two speeches that day. He asserted that the morning students would get the “good speech” and that the afternoon one ”sucks.” In the afternoon, to great laughter, he referred to what he had told the morning graduates and said, “I lied… you get the good speech.”
5. The four members who voted with Trustee Wiesenfeld are: Judah Gribetz an attorney with a long distinguished record of public service dating back to the 1950s; Peter S. Pantaleo, another lawyer who is Vice Chair of the Board’s Committee on Fiscal Affairs; Carol A. Robles-Roman, Deputy Mayor of the City of New York (the person who changed her mind between Monday, May 2 and Friday, May 6 and who is yet another lawyer who also serves on the Committee on Fiscal Affiars; and Charles A. Shorter who appears to be the only one of the four with ties to the academic side of higher education — he is adjunct associate Professor in the Master of Science Program in Real Estate Development at Columbia University. Members of the Board of Trustees appear to all be political appointments either by the Governor of the State of New York or the Mayor.
Links to New York Times articles:
- CUNY Blocks Honor for Tony Kushner
- Outrage on CUNY Vote to Shelve Playwright’s Award
- CUNY Shamed Itself (editorial)
- After Reversal, Honor Is Likely for Kushner
- CUNY and Tony Kushner: A Firestorm (Letters to the Editor)
- The Playwright and the CUNY Trustee: Act II (Letters to the Editor)