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

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