I’ve finally discovered what you can do with an honorary degree: give it back.
As the following letter to the chair of the City University Board of Trustees indicates, I have decided to return the honorary degree I received from CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2008 as a protest against the trustees’ refusal to allow John Jay’s faculty and administration to bestow a similar degree on the playwright Tony Kushner  because of his supposed hostility to Israel.
John Jay’s procedures for awarding honorary degrees are unusual; the selections are made by an elected committee of the Faculty Senate. At the time I was nominated for the award, the John Jay administration had recently caved in to outside political pressures to end the employment of an adjunct instructor.  Because of my scholarship on academic freedom, the faculty committee hoped that by honoring my work, the college would be making a quasi-official statement that it would not allow such a violation of academic freedom to recur.
And, it has not. The refusal to grant Tony Kushner the honorary degree John Jay’s faculty and administration wanted to give him is the doing of CUNY’s trustees who – officially at least – have the final say. But that action, though legal, is a violation of academic freedom. The trustees invoked illegitimate political factors to override a carefully considered decision by the John Jay faculty.
Admittedly, the awarding of an honorary degree may not be central to the educational mission of an institution. Certainly, Tony Kushner will not suffer unduly from what the CUNY trustees have done. But the rest of the academy cannot help but feel the chill.
These are not ordinary times in academe. Attacks on faculty members and their unions are intensifying. Violations of academic freedom are becoming increasingly common. McCarthyism hasn’t returned – yet. But a few months ago, a local New York politician almost forced another CUNY institution to rescind the teaching appointment of an adjunct instructor  because he disapproved of that instructor’s views on Israel. Even more recently, a right-wing blogger did manage to get a teacher at the University of Missouri-St. Louis forced out by circulating misleading video snippets from that teacher’s class.  And there have been attempts by partisan groups and ambitious politicians to gain access to the e-mail correspondence of academics in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia.
At the moment, most of these threats to academic freedom have targeted scholars who work in such sensitive areas as Middle Eastern studies, labor studies, or climatology. But in today’s volatile political environment, who knows what field might next come under fire or what academics will feel compelled to prune their syllabuses, avoid controversy in the classroom, and direct their research into some safe area?
Moreover, because more than 70 percent of all the instruction in American institutions of higher education is now in the hands of men and women with part-time or temporary positions, academic freedom is particularly at risk. These faculty members have no job security, and thus no academic freedom, whatsoever. Unless they are protected by a union contract, they can be fired at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. In addition, because their reappointments depend on student evaluations, few are tempted to raise controversial issues, challenge their students, or even give low grades.
I’ve watched and written about these developments for several decades now. The chill is definitely deepening. When I learned about the CUNY Trustees’ action with regard to Tony Kushner, I felt compelled to protest it as best I could. Freedom of expression on our nation’s campuses is too fragile – and too important – for us to allow it to become hostage to external political forces with repressive agendas and an academic community too spineless to stand up against them.
May 5, 2011
Benno Schmidt, Chair
Board of Trustees
City University of New York
535 E. 80th Street
New York, NY 10075
Dear Benno Schmidt:
I am writing to protest the CUNY Board of Trustees’ recent action to override the decision of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to offer an honorary degree to Tony Kushner.
I am also writing to find out how to return to you the honorary degree from John Jay that I was awarded in 2008. It was the greatest honor I had ever received; and my gorgeous yellow and blue satin hood, which I am thinking of giving to Mr. Kushner, is – or at least was – one of my most cherished possessions, since I had been selected for it by the John Jay faculty in recognition of my scholarship on academic freedom.
But with honor comes responsibility. I cannot, therefore, remain silent when the very institution that once recognized the value of academic freedom now demeans it. That freedom is more than just the protection of the teaching, research, and public activities of college and university teachers. It also extends to the entire campus, fostering the openness and creativity that allow American higher education to flourish.
When an academic institution lets extraneous political considerations override educational priorities, not only is it limiting its members’ free expression, but it is also undermining the quality of the education it offers. Censoring outside speakers, including honorary degree recipients, like refusing to hire instructors or firing them because of their reputed political views, tells students, faculty members, and the rest of the public that some ideas cannot be allowed on campus. Such constraints negate the sacred mission of higher education within a democratic society.
I received my honorary degree from CUNY because of my scholarship on the McCarthy period, when over one hundred professors (including at least fifteen from the New York City municipal colleges) lost their jobs for political reasons. I assume that no one within CUNY’s Board of Trustees or administration wants a repeat of those dark days. Certainly, the John Jay faculty and administration, whose judgment the CUNY Trustees overrode, realize the value of academic freedom today.
I urge you, therefore, to reconsider your decision with regard to Tony Kushner and to restore to this eminent, albeit controversial, American playwright the honorary degree that the faculty at John Jay has appropriately awarded him.
Ellen Schrecker is professor of history at Yeshiva University. Her books include The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom and the End of the American University  (The New Press) and No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities  (Oxford University Press).