CUNY Board of Trustees Holds Emergency Meeting to Reconsider Tony Kushner's Honorary Degree

Listen to Sara Fishko's Kushner report by clicking the audio above.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

CUNY's Board of Trustees will hold an emergency meeting on Monday to reconsider tabling the playwright's honorary degree.

On Friday, Benno Schmidt, the chairman of CUNY's Board of Trustees, called for the meeting. Schmidt said that politics should not play a part in awarding honorary degrees, and that he was concerned about the last-minute nature of the board's decision.

The university has also received over 200 e-mails demanding Kushner get the degree, according to trustee Sandi Cooper who chairs the University Faculty Senate.

Kushner was one of a slate of candidates nominated by the university's various colleges, which are usually given pro forma approval by the board. But at a public board meeting on Monday evening, CUNY's Board of Trustees tabled the degree nomination for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright after trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld offered a critique on the playwright's views on Israel.

Wiesenfeld quoted statements from Kushner he said he found on Norman Finkelstein's Web site, said Kushner had supported a boycott of Israel, and that the playwright sat on the board of Jewish Voice for Peace, "which opposed the security fence, a unified Jerusalem or military aid to Israel."

He said those facts were relevant to the board's decision of whether to grant an honorary CUNY degree.

"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 us to look at fairness and to consider these things," Wiesenfeld said during the public meeting.

Kushner said Wiesenfeld’s statements were nonsense, that he did not support a boycott of Israel, he did sit on the Jewish Voice for Peace (although he disagreed with the organization on a number of issues), and that clearly Wiesenfeld had not read anything he had written. 

"The appropriation of selected soundbites from essays and interviews is a disreputable tactic," Kushner said.

The playwright said he was bothered that Wiesenfeld's remarks went unchallenged by the other 11 trustees.

"So, at a public hearing, to allow one of their members to, you know, trade in the kind of garbage that this guy Wiesenfeld was trading in, and to say nothing, is really kind of disturbing," Kushner said. "Rather than having the discussion they should have had, they simply tabled my nomination."

Kushner said that on Wednesday after Wiesenfeld's remarks, eight trustees still voted to approve his nomination to get an honorary degree and four voted to oppose the slate if his name remained on it.

Nine trustee votes are needed to approve a candidate's nomination.

In a letter Kushner sent to the board on Wednesday, he said believed he was owed an apology for being "publicly defamed."

CUNY said it had received a number of communications since Monday's meeting, but that the board's actions should not be interpreted as reflecting on Kushner’s accomplishments. An official said it has not scheduled a meeting to reconsider the playwright's nomination.

Tony Kushner holds 15 honorary degrees — and is due to get another from the New School soon — from other universities. The John Jay School of Criminal Justice nominated Kushner for the CUNY honorary award.

Listen to the full CUNY hearing below:

Updated 5/6/11


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Comments [7]


I see the anti-Semites are out in force. And please: don't deny that you hat the Jooooos. Koch is a cranky old fool.

May. 07 2011 11:22 AM
Yaakov Sullivan from New York

The zionist establishment is dominated by right wing ideologues who do all in their power to silence any form of criticism of Israel. The critics in their view must be silenced. Criticism of policy is equated with negating the existence of Israel. Weisenfeld is part of that ilk. Tony Kushner is a prominent American cultural figure. Therefore, he is a target of all those who do not tolerate their view of Israel as the all innocent and eternal victim being questionned. CUNY has behaved abominally by caving into the pressure from the likes of Weisenfeld. CUNY should be ashamed.

May. 06 2011 08:45 AM

Out of context and defaming statements taken unquestioningly as fact and truth by someone like Wiesenfeld and the other 4 trustees that denied Kushner, reflect really badly on an education institution. The blindly followed one-dimensional attitudes displayed are appalling! What is wrong with nuanced views towards a situation anyhow? We are all supposed to follow 100% to a 'T' what we are told to or we are boycotted? Nice.

May. 06 2011 08:21 AM
PauL from Chicago

Why exactly is being critical of a foreign country an issue to an American state university? is this not bizarre on its face?

May. 06 2011 03:07 AM
Steve from Brooklyn

Shame on Wiesenfeld and for the CUNY Board of Trustees for going along with him. Ed Koch is right. John Jay College should give Kushner his honorary degree and Wiesenfeld should resign.
See Koch's letter

May. 05 2011 11:29 PM

CAMERA has documented his quotes for ages. Regarding this story, they link back to 2006

This isn't the first time this accusation has been leveled at Kushner, nor is it the first time he's dealt with academics challenging him for it. There was significant controversy over Brandeis giving him an award a few years ago.

May. 05 2011 05:14 PM
AliceL. from New York, NY

I am glad that somebody has stood up to this phony self-hating writer. I have read the nonsense he has written on Israel. Finally, somebody has responded! As for Angels in America, it is a nice piece of revisionism.

May. 05 2011 03:49 PM

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