CUNY Votes to Approve Honorary Degree for Tony Kushner

CUNY's Board of Trustees hopes to put a controversy to rest, now that a panel has voted to give Pulizer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree. The honor was put on hold last week after one trustee -- Jeffrey Wiesenfeld -- offered a critique on the playwright's views on Israel.

On Monday night, six trustees on the board's executive committee voted unanimously to grant a degree of doctor of letters to Kushner. (The board's chairman, Benno Schmidt, who called for the meeting, did not cast a vote as he was out of the country.)

During the meeting, which lasted less than 30 minutes, trustees spoke about Kushner’s body of work and his enormous artistic contributions. Trustee Kathleen Pesile expressed remorse for delaying granting the honor to Kushner.

"At the end of the day, we are now correcting it because it benefits CUNY," said Pesile. "And we will not get another chance to remove this blemish."

Kushner (pictured left) had been 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 May 2, Trustee Wiesenfeld quoted statements from Kushner he said he found on Norman Finkelstein's Web site. Wiesenfeld also 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."

Tony KushnerKushner 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 playwright said he was bothered that Wiesenfeld's remarks went unchallenged by the other 11 trustees during the May 2 meeting.

"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."

After the board voted to table the nomination, it received over 400 emails -- all but five demanding Kushner receive the degree, according to trustee Sandi Cooper who chairs the University Faculty Senate.

CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said he helped to convene a new vote at the May 9th meeting so more trustees could have a say.

"I think the basic misstep was that there wasn't a counter-punch at that," said Goldstein. "I think all of us were surprised about that."

The union representing CUNY faculty has called for Weisenfeld to resign his seat. But Wiesenfeld said in an e-mail he was standing firm: "My term concludes, by law, on June 30, 2013."

Kushner said he would accept the degree.

"The meeting of the board's executive committee last night is the direct result of the enormous protest mounted in defense of free thought and open discussion by the CUNY community, and I'm very honored to accept the degree and the affiliation with these brilliant scholars and activists!" Kushner said in an e-mail to WNYC. "I look forward to the expansion of the public inquiry this situation has ignited into the nature of the relationship between the Board of Trustees and the university it serves. I believe it'll prove to be a salutary and consequential debate."