Editor's note: The following statement was released by the New York Association of Scholars on the decision of the CUNY board not to award playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree. On May 9, 2011, the University trustees voted to reverse that decision and are now offering Kushner the degree. We note that on one matter mentioned in the statement we took a different stance, writing that the rescinding of Kristopher Petersen-Overton's appointment seemed to be "a case of neglect of academic freedom and fair treatment." To read an article about Kushner published by NAS president Peter Wood in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog, click here.
Over the past year, it seems as if some faculty at the City University of New York have done everything they can to make it seem as if hostility to Israel is the institution’s official policy. First came Brooklyn College’s decision to assign as the one and only required book for all incoming students, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, written by boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) advocate Moustafa Bayoumi. The work contained such wholly unsupported arguments as: between 1987 and 2001, the U.S. government approach toward “Arab Americans” was “more often used to limit the speech of Arab Americans in order to cement U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Then, to open the spring term, Brooklyn’s Political Science Department assigned an M.A. class to a graduate student who hadn’t even passed his qualifying exams—but did possess the requisite extreme anti-Israel views, which he was quick to bring into the classroom. And finally, there was the decision of the John Jay faculty to confer an honorary degree on BDS backer Tony Kushner, notorious for his statement that the creation of Israel was a mistake. (Kushner has also declared that “the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people an historical, moral, political calamity;” and “Israel is a creation of the U.S., bought and paid for.”) While it is certainly true that the First Amendment guarantees Mr. Kushner the right to criticize Israel, and to sign as many petitions as he desires demanding other nations boycott Israeli cultural events, this did not necessarily make him an attractive candidate for an honorary degree. It also does not make him a champion for free speech. It is also true that he has every right to remain on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, which “supports the growth of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, through divestment from companies that profit from the occupation.” (Kushner claims that he only supports certain types of boycotts against Israel. He is still however a member of the JVP board.) To his credit, he has also said that he favors the continued existence of Israel. Such contradictory opinions may be explained by an artistic temperament. They do not make some of the pronouncements of this would be thwarter of nations any less sinister.
In any event, the CUNY Board of Trustees stepped in on May 2 to oppose Kushner’s honorary degree. At the urging of Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who has a long record both of supporting excellence at the institution and of standing up to extremist voices among the faculty, the Trustees exercised their authority and overrode John Jay’s ill-considered decision. As Wiesenfeld subsequently explained,
I would no differently oppose a racist for an honorary degree who personifies himself by calumny against a people . . . An honorary degree is wholly within the absolute discretion of the board to grant. It identifies the University with accomplished, generous citizens or public figures. It is also a tool which highlights the University and enhances its image in the educational marketplace. Every year, there are candidates that some Trustees may not particularly favor. We can all express dissent where we warrant it - it is our right . . . No extremist from any quarter is a good face for any University -- from far left or far right. Honorary degrees are public declarations of esteem by the university community conveyed to the honoree; for the university, they are image-building, advertising and publicity as well. The denial of the honorary degree to Mr. Kushner, despite his protestations, was a reflection of his long-held radical sentiments, which are a matter of indisputable and contextual public record. CUNY should remain a place of comfort and welcome for all of our students, faculty and administrators - including supporters of the Jewish State.
In short, Trustee Wiesenfeld said the University should do nothing to tarnish its reputation by making such an extravagant gesture to someone so outspoken. This was not a question about free speech. It was about honoring extremism.
The Trustees’ action, alas, generated criticism from CUNY faculty bodies—whose leaders seem to be very sympathetic to Kushner’s viewpoints. Citing alleged dangers to academic freedom, the chair of the University Faculty Senate accused Wiesenfeld of inappropriately criticizing Kushner for his “presumed anti-Israel sentiments.” Since Kushner is on record saying Israel should never have been created, his anti-Israeli sentiments are hardly merely presumed - they are clear and overt. Similarly, if someone said Pakistan should never have been created, would not the anti-Pakistani sentiments of the speaker be clear, and not merely presumed?
Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Caucus (the CUNY faculty and staff union), and well-known for her anti-Israel extremism, was quick to complain of this “insult to the academic judgment of the faculty,” and “attempt to close off and narrow public debate.” Then Yeshiva University professor and AAUP activist Ellen Schrecker, who has made a career out of detecting a non-existent danger of “McCarthyism” in an academic environment in which devotees of her viewpoint dominate, felt obliged to add her own voice. Schrecker asserted that the Trustees exercising their legal authority to confer (or not confer) honorary degrees was McCarthyism. This is a curious position. Apparently, the trustees are obliged to rubber-stamp all faculty decisions, no matter how misguided they might think them. One might then ask why the approval of the Trustees is necessary at all.
Clearly, the suggestion that academic freedom applies to the awarding of honorary degrees is at best naive. That some faculty leaders have nonetheless chosen to make it—and have chosen to abuse Jeffrey Wiesenfeld in the process—reflects very poorly on the university as a whole. It also shows just how necessary the periodic intervention of the Trustees is. But it also reflects something much more sinister. The relentless and one-sided bias against Israel, including the championing of boycotts, has long been one of the least savory elements of CUNY campus life. This has now been made even more vivid, and noticeably sharpened, by attacks on Wiesenfeld, the most visible enemy of the extreme left on the Board. This kind of lynch mob mentality has to be resisted.
After years of carefully cultivating the reputation of the City University within the media and the general public, the Chancellor and the Board should not have allowed another of the periodic tantrums of the most left-leaning (and obsessively anti-Israeli) faculty to undermine that work. It was not the objection of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld that threatened to do this. Rather, it was the carelessness of the John Jay faculty (who one would like to believe did not know the full extent of Kushner’s offensive remarks), that began this process. The danger was then compounded by protests of the University Faculty Senate. This is not the first time that body has been seriously flawed in its judgment. In the past this has required the intervention of the Board. Its members would do well to remember that beyond the occasionally curious halls of the academy there exists both in this city, and this nation, an enormous number of moderate, politically aware people. It is one of the prime duties of the Board to consider, and reflect, that enormous reservoir of good sense and balance in its dealings with the faculty. Professors at any particular CUNY branch can continue to insist they can do whatever they want. They doubtless will. But the Board should be more judicious. It should not act too precipitously in favor of the most strident and extreme. As it is, its actions will not be forgotten. The effect on the reputation of the University among those of moderate opinion will be long lasting, and potentially very unfortunate. It is all very sad.
The New York Association of Scholars