Perestroika on CUNY Board

Facing uproar, trustees will hold new vote on giving Tony Kushner an honorary degree. Plus round-up of debates over such awards.
May 9, 2011

Facing growing criticism from faculty members and others, the City University of New York's board is preparing to vote this evening on allowing the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to award an honorary degree to Tony Kushner.

A week ago, the board tabled what had been expected to be routine approval of the degree, after one trustee said that the playwright's criticisms of Israel made him unsuitable for the honor. The move stunned Kushner, fellow writers and artists, and CUNY faculty leaders.

Many said that Kushner's views on Israel were irrelevant when the author of the acclaimed Angels in America and other plays was being honored for his contributions to drama. Many others said as well that the trustee's criticism of Kushner grossly distorted Kushner's views on Israel. And still others criticized the CUNY board for allowing one of its members to make a public attack on Kushner when no effort had been made to let him or the John Jay faculty members who proposed honoring him know that there would be a discussion of his political views.

The outrage prompted several recipients of CUNY honorary degrees to say that they would return them. CUNY faculty members went with signs defending Kushner to greet him Thursday night at the opening of his new play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, and to demand that CUNY's board reverse its decision.

And the criticism quickly spread beyond CUNY's campuses. "CUNY Shamed Itself," an editorial in The New York Times Saturday, said that the university's leaders should have defended Kushner, and that Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the trustee who opposed him, and who told a Times reporter that some Palestinians are not human, should resign.

Benno Schmidt, chair of the CUNY board and a former president of Yale University, issued a statement on Friday in which he announced a new vote on the Kushner degree this evening. "I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken. But when the board has made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy, review is appropriate and, indeed, mandatory," he said.

Schmidt added: "Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name. If it were appropriate for us to take politics into account in deciding whether to approve an honorary degree, I might agree with Trustee Wiesenfeld, whose political views on the matters in controversy are not far distant from my own. But it is not right for the board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here. The proposed honorary degree for Mr. Kushner would recognize him for his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater. Like other honorary degrees, it is not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored."

In the past, Schmidt noted, he has supported "the approval of honorary degrees for persons with whose opinions I differ."

The statement also noted concerns about "the procedural unfairness of our action." He explained: "The objection arose at the 11th hour without any opportunity for research and preparation necessary for the presentation of a full and balanced appraisal. Accordingly, the chancellor and I agree that reconsideration of the motion to table the honorary degree for Mr. Kushner is not only the right thing to do, but is our obligation."

The vote today will be by the Executive Committee of the CUNY board, and it appears that there are enough supporters of awarding the degree that the matter of the degree will be resolved. Schmidt's statement did not offer a reason why the board didn't insist on authorizing the degree for Kushner last week.

Faculty members at CUNY and elsewhere who have spoken out against last week's board action praised the reversal, while noting their lingering concerns about the original vote. Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, who had announced plans to return an honorary degree to John Jay, said it was "gratifying" to see the CUNY board prepare to reverse course. But she said it was "depressing to realize that faculty members and other supporters of academic freedom had to mount a major campaign to obtain that result."

Shrecker asked: "When will the nation's administrators and trustees -- not to mention politicians and many ordinary citizens -- learn that colleges and universities cannot survive and maintain their educational quality if forced to toe a political line?"

Wiesenfeld, the trustee who opposed giving Kushner a degree, did not respond to a request for comment. (UPDATE: On Monday morning, after this article was posted, he submitted a comment, which appears below this article.)

One group -- the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which advocates for a traditional curriculum and against what it sees as political correctness -- on Friday issued an apparent defense of the CUNY board (while not specifically discussing the university or Kushner). Anne D. Neal, president of ACTA, wrote on the association's blog that "the board should not simply be a rubber stamp for the faculty's recommendations."

Wrote Neal: "It is not a matter of faculty academic freedom. At many schools, committees of faculty members recommend candidates for the trustees to approve. While faculty may view those recommendations as orders, in point of fact, they are not. The board is well within its rights to decline to honor candidates -- indeed, it is within its responsibilities to reject candidates that do not deserve the award or whose award may harm the school."

Neal's blog post made no mention of Wiesenfeld, but ACTA is a long-time fan of his. It issued a statement in 2006, when it wasn't certain whether New York State's then-governor, George Pataki, would re-appoint Wiesenfeld to the CUNY board, urging him to do so. And the association's website notes with pride that Pataki followed ACTA's advice. (In campaigning on Wiesenfeld's reappointment, ACTA cited his views on remedial education and CUNY generally, not issues of the Middle East.)

Disputes Over Honorary Degrees Awarded or Not

The furor over CUNY's board is but the latest controversy over honorary degrees. More typically, the disputes involve complaints about those who are honored, not those denied the honor. Procedures for awarding honorary doctorates vary from campus to campus, but typically do involve some vetting by a faculty committee and approval by the president or board.

One institution criticized for the failure to award an honorary degree is Arizona State University. When President Obama gave a commencement speech there in 2009, officials said that the president had not completed a sufficient "body of work" to merit the award. Amid widespread mocking of the university, Arizona State announced that it would name a scholarship for the president.

The University of Michigan has a tradition of inviting new governors of the state to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. This year, many students were angered by this tradition because Governor Rick Snyder is pushing for deep cuts in state support for higher education.

Last year, David Kennedy, former principal of Robert Gordon University, announced that he would return an honorary degree he received from the Scottish university to protest its decision to award an honorary degree to Donald Trump. The university said that it was honoring Trump for his "business acumen," particularly in Scotland. But Kennedy was among many in the region who were outraged by Trump's plans to build a golf course in the area -- over the objections of many local residents. The university went ahead with the degree. (BBC video of the event may be found here.)

In 2008, Northwestern University rescinded an invitation to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, formerly the pastor to then-Senator Barack Obama, to receive an honorary doctorate, following widespread criticism of some of Wright's statements about issues of race. Henry Bienen, then the president at Northwestern, wrote to Wright, saying: "In light of the controversy surrounding statements made by you that have recently been publicized, the celebratory character of Northwestern's commencement would be affected by our conferring of this honorary degree. Thus I am withdrawing the offer of an honorary degree previously extended to you."

Also in 2008, many students and faculty members were outraged when Washington University in St. Louis awarded an honorary degree to Phyllis Schlafly. The university cited its commitment to free speech in going ahead with the honor, but students and professors said they were furious that the university honored a woman who has spent her career crusading against protections for women as well as for promoting the teaching of disproved theories that attack evolutionary science.

Still other debates over honorary degrees take place years after a commencement ceremony. After Helen Thomas said that Israelis should go to Poland and Germany, rather than stay in Israel, some groups called for colleges that had awarded honorary doctorates to her for her pioneering career in journalism to withdraw the honors.

And several colleges -- following long campaigns by student groups and others -- have revoked degrees to Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe. He was awarded the doctorates in the 1980s, when he was seen as a leader who had transformed his nation to majority rule, but the more recent protests concerned his transformation into a dictator.


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