Kushner Crisis: Day 3

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!

8:25pm     Another critically important letter of unified support for John Jay’s decision to confer an honorary degree upon Tony Kushner on behalf of the faculty of CUNY Law.  It was also sent along to the New York Times.

Dear CUNY Trustees and Members of the CUNY Chancellery: 

We write as members of the CUNY Law School faculty, in support of the faculty of John Jay College and its nomination of Mr. Tony Kushner for an honorary degree. Specifically, we support the John Jay faculty’s request that the Board’s Executive Committee meet and approve the degree.

Honorary degrees are intended to serve as a means of recognizing the achievements of persons who have made significant contributions to the principles for which the institutions stand. Mr. Kushner’s work and his participation in public debate have advanced public dialog on a range of issues that are core to CUNY’s values, and more generally, to its academic work. As faculty members we find it deeply disturbing that the Board of Trustees would decline to approve an honorary degree for Mr. Kushner, and would be opposed if the decision were based on disagreements with particular positions Mr. Kushner may have taken. Absent a very extreme case, we would expect that the decision of a faculty and college President to advance a name, after fact-based evaluation and vetting, would be afforded deference. We also would be opposed if the decision were based on mischaracterizations or statements taken out of context, particularly in the absence of fact checking or an opportunity for the John Jay faculty to respond. That type of decision, made without a review of the record on which the faculty decision was based, contradicts the pursuit of knowledge and fact-based inquiry to which CUNY is dedicated.

We ask you to respect the judgment of the John Jay faculty and allow Mr. Tony Kushner to join the students and larger community as a member of John Jay’s graduating class of 2011.

Sincerely,

Penny Andrews

Sameer Ashar

Beryl Blaustone

Paula Berg

Caitlin Borgmann

Rebecca Bratspies

Angela Burton

Janet Calvo

Douglas Cox

Frank Deale

Dave Fields

Raquel Gabriel

Mercer Givhan

Astrid Gloade

Julie Goldscheid

Natalie Gomez-Velez

Victor Goode

Yasmin Sokkar Harker

Babe Howell

Carmen Huertas

Jeff Kirchmeier

Donna Lee

Stephen Loffredo

Degna P. Levister

Susan Markus

Alizabeth Newman

Ruthann Robson

Joe Rosenberg

Rick Rossein

Nicole Smith

Richard Storrow

Liliana C. Yanez

Deborah Zalesne

Steve Zeidman

7:30pm     Hugely important letter from Karen Kaplowitz, president of the faculty senate at John Jay College, to the CUNY Board of Trustees.  It follows below:

Dear CUNY Trustees and Members of the CUNY Chancellery, 

I write to you on behalf of the faculty of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and on behalf of its Faculty Senate, which nominated Mr. Tony Kushner for an honorary degree.

The Faculty Senate nominated Mr. Kushner because he is both a major artist and a brilliant public intellectual who engages both in his art and in his public discourse issues of vital importance to our nation and our world.   We nominated Mr. Kushner not only to honor him but also to honor John Jay’s graduating class of 2011, at whose commencement ceremonies he would have participated and spoken.  Mr. Kushner did not ask to receive an honorary degree; rather, the faculty of John Jay asked that we be permitted to honor him.  In rejecting Mr. Kushner’s candidacy, the Board has not only maligned Mr. Kushner without just cause but has disrespected the faculty of John Jay, who acted in good faith and in confidence that the Board of Trustees would carry out its responsibilities in a manner that befits our great University.   

But the harm to Mr. Kushner and to John Jay College, although grave, is not beyond remediation.  The Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees exists to act on behalf of the Board between its scheduled meetings.  Because the Board’s next meeting is not until June 27, weeks after John Jay’s June 3 commencement ceremony, I request that the Board’s Executive Committee meet to revisit and reverse its action.  The Board’s May 2 vote to table the candidacy of Mr. Kushner permits such action.

The following is the nominating letter to our College’s faculty Committee on Honorary Degrees, which the Committee then sent to our Faculty Senate, when it recommended Mr. Kushner for a degree.  This nominating letter was co-written by two members of our faculty:  Professor Amy Green, a scholar of the theater and of dramatic literature, and Visiting Professor Michael Meeropol, an economist:

“Playwright Tony Kushner has created a body of dramatic literature that has revitalized the political conscience of the American Theater through his unique brand of magic realism.  In 1993, Kushner’s stunning, two-part Angels in America: a gay fantasia on national themes forced a Broadway audience to confront AIDS as a moral, spiritual, civic, and aesthetic crisis as well as a devastating epidemic. But Mr. Kushner’s cultural and intellectual realm of influence goes beyond the stage.  Over the past two decades, he has emerged as one of the leading literary figures in this country and abroad. Salon Magazine described him as “- a man who will talk just as easily about Roseanne or Gingrich as O’Neill or Ibsen. In an age when the American theater has grown increasingly divorced from public life, Kushner, like a latter-day Arthur Miller, stubbornly insists on the playwright’s role as political provocateur.” In light of his stunning achievements in dramatic writing, cultural and literary criticism, and the quest for social-justice, we nominate Tony Kushner for an honorary degree from John Jay College.

“Angels in America garnered Kushner two Pulitzer Prizes in Drama (for Part One: Millennium Approaches in 1993 and for Part Two: Perestroika in 1994), the 1993 and 1994 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding New Play; the 1993 and 1994 Tony Awards for Best Play; and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special, for the 2004 HBO all-star adaptation, which was directed by Mike Nichols and featured Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, and Jeffrey Wright. 

“Since the landmark Angels in America, Mr. Kushner has written original plays and significant adaptations that have been produced on Broadway and at the nation’s leading regional theaters.  Homebody/Kabul (2001), a prescient depiction of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, written before September 11th. Caroline or Change, about the relationship between a young Southern boy and his family’s black maid, is animated by singing laundry appliances and won Kushner the 2007 Lawrence Olivier Award for Best New Musical.  The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2009 and had its New York premiere at the Public Theater in the spring of 2010. His award-winning adaptations include A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds (S. Ansky); The Good Person of Setzuan (Brecht), and The Illusion (Pierre Corneille). Kushner wrote the screenplay for the 2005 film, Munich, and is working with director Steven Spielberg on a film about Abraham Lincoln.

“Tony Kushner’s oeuvre includes numerous reflections, articles and essay collections, including Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue: Essays, A Play, Two Poems and a Prayer (Theater Communications Group, 1995), Save Your Democratic Citizen Soul!: Rants, Screeds, and Other Public Utterances for Midnight in the Republic (The New Press, 2003), and Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, with Alisa Solomon (Grove, 2003).

“Mr. Kushner was born in New York City in the late 1950s but was raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana (the setting for the autobiographical Caroline or Change.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Medieval Studies from Columbia University and a Master of Fine Arts in Directing at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, where he is now on the faculty.

“Kushner is the subject of Tony Kushner in Conversation, edited by Robert Vorlicky, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), James Fisher’s The Theater of Tony Kushner (Studies in Modern Drama) (Routledge, 2002),., Tony Kushner, edited by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, 2005), and of the 2006 documentary film Wrestling with Angels.

“There is one more thing to recommend Tony Kushner for such a high honor from John Jay College.  In March 2010, Mr. Kushner appeared as a featured speaker in the College’s public lecture series, Justice and Injustice in 1950’s America. As expected, the audience was impressed and charmed by Mr. Kushner’s wide-ranging knowledge and thoughtful explanations of his work.  What made the strongest impression on those of us who were present, however, 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, autograph-seeking students, paperbacks in hand, approached him as he descended from the stage.  Mr. Kushner not only signed their scripts but 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.

“Thus it is with great pride and enthusiasm that we put forth Tony Kushner for a Doctorate of Philosophy, honoris ausa, at John Jay College’s 2011 Commencement ceremonies.”

In addition to Mr. Kushner’s credentials as presented in the nominating letter, I ask that you also note the fact that Mr. Kushner has received honorary degrees from 15 colleges and universities, a compelling record of recognition, respect, and celebration:

Bard College                                             June 2004

Brandeis University                              May 2006

Columbia College Chicago                  June 2003

Columbia University                            May 2010

The Cooper Union                                 May 2004

Denison University                               May 1997

Juilliard School                                       May 2010

McNeese State University                  December 1993

Northwestern University                    June 1998

Occidental College                                 April 1999

Pace University                                      May 2004

School for Visual Arts                          May 2010

State University of New York           May 2008

University of Minnesota                     May 2009

Wesleyan University                            May 1999

Also relevant are the Board’s criteria for the awarding of honorary degrees, which Mr. Kushner surely meets.  The following is the Board’s own statement:

Honorary degrees are intended to serve as a means by which the University can recognize the achievements of persons who have made significant contributions to the progress of the University, or to its colleges and to the principles for which the institutions stand or to their academic or professional disciplines. . . . In general, candidates for honorary degrees should fall in one or more of the following categories:

            1.   Persons of national or international reputation in an academic discipline that holds a significant place in the curriculum of the awarding college;

            2.   Persons who have made significant contributions in either thought or action to American Higher Education or in a professional field closely related to an academic interest of the University or the awarding college;

            3.   Persons who have made significant contributions over a sustained period of time to  the development of major  programs at the University or at one of its colleges;

            4.   Persons who have given long and distinguished service to the University or one of its colleges including those who have been in its employ and who have been retired or  otherwise separated from the University or one of its colleges for a period of at least three years;

             5.   Persons  who have made major contributions to furthering principles which are at the center of the University’s purpose and mission.

I ask you to please consider the values of our University and its reputation as well as your relationship to the faculty of CUNY and especially to its students, who are being denied the signal honor of having Mr. Tony Kushner join them as a member of John Jay’s graduating class of 2011.

Sincerely,

Karen Kaplowitz 

6:45pm     Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia University, and always a stand-up figure in these sorts of moments, weighed in early with this letter sent to the CUNY Board of Trustees yesterday:

Dear Board Members,

I literally gasped when I read this morning that you had decided not proceed to grant an honorary degree to Tony Kushner as a result of the partial and misshapen report of his views about Israel by one member of your Board.  As Board members, you have a responsibility to proceed based on reasoned considerations and assessments of an individual’s achievements in scholarship and public life, as well as a responsibility to sustain and protect vibrant speech about subjects that are controversial.  Mr. Kushner’s views fall well within the legitimate spectrum of democratic discussion.  Of course, no one need agree with him or like the prose he uses or find his political engagements praiseworthy.  These are matters for legitimate debate.  But as university trustees you are duty bound to secure and honor free expression, pay tribute to individuals for their accomplishments, and eliminate from consideration only persons who traduce the commitment to open inquiry and spirited discussion on which all decent universities depend.  So as a proud citizen of this wonderful city, full of diverse persons and views, I am ashamed, as you should be, of the course you have taken.  On reflection, I hope you will see the harm you have done to your institution.  I very much hope your will show the courage to acknowledge and rectify a serious error. 

Sincerely,

Ira Katznelson

6:40pm     Take a moment to read this terrific and pitch-perfect letter from Celina Su, associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

Dear CUNY Board of Trustees:

I am writing to protest your recent decision to override John Jay College’s decision to offer Tony Kushner an honorary degree.

Tony Kushner received an honorary degree at my undergraduate institution, Wesleyan University, and his speech at my commencement made a sea of students and parents stand on chairs and give him a standing ovation. The speech was galvanizing rather than polarizing–for, although not everyone in the audience shared all of the political opinions evident in his speech, it was his conviction and his commitment to social justice and academic freedom that shone through.We should all be able to share such convictions, even as we disagree on the best paths towards social justice.

I am proud to be a CUNY professor, and of course, my classes are filled with students from around the world and across the political spectrum. It’s hard work to make the them engage other in civil debate and substantive reason-giving. I cannot imagine allowing my students to exclude others as you have Mr. Kushner. What if I were to take the easy route and follow your example, tabling the opinions that make me bristle?

I urge you to restore Mr. Kushner’s honorary degree. It is the honor that the John Jay administration and faculty bestowed upon him, and it belongs to him. To override this is to tar the great public education at the heart of CUNY’s mission and legacy.

Sincerely,

Celina Su

6:30pm     Steven Lukes, professor of sociology at New York University issued this sharp rebuke of the CUNY Board of Trustees decision to deny Tony Kushner an honorary degree:

To the members of the CUNY Board of Trustees:

The news of your collective decision to table–and thus effectively block–the award of an honorary degree to Tony Kushner is deeply shocking and very serious. I am a British (and Jewish) professor teaching at NYU, with a long-lasting involvement in issues of academic freedom. I taught for two decades in Oxford, then in Italy and London and now in New York and I have been a visiting professor in Jerusalem. This decision of yours–though it is, some might say, ‘merely symbolic,’ since no-one’s liberty or career is in jeopady–is very serious precisely because it is a symbolic attack on the very idea of the free flow of ideas and criticism. That idea is at the very heart of academic life of which you are the trustees. You have, from all that I have read about what you have done, violated that trust.

Yours sincerely,

Steven Lukes

6:15pm     Another prominent voice has issued a letter of disgust to the CUNY Board of Trustees.  Robert Vitalis, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania,  sent the following earlier today:

To The Trustees of the City University of New York:

It appears that, by your recent vote to stop the award of an honorary degree to the profoundly thoughtful, creative writer Tony Kushner, you have contradicted not one but two values basic to the university’s mission. The first and most important is to recognize, protect, and encourage the free exchange of ideas, in particular those that may challenge one’s own beliefs. It is hardly necessary to stress that Kushner has always expressed his views on political questions with great care. The second value you have contravened with your rash decision is the careful weighing of sources and close reading of evidence on which all rational deliberation and persuasive argumentation depends.

This is a sad day in the history of your institution and for intellectual life in the United States.

Believe me,

Robert Vitalis

5:30pm    PSC President Barbara Bowen issued the following call to arms in defense of Tony Kushner:

Dear Colleagues,   

Last Monday the CUNY Board of Trustees voted down the unanimous recommendation of the faculty of John Jay College to award an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner. The vote followed a one-sided attack on Kushner’s political views that distorted them beyond recognition.   

Many PSC members have already voiced their opposition to the Board’s actions.  If you would like to join them in calling on Chairperson Schmidt and Chancellor Goldstein to reverse their action and offer Mr. Kushner the degree, we invite you to send this message.  Please add your own message to our letter, if you wish, in the space provided.  All members of the CUNY community are welcome to use the letter.   

The websites listed below provide additional information.   

Report on Trustees’ action:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/05/nyregion/cuny-blocks-honor-for-tony-kushner.html 

Letter from Tony Kushner to Board of Trustees:
http://www.thejewishweek.com/tony_kushner_responds_cuny_board_decision 

Yeshiva U. prof. to return honorary degree in protest;  PSC statement cited: http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/05/05/cuny_kushner_honorary_degree_update/index.html 

Ed Koch, others express outrage at Trustees’ action:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/nyregion/cuny-vote-not-to-honor-kushner-is-criticized.html?ref=tonykushner  

Facebook page established by a number of CUNY faculty:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tony-Kushner-Good-Enough-for-a-Pulitzer-but-Not-for-City-University-NY/202175726488394

Tony Kushner has never hesitated to use his voice to oppose an injustice; now it’s time to use ours.   

Barbara Bowen

5:15pm     The New York Times must know something.  Their most recent posting received a headline makeover, from “CUNY to Consider Restoring Award to Tony Kushner” to “Reconsidering, CUNY Likely to Honor Kushner.”

5:00pm     Official announcement by the Board of Trustees that they will meet on Monday night to reconsider their previous actions in the Kushner affair.

Text reads simply:

“The Excecutive Committee of the Board of Trustees shall meet to consider an honorary degree, on Monday, May 9, 2011, at 6:00pm, at 535 East 80th Street, New York, New York, in the Robert J. Kibbee Conference Room (Room 104).”

4:45pm     Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and distinguished professor of history at Brooklyn College Edwin Burrows registers his discontent with the Board of Trustees in a letter sent today:

Dear Board of Trustees:

It has been my privilege to serve on the faculty of Brooklyn College for nearly four decades, and in all those years I cannot recall a time when the university to which it belongs has done more damage to the core values of higher education. The scurrilous, half-baked accusations against Tony Kushner were bad enough; that they were brought by a trustee who reportedly believes that some people are less than human is outrageous, appalling, and contemptible. In the name of simple decency, please make this right.

Sincerely,

Edwin G. Burrows
Distinguished Professor of History
Brooklyn College

4:30pm     Another letter of support from John McCormick, professor of political science at the University of Chicago:

Dear CUNY Board of Trustees:

As a CUNY alumnus (Queens College BA, 1988), I am shocked and appalled that the Board of Trustees voted to overturn a decision by John Jay College to award Tony Kushner an honorary degree.

The decision is clearly based on disinformation, ideological bias and guilt by association; factors that are unacceptable anywhere in the American academy, let alone in one of the premier public institutions of higher education in the United States and the world.

I urge you to reconsider and reverse this decision that has embarrassed the City University of New York and anyone who has loved, respected, served and been served by it.

Regretfully,

John P. McCormick

4:15pm     The editor of the New York Times editorial page, Andrew Rosenthal tells the Advocate‘s Michael Busch that the Paper of Record will be running an editorial on the Board of Trustees “boneheaded” decision in tomorrow’s edition!

4:00pm     The Village Voice ran an article in today’s paper on the Kushner situation at CUNY. The playwrite met with CUNY students and faculty outside the premiere of his new play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism With a Key to the Scriptures.”

According the the article, Kushner said, “I’m incredibly touched.”

3:45pm     The New York Times has issued the transcript of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld’s denouncement of Tony Kushner at the recent Board of Trustees meeting.  Judge for yourself the worthiness of Mr. Wiesenfeld’s presence in CUNY leadership. Oh, and by the way, one of the other board members didn’t even know who Tony Kushner was before this week.  Way to keep it classy, CUNY.

3:40pm     The leadership of the Open Society Foundations, all of them recepients of CUNY honorary degrees worte a very strong letter to Benno Schmidt of the Board of Trustees, warning against their decision in the Kushner affair.

Dear Benno:

As past recipients of honorary doctorates from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, we write to protest the decision of the Trustees to bar the College from awarding such a degree to Tony Kushner. Mr. Kushner is one of New York City’s, and the country’s, most distinguished creative artists.  We believe that his inclusion among those receiving such recognition would have added luster to the list of previous recipients. 

Apparently, this matter was decided by the Trustees without extensive consideration on the basis of accusations against Mr. Kushner of no discernible relevance. Neither Mr. Kushner nor anyone representing him was given an opportunity to respond.  Accordingly, we call on you to use your authority as Chair of the Board of Trustees to bring this matter back before the Board in circumstances in which it can be considered in a fair and deliberate way.

As we believe you must realize, this episode puts the City University in a very bad light.  It is reminiscent of a shameful moment in the history of the City College of New York in which the appointment of Bertrand Russell as a Professor of Philosophy was revoked in 1940 because of objections to some of his opinions.  Whatever Mr. Kushner’s opinions on the policies and practices of the State of Israel, and whatever one thinks of those opinions, they do not diminish his qualifications to receive the honorary doctorate that John Jay College wished to confer on him.

We were greatly honored to be selected by John Jay College as recipients of honorary doctorates.  It is a college we admire for its focus on issues of great importance and for its significant role in New York City in bringing together rigorous scholarship, openness to intellectual exchange and dedication to the improvement of public policy and public service.  The manner in which Mr. Kushner has been treated sullies that honor.  We hope that this matter will be resolved by the presentation of an honorary doctorate to Tony Kushner.  Even if Mr. Kushner will no longer accept such an award because of the manner in which he has been treated, we call on the Trustees to apologize to Mr. Kushner to John Jay College and to the City of New York.

Sincerely,                                                        

Norman Dorsen
Stokes Professor of Law and Counselor to the President,
New York University

Aryeh Neier
President
Open Society Foundations

David Rothman
Bernard Schoenberg Professor of Social Medicine and Professor of History

Herbert Sturz
Senior Advisor
Open Society Foundations

3:30pm     Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham’s letter renouncing his honorary degree from CUNY was posted earlier, but for whatever reason disappeared between site crashes.  Here it is again. Powerful stuff:

Dear Dr. Schmidt:

Like many others, I was shocked and dismayed to hear about the treatment Tony Kushner received at the hands of the CUNY Board of Trustees on May 2.  Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld’s opposition to Kushner’s honorary degree was not only malicious and inappropriate, it was based partly on untruths and partly on phrases taken out of context.  The fact that a majority of the board members – the fact that any board members at all – supported Weisenfeld turned an unfortunate incident into a shameful one.

An academic institution as generous and venerable as CUNY should not countenance the public humiliation of any artist, let alone one of Kushner’s caliber and courage.  Kushner has done more than most of us to combine high art – many of us consider it great art –with profound and vital socio-political sentiments.  Kushner’s plays have done what so few of us have managed in our own work:  it has helped raise public consciousness, without ever descending into agitprop or screed.  To deny him an honorary degree because certain members of the board disagree with some of his political views is a chilling indictment of the freedom of expression CUNY has always championed.

I was on the faculty at Brooklyn College for six years, and have always felt honored to be a member of a great institution.  I received an honorary doctorate in 2009, of which I have been enormously proud.  I feel, however, that in the light of the incident on May 2, I have no choice but to return it.  I do so with real regrets.

It is a sad day indeed.

Sincerely,

Michael Cunningham 

3:15pm     A very strong letter of support from Andrew Sabl, associate professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles:

Dear distinguished members of the Board of Trustees:

I am writing to express my strong opposition to your board’s tabling of a proposal to grant an honorary degree from John Jay College to Tony Kushner.

As far as I can tell, the facts of the case are not disputed.  Mr. Kushner, like many others, was put forward for an honorary degree.  The quality of his literary work and the academic basis for the degree were not, and have not been, questioned.  One board member, however, decided to denounce Mr. Kushner alone, for his criticisms of Israel.  The denunciations were in part accurate but irrelevant: the things he accused Kushner of saying about Israel are perfectly within the bounds of respectable opinion, morally and factually, though certainly controversial. In part the denunciations were slanderous, in that they blamed Kushner for belonging to a group that supports the boycott of some Israeli companies, even though Kushner has explicitly dissented from the group’s policy on that score (nor, again, is the peace group’s own position morally beyond the pale, though I have strong doubts about it). The board member’s claim that “If Kushner’s libelous statements against Israel were made by anyone outside the Jewish community, that person would be correctly labeled an anti-Semite”* is false and outrageous.  There is nothing remotely anti-Semitic in anything that even Kushner’s opponents accuse him of saying—let alone what he has actually said.  The claim that moral criticism of Jews or the Jewish state is anti-Semitic betrays every principle of open debate for which universities, and free societies generally, should stand.  I might add that, far from protecting Israel, this claim has greatly damaged it.

Though a Democrat, I am not a ubiquitous signer of left-of-center petitions.  Nor am I blind to anti-Semitism, a defender of academic political correctness, or an enemy of Zionism (as I understand it).  I am not only the son of a Jewish refugee from Vienna but the heir to a family tradition of Zionism.  (My father’s family was able to come to New York from Europe largely because my grandfather’s cousin was a figure of some prominence: Felix Frankfurter.) I sponsor a speaker series that has brought prominent libertarians to campus, and teach in a Great Books-style seminar series favored by many conservative students—not unreasonably, since their ideas are given fair hearing, as does not always occur at UCLA.  Some have suggested that political opposition to Kushner was legitimate because the granting of honorary degrees has itself become a political process.  If so, the solution is to reform and broaden the process of considering honorary degree awardees, not to make a travesty of a flawed process through ad-hoc browbeating by board members, without warning and without the person attacked having the chance to respond. I fervently hope that David Mamet or Mark Helprin, outstanding writers and also prominent conservatives whose views on Israel are the opposite of Kushner’s, would be considered for honorary degrees on the same basis Kushner was. If that is demonstrably not the case, I would be happy to write another letter to John Jay’s faculty protesting that as well.

Mr. Kushner has said that if the Board’s decision were to be rescinded and the degree re-offered, he would decline.  If so, that is out of your control.  What you can control, and what I urge you to effect, is a reversal of your short-sighted decision to give in to the worst kind of political correctness—which, though customarily not called that when coming from the Right, in this case bears all the hallmarks of its more famous left-wing cousin and does all the same kinds of damage.

Sincerely,

Andre Sabl


* Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, “Tony Kushner, An Extremist, Can’t Represent CUNY,” http://www.algemeiner.com/2011/05/05/tony-kushner-an-extremist-can%E2%80%99t-represent-cuny/, accessed 5 May 2011.

3:10pm     Gordon Rogoff, from Yale University’s School of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism, weighs in on the Kushner affair at CUNY.

Dear Chairperson Benno Schmidt and Trustees of CUNY:

I can’t do better than the letters you’ve already received from Tony Kushner himself, Professor Ellen Schrecker, Mayor Koch, my own former student from the Graduate Center, Seth Baumrin, Alisa Solomon, and no doubt many others.  This issue should be what is festively called  a “no-brainer” these days, yet it turns out that CUNY is suddenly thrust into the spotlight with no brains in evidence, many of you asleep at the switch when challenged by Mr. Wiesenfeld to march straight back to the dark days of McCarthyism and all its lunatic discontents.

All your critics are demonstrably correct in reminding you of everything from academic freedom to constitutional rights.  Yet it may be that we are also missing another root cause of this disaster:  the accepted wisdom concerning those who belong — and do not belong — on Boards of Trustees for our educational institutions.  I write now as a Professor of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama, but also as a veteran educator, theatre critic, director and producer, appalled all these years at my own silence when compelled to be “governed” by Boards or (as at Yale) Corporations without any kind of democratic representation or diversity, Boards composed mainly of the wealthy with not a poet, playwright, artist, novelist, or poor person in sight, not even a token figure for “show.”  Add to that the notable absence of other possible constituents, such as Gay women and men, and it’s easy to see why you, the CUNY Trustees, could be so tone-deaf when faced with Mr. Wiesenfeld’s ignorant charges and demands.

I cannot remember when I was ever on the same page as Mayor Koch, but I join with him now in asking for Mr. Wiesenfeld’s immediate resignation.  That would be the first step in recovering your own honor, though you may yet have done more damage than even I can imagine.  As it stands now, you are quite plainly not qualified to award anything resembling “honorary” degrees; for that matter, you’re also putting all your academic degrees into serious question.  I took pride in the opportunity to teach at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, but now I can’t help thinking of Groucho Marx’s (the real Marx!) observation that he wouldn’t be a member of any group that would have him as a member.  I can’t take back by my Professor Emeritus titles, though if you persist in this insult to Kushner and to our intelligence, I promise that I won’t ever again sign a letter with those identifications.  More to the point:  please go beyond that first step by recruiting at least five artists and gays to replace the hapless Mr. Wiesenfeld.

Sincerely,

Gordon Rogoff 

3:00pm     The Graduate Center’s own Jack Jacobs, professor of political science at both the GC and at John Jay, speaks out against the CUNY Board of Trustees decision in the Kushner affair.

Dear Mr. Wiesenfeld,

At first glance, we have many things in common.  I, like you, am the son of Jews who survived the Second World War in Europe.  I, like you, am a proud graduate of the Bronx High School of Science.  I, like you, am deeply committed to Yiddish cultural institutions and am concerned about the fate of the people of Israel.  Most significantly in the current context, I, like you, have longstanding ties to CUNY.

These apparent similarities notwithstanding, I disagree rather strongly with the course of action you took at the last meeting of CUNY’s Board of Trustees.  I would note, first of all, that, your attack on Tony Kushner unfairly misrepresented his opinions.

Moreover: I see no reason why there ought to be a political litmus test of the kind you implicitly proposed for those nominated for honorary degrees by CUNY’s constituent colleges.  Kushner was nominated by John Jay College primarily because of Kushner’s enormous, very widely recognized, artistic accomplishments.  He has spoken at John Jay in the past, and has, thereby, aided the college and its students.  Granting an honorary degree to Tony Kushner would have reflected very well on CUNY.

It may be relevant to point out that I have served, in the past, on John Jay’s Honorary Degrees Committee, and can attest to the fact John Jay’s faculty has historically given close scrutiny to those nominated for honorary degrees.  I have every reason to believe that the current members of the College’s Honorary Degrees Committee gave the relevant portions of Kushner’s record comparable scrutiny.  In my opinion: the Board of Trustees ought to have demonstrated their trust in the faculty and administration of John Jay by endorsing Kushner’s nomination.

While I believe that Kushner’s views on Israel ought not to have played a role in the decision as to whether or not to award him an honorary degree, I would add that I do not object to major components of his views on Israel insofar as I am familiar with them.  I have served as a Fulbright Fellow in Israel, during which period I taught at Tel Aviv University.  A significant portion of my family lives in Israel at this time.  I have been to Israel a number of times.  And I (like Kushner) believe that the continued occupation of the territories captured by Israel in 1967 is both wrong and destructive.  Does this view, in your opinion, make it unsuitable that I teach at John Jay, and have taught at the College for decades?  If so: perhaps we have less in common, after all, than my opening paragraph suggests.

Sincerely,

Jack Jacobs

2:45pm     An excellent letter from Barbara Weinstein, Silver Professor of History at NYU, Fulbright Lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and former president of the American Historical Association denouncing the CUNY Board of Trustees’ action against Tony Kushner.

To the CUNY Board of Trustees:

I write to express my deep distress at the decision to refuse an honorary degree to Tony Kushner.  Although I am not on the CUNY faculty, as someone whose mother and siblings attended CUNY schools, whose daughter is currently a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and whose courses regularly include doctoral students from the CUNY Graduate Center, I feel that I have a strong stake in the continued intellectual vitality of the CUNY system and its standing as a leading public university system.  I cannot imagine a decision that would be more damaging to CUNY’s reputation that the move to refuse Tony Kushner an honorary degree on the grounds of his expressing opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are widely held within and beyond the Jewish community, and his reference to historical events that have been thoroughly documented.  I am myself a former Fulbright lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and consider myself strongly pro-Israel—that is, I want Israelis to be able to live in a just, peaceful, and secure society.  Like many people who are pro-Israel, I regard this as only possible if there is a fair and just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Needless to say, trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld does not agree, and that is his prerogative.  It should not be his prerogative to declare his position the only legitimate one.  I personally abhor Mr. Wiesenfeld’s position, but the appropriate response in an open scholarly environment is to debate that position, not to silence it through the abuse of authority. 

I urge the CUNY Board of Trustees to reconsider its decision and grant Mr. Kushner an honorary degree from John Jay College.  It is not only a matter of mitigating the insult to Mr. Kushner, but also of repairing the damage to CUNY’s reputation.   If you do otherwise, what kind of message are you sending to students graduating from John Jay and other CUNY schools?  In the end, the refusal of an honorary degree is not just an insult to Mr. Kushner, but to all of us who value critical thinking and the free exchange of ideas.

Sincerely yours,

Barabara Weinstein

2:00pm     The Advocate has received Barbara Ehrenreich’s letter to the CUNY Board of Trustees, joining Michael Cunningham and Ellen Shrecker in renouncing their honorary degrees from the university.

Dear Trustees of CUNY,

In 2004 I was proud to receive an honorary degree from John Jay College in recognition, as I recall, for my work exposing poverty and promoting social justice. At the time, it did not occur to me to question John Jay’s qualifications for awarding such an honor. But today, having read of the Trustees’ vote to deny a similar honorary degree to playwright and activist Tony Kushner– as well as Jeffrey Wiesenfeld’s comment in the New York Times suggesting that Palestinians “are not human”—I do have to question both your qualifications and the legitimacy of the honorary degree I was given.

Hence my decision to renounce my own honorary degree, which I will return to you if I can find it. Please expunge me from your record of past honorees.

Sincerely,

Barbara Ehrenreich

12:15pm     Harold Bloom weighs in! We just received a copy of his note to the CUNY Board of Trustees:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
Dear Benno:
 
It is ironic that we get in touch again about the Kushner outrage, because I still hope to see you in this life. As an American Jewish literary critic, and as an old friend of Tony Kushner, I find the CUNY action absurd. Tony is a passionate Jew, who gratifies me by saying I am his rabbi. As his literary rabbi, I affirm the magnificence of his dramatic achievement. As your old friend, I urge you to help undo this misbegotten matter. 
With ward regards to both my former students, your beautiful daughters,
Harold Bloom
 
 

 

12:00pm     A wonderful letter from Joel Berkowitz, Director of the Sam & Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies and Professor of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee:

Dear Board of Trustees:

I am writing to object in the strongest terms to your appalling decision to overturn a vote to award an honorary degree from John Jay College to Tony Kushner, one of this country’s most distinguished playwrights, essayists, and public intellectuals.  You will by now have received many letters reminding you of Mr. Kushner’s numerous accomplishments and awards, the fine institutions of higher learning that have seen fit to bestow similar awards on him, and his vigorous public support of the CUNY system and its mission.  Rather than reiterate those important details, I’d like to offer a personal anecdote to illustrate what a champion CUNY has long had in Tony Kushner.

When  Angels of America made its Broadway debut in 1993, I was an adjunct instructor of English at the College of Staten Island, and working on my PhD in Theatre at the Graduate Center.  Like countless others, I was dumbfounded by that play, and when I had the chance to meet Mr. Kushner that summer at a conference, I invited him to visit one of my fall classes to speak to students about it.   His reaction could not have been more gracious, and though it took some doing for his assistant to find a free evening in Mr. Kushner’s schedule, he ultimately came to campus (after refusing the modest honorarium I was able to get from my department chair).  A colleague’s class joined mine for the visit, and Mr. Kushner was, unsurprisingly, eloquent, funny, and insightful.  That evening remains one of the high points of my thousands of hours in the classroom, and I have no doubt that it was similarly memorable for my students.

This is the person whose honor you have now rescinded.  However painful this episode may be for Mr. Kushner, I am sure it will do him no long-term damage.  I cannot say the same for CUNY.  What you have voted to do puts politics over ideas, and gets the educational mission of the CUNY system exactly backwards.  It is also a slap in the face to someone who does not feel that his long list of accolades, honors, and prizes makes him too important to take time to talk to a group of typical CUNY students. 

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to reconsider your wrongheaded vote, offer Mr. Kushner the honor that he so richly deserves, and try to restore the piece of CUNY’s reputation that you have so badly tarnished by your actions.  Though the graduate education and professional experience I gained during my years in the CUNY system laid the foundation for a successful career, I will no longer respond favorably to requests for alumni contributions unless and until this vote is reversed.

Sincerely,

Joel Berkowitz
Director, Sam & Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies
Professor, Foreign Languages and Literature
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Curtin 904, P.O. Box 413
Milwaukee, WI 53201-0413

11:45am    The Nation’s Naomi Klein continues to tweet the #KushnerCrisis.  The latest: ”@NaomiAKlein: If Kushner did support BDS this would be equally unjust. Asserting his “good Jew” cred legitimizes the litmus test. Stop it. #kushnercrisis”

11:15am     Nicholas Kristof tweets: “The Tony #KushnerCrisis leaves me thinking CUNY needs new trustees, yesterday. Blocking his degree was a mistake.”

Twitter users: Please tag Kristof (@NickKristof) in your requests to have him write about it in his New York Times column. It would be a huge boost to have his voice behind us in this mess.

11:00am     Great, strong letter from the New School’s Nancy Fraser to the CUNY Board of Trustees!

Dear CUNY Trustees,

Until now, I have always been proud to be an alumna of the CUNY Graduate Center, from which I received my PhD in philosophy in 1980. But my pride has suddenly turned to shame upon reading about your decision to deny an honorary degree to Tony Kushner. This decision, based on spurious
mischaracterizations of Kushner’s views, is reminiscent of McCarthyism. It is unworthy of a major research institution dedicated to the free play of ideas.

I urge you to reverse your decision and restore my pride in my alma mater. Failing that, I intend to cease financial contributions to CUNY.

Sincerely,
Nancy Fraser
Henry A. & Louise Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics
New School for Social Research
6 E. 16th St., Suite 711

10:30am     A letter from Kristofer Peterson-Overton, no stranger to Jeffrey Wiesenfeld’s bully tactics, to the Board of Trustees calling on them to reverse their decision.

Dear members of the board:

I am writing to protest your vote to overturn John Jay College’s decision to grant an honorary degree to the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner. I’m sure you’ve been inundated with messages of support for Mr. Kushner, but I would like to add my drop to the flood and urge you to reconsider this ill-conceived decision.
 
I recently experienced the same kind of vicious, irrational attacks that have been leveled against Mr. Kushner as the target of controversy surrounding my firing and rehiring at Brooklyn College (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/nyregion/01professor.html). At the time, your colleague and fellow trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld made disparaging comments about me and my scholarship to the press. Apparently he’s back at work enforcing ideological conformity on Israel by snubbing a world-renowned playwright.
 
Mr. Kushner’s views are well within the bounds of mainstream discourse among those with even basic knowledge of the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. However, it should be stressed that Mr. Kushner’s political views are not an issue to consider in this case, let alone to be judged on the strength of a rudimentary online search.
 
It is my impression that Mr. Wiesenfeld takes himself to be a self-styled vigilante, protecting CUNY from those with views different from his own. His recent comments about Palestinians in the New York Times are staggeringly ignorant, racist — and indeed, far more extreme than anything of which he accuses Mr. Kushner (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/nyregion/opponent-of-honor-for-tony-kushner-criticizes-palestinians.html). This kind of unrestrained bigotry is an enormous embarrassment to CUNY and for everything this great public university holds dear.
I urge the board to immediately reverse its decision and to make an apology to Mr. Kushner. As for Mr. Wiesenfeld, I defer to former New York mayor Ed Koch: ”I con­sider Mr. Wiesenfeld’s action so out­ra­geous as to be an abuse of power on his part requir­ing his resignation or removal fromt he Board of Trustees.”  I couldn’t agree more.
 
Sincerely,
 
Kristofer J Petersen-Overton

10:00am     A very nice letter from Carolina Bank Muñoz, associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the Grad Center to the CUNY Board of Trustees. Short, sweet, and to the point.

Trustees of CUNY,

I am outraged and dismayed by the handling of Tony Kushner´s honorary degree. I am writing from a Fulbright in Chile, where even here, we have reached news of this outrageous behavior. As a CUNY professor, I am embarrased for our institution. Not only do you owe Tony Kushner an apology, you also owe CUNY an apology for betraying its mission. This action is being viewed (nationally and internationally) as a gross attack on academic freedom. Your actions have hurt the reputation of CUNY. I urge you to issue an apology to Tony Kushner immediately.

Carolina Bank Muñoz
Associate Professor of Sociology
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center-CUNY

9:30am     A letter of support for Tony Kushner from Jocelynn Olcott from Duke University’s departments of History and Women’s Studies.

Dear CUNY Board of Trustees:
 
I was dismayed to learn from Inside Higher Education that your body has voted against awarding an honorary degree to the playwright Tony Kushner — the first such vote in the history of CUNY, according to IHE.  Particularly since the death of Arthur Miller, Kushner stands as this country’s most prominent playwright, one who has dramatized some of the most complex and compelling issues of our time.  That he would be denied a well-deserved honor because he has thoughtfully and openly expressed his views on a controversial but exceedingly important political matter is contrary to everything that universities are meant to stand for — open and informed intellectual exchange in the service of greater understanding.  Mr. Kushner is not part of a radical fringe; he has eloquently expressed views shared by many New Yorkers and many people around the world.  The members of the board are at liberty to disagree with Mr. Kushner and are, of course, authorized to deny him an honorary degree.  That you would abuse this authority to stifle honest debate, however, is simply shameful and a black mark on a university that has long stood for openness and lively intellectual exchange.  I urge you to call an extraordinary meeting of the Board of Trustees so that you might reconsider this decision. 
 
Sincerely,
 
Jocelyn Olcott
Associate Professor
History and Women’s Studies
Duke University

Day Two of the Kushner Crisis blog can be accessed here.

3 Responses to “Kushner Crisis: Day 3”

  1. Elanit Jakabovics says:

    Hi-
    I sent this letter to the NY Times last night.

    To the Editor:

    As a normally proud CUNY alum– and one of their first Truman Scholars– I am shocked and dismayed at the CUNY Board of Trustees decision to not give Tony Kushner an honorary degree at this year’s commencement at John Jay.

    As a proud Orthodox Jew, whose family even calls Israel home, I ask CUNY: since when is Zionism a litmus test of a CUNY honorary degree? Will future honorary degree candidates now be handed a questionnaire, asking them to wax poetic on their love for Israel, in order to show that they are deserving of an honorary degree from CUNY?

    I have received calls from Queens College in the past asking for donations. I think I might have to start directing my charity funds elsewhere. I’m embarrassed by their decision and ask that they reconsider, even if Mr. Kushner refuses to accept it.

    Elanit Z. Rothschild Jakabovics
    CUNY Queens College 2001

  2. [...] Bloom stands up for Kushner at this crisis blog. Gosh this is easy. We gotta make hay while the sun shines. Can we fold this all into Nakba [...]

  3. Joseph A. DeVito says:

    CUNY needs to dismiss Wiesenfeld. It’s that simple. A university has no right to exist when its trustees do not allow for free speech.

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