Welcome to the Kushner Crisis blog. We’ve been covering the recent situation of political purging at CUNY involving Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrite Tony Kushner, who was denied an honorary degree from John Jay College by the CUNY Board of Trustees. It would seem that Kushner does not have politically correct-enough views for the BoT with regards to the state of Israel. We will be reporting on this crisis and related news beginning today. The most recent updates will appear at the top with a EST stamp.
If you haven’t already done so, please make sure to “like” the FB page dedicated to making the CUNY Board of Trustees overturn their ridiculous decision. Thanks!
9:30pm BREAKING: Tony Kushner was kind enough to call the Advocate for an interview, which will run in its entirety tomorrow afternoon at this site and in the hardcopy edition. We are very glad to report now, however, that Mr. Kushner has decided to accept the honorary degree from John Jay, and will speak at the commencement ceremony at the end of May. Very thrilling news!!!
6:35pm Goldstein’s official comments just released by CUNY Central. They aren’t wasting any time putting this behind them. We’ll see soon if this story has legs or not.
“Mr. Chairperson, I would now like to take this opportunity to voice my strong support for the proposal by John Jay College to grant an honorary degree to Tony Kushner. Indeed, from the time the proposal was first sent to me for approval—a proposal I readily endorsed—I have consistently expressed that Mr. Kushner’s extraordinary body of work and enormous artistic contributions should be recognized by this University.
“A playwright and writer, he is probably best known for his two-part play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Other plays include A Bright Room Called Day, Homebody/Kabul, Caroline, or Change, and his latest, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. He has also written screenplays, books, and translations.
“Among Mr. Kushner’s many awards are a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, two Tony Awards, an Emmy Award, three Obie Awards, an Oscar nomination, an Arts Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the PEN/Laura Pels Award for a Mid-Career Playwright, a Spirit of Justice Award from the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and a Cultural Achievement Award from The National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
“The titles of his plays alone indicate what so many people have praised about them: they are wide-ranging, complex, emotional, dark, intelligent, and funny. Similar to Angels in America, which considers and complicates issues like AIDS, religion, politics, the supernatural, and gender roles, his works as a whole bring together many points of view. They celebrate a struggle for meaning and truth, a curiosity and sensitivity about a world that often seems contradictory, harsh, unfair, and wondrous, all at once. I think this is the best that we can ask of our artists, that through their art, they move us to reconsider what we thought we knew and to pay close attention to the lives of others. That gift is what connects us all.
“As anyone who has experienced Mr. Kushner’s work knows, he is not afraid to provoke, to reveal emotion at the gut level, but always to the higher purpose of creating for audiences the chorus of voices and complexity of intent that define our collective humanity. His expression is grounded in compassion, empathy, and intellectual rigor. In the spirit of all great artists, he challenges orthodoxy, confronts assumptions, and tests certainties, and, in so doing, ignites our imaginations, illuminates issues and ideas, and expands our vision—whether or not we agree with him, whether or not we take exception to some of his conclusions.
“I believe that in many ways this is also the highest ideal of the university—a search for knowledge and understanding that values questions, dialogue, and dissent. We do not shy away from the difficult, the unpopular, the mysterious; rather, these are the areas that most deserve our careful scholarly attention and our deepest humanity. At an institution like The City University of New York, woven together by disparate voices and diverse interests and connected by our shared search for meaning and our respect for the individual answers to these questions, honoring an artist committed to the highest purposes of art can only elevate our own historic mission. Mr. Chairperson, for these reasons, I urge this committee to approve an honorary degree for Tony Kushner as part of the slate of honorary degrees proposed to the Board of Trustees. Thank you.”
6:25pm More from the PSC on the union’s call for Wiesenfeld’s resignation and reform of the BOT
FACULTY UNION CALLS FOR TRUSTEE WIESENFELD’S RESIGNATION
CALLS FOR REFORM OF TRUSTEES SELECTION PROCESS
New York— “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 .”
The Professional Staff Congress/CUNY, affiliated with NYSUT and the AFT, represents the 22,000 faculty and professional staff at the City University of New York. It works to advance the professional lives of its members, enhance their terms and conditions of employment, and maintain the strength of the nation’s largest, oldest and most visible urban public university.
6:20pm Voting: resolution passes unanimously!!!!!!!!!
The honorary degree nomination is passed. Kushner will receive the award!
6:19pm BREAKING NEWS
THIS JUST OUT: CUNY FACULTY UNION TO CALL FOR
TRUSTEE WIESENFELD’S RESIGNATION
The Official PSC Press Release: “Professional Staff Congress President Dr. Barbara Bowen will call for CUNY Trustee Jeffery Wiesenfeld’s immediate resignation before a special meeting of the Executive Committee of the CUNY Board of Trustees. The meeting has been convened by the Executive Committee to consider reversing the full board’s earlier decision to block the playwright Tony Kushner’s honorary degree. 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.”
6:15 pm Floor now open for trustees to comment.
Trustees now taking turns reiterating Goldstein’s comments about why Kushner deserves honorary degree.
Trustees also falling all over themselves to cover their asses by noting how they supported Kushner’s award all along. Hilarious.
Trustee who originally objected now realizes that she trusts the faculty of John Jay and always has and now sees the error of her ways in the previous vote.
6:10pm Goldstein: from now on, the procedure will be different. Nominations will be vetted by standing committee before advancing to BOT.
Goldstein: I reaffirm my support for Kushner again here tonight.
Goldstein now giving BoT lesson in who Kushner actually is.
Attendance is at capacity. Barbara Bowen and I are watching proceedings on closed caption in the overflow room.
6:05 pm: Motion officially presented to board: Chancellor Goldstein now addressing the board.
Goldstein: asked to gather the executive committee because we have unfinished business.
Chancellor Goldstein now boring the crap out of everyone with a history of honorary degrees at CUNY.
Goldstein: I was quite supportive of Kushner receiving this degree (!!!)
6:00pm The Special meeting of the Executive Committee of the CUNY Board of Trustees is just beginning. Stay tuned for more details as the meeting takes shape. Posts are also being sent via twitter so consequently will be les than 140 characters each. Please bear with us.
1:30pm Inside Higher Ed has another, quite lengthy, piece on the Kushner affair at CUNY which provoked quite a bit of reaction from readers as evidenced by the comments section.
1:00pm Another letter of support for Tony Kushner sent on Friday came from Dr. Hatem Bazian, chairman of American Muslims for Palestine and professor of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. It reads:
Dear Chairman Benno Schmidt:
I am writing to express our deep concern about the comments made recently by Trustee Jeffery Wiesenfeld concerning the honorary degree for playwright Tony Kushner.
As you know, Mr. Kushner was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama for his seminal work, “Angels in America,” which positively contributed to the national dialogue on AIDS, bringing a new level of understanding about the disease and those stricken with it.
Reports indicate that CUNY may reverse its decision and bestow the award anyway. That is good. However, my reason for writing goes beyond the honorary degree.
We find it deeply troubling that the prestigious Board of Trustees would include a member whose views on Palestinians are deeply bigoted and racist.
According to a May 5, 2011, New York Times article by Jim Dwyer, Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld said there is no “more equivalency” between Palestinians and Israelis. He went on to say terribly racist, egregious things about Palestinians which, were they said about any other ethnic groups, never be tolerated. We are calling for Mr. Wiesesnfeld’s immediate resignation.
Referring to Palestinians, Mr. Wiesenfeld told the reporter, “People who worship death for their children are not human …They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history.”
Furthermore, in the transcripts from the Board of Trustees meeting, Mr. Wiesenfeld shows either a total lack of knowledge and understanding about the Middle East or a propensity to obfuscate facts on the ground to promote a biased and untrue viewpoint.
According to the transcripts published on May 6, 2011, by the New York Times, Mr. Wiesenfeld said, “… State of Israel, which is our sole democratic ally in the area sits in the neighborhood which 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 the 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.”
These characterizations are patently untrue as a review of any number of historians on the Middle East – including Israeli academics such as Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe – will show, and the board’s silence on the matter is also deeply concerning.
As the Board of Trustees is charged with setting policy and procedures for the City University, we are frankly concerned about Mr. Wiesenfeld’s comments in that they could potentially help create a hostile environment under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act on your campuses for the many Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students. Mr. Wiesenfeld’s comments also call into question his ability to act fairly on issues that may pertain to Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students, and such a perception sullies the reputation of the entire board and the university system itself. A university should be a place that welcomes diversity not one that makes decisions based upon the fallacious and bigoted opinion of one board member.
Dr. Hatem Bazian
12:45pm Clyde Haberman at the New York Times points out that one of the positive byproducts of this whole mess may be a systemic reconsideration of the CUNY governance structure, a structure that centers around the Board of Trustees. The piece quotes the art historian Diane Kelder who notes that the Kushner affair “calls the whole process into question…Who are these people on the board? How do they make judgments? And when someone like this man stands up and hyperventilates, why is he given so much credibility?”
12:30pm WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show did a segment this morning on the Kushner affair at CUNY. Pretty weak tea, though some interesting enough points were raised. For some quick reactions from listeners, please visit and join the Facebook page, “Tony Kushner: Good Enough for a Pulitzer, but Not Enough for CUNY NY?” Also, it’s curious to note that someone claiming to be Jeffrey Wiesenfeld left comments at the Brian Lehrer page in reaction to the show.
12:00pm It’s heartening to see that the British Guardian newspaper continues to report on the Kushner crisis at CUNY. This morning, the paper posted an update on the situation. It can be accessed here.