avatar
CUNY’s Political Mugging of Tony Kushner


the play is reviewed in the current issue by my colleague Christopher Byrne).

The New York Times, in its review of Kushner's new play, hailed him as "perhaps the most intellectually far-reaching of all major mainstream American playwrights."

That's why, in voting to revoke Kushner's honorary degree, the trustees reduced CUNY to the ethical and intellectual level of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

When the news of the trustees' action finally made the New York Times on May 4, the tsunami of protest was overwhelming. A raft of prominent writers and artists who'd previously received honorary degrees from CUNY wrote to the trustees renouncing those honors.

Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of 21 books, including the best-selling "Nickel and Dimed," wrote: "In 2004 I was proud to receive an honorary degree from John Jay College in recognition, as I recall, for my work exposing poverty and promoting social justice. At the time, it did not occur to me to question John Jay's qualifications for awarding such an honor. But today, having read of the Trustees' vote to deny a similar honorary degree to playwright and activist Tony Kushner –– as well as Jeffrey Wiesenfeld's comment in the New York Times suggesting that Palestinians "are not human" — I do have to question both your qualifications and the legitimacy of the honorary degree I was given. Hence my decision to renounce my own honorary degree, which I will return to you if I can find it. Please expunge me from your record of past honorees."

Michael Cunningham is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novels "The Hours" and "A Home at the End of the World" –– both made into successful films, with "The Hours" winning an Oscar. He wrote, "I was shocked and dismayed to hear about the treatment Tony Kushner received at the hands of the CUNY board of trustees. To deny [Kushner] an honorary degree because certain members of the board disagree with some of his political views is a chilling indictment of the freedom of expression CUNY has always championed."

Ellen Schrecker, an historian at Yeshiva University and author of "No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities," published an open letter to CUNY board of trustees chair Benno Schmidt in the journal Inside Higher Education under the title "Take My Degree Back" in which she wrote: "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."

In addition, distinguished historian Martin Duberman, known as "the father of gay studies" for having established CUNY's Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS), a first among American universities, told this reporter: "Compare Wiesenfeld and Kushner. The former –– like most of the GOP –– feeds on the one-dimensional ('you're for us or against us'); the latter is multi-dimensional in everything he says and does. He knows how to criticize Israel for some of its cruel policies while at the same time strongly supporting Israel as an entity. By the way, does anyone recall whatever happened to free speech?"

And the Nobel Laureate for Literature Toni Morrison also weighed in, writing to the trustees to request the reinstatement of the honorary degree for Kushner: "Censure, whether subtle or blatant, of any artist mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-ansi-language:EN-US;mso-fareast-language:EN-US;mso-bidi-language:AR-SA”> —
font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri;mso-fareast-theme-font:
minor-latin;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-ansi-language:EN-US;
mso-fareast-language:EN-US;mso-bidi-language:AR-SA”>let alone one with the stature of Mr. Kushner as well as his creative and intellectual power
mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri;mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-ansi-language:EN-US;mso-fareast-language:EN-US;
mso-bidi-language:AR-SA”>––
mso-bidi-font-size:12.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-ansi-language:EN-US;mso-fareast-language:EN-US;mso-bidi-language:AR-SA”>should be anathema in the Academy where the free exchange of ideas is its raison d'être… The stifling of debate that is the hallmark of fear should never be tolerated. Mr. Kushner's compassionate and revelatory challenges to conventional wisdom are to be praised as the healthy signs of a democracy and the signature of an intelligent, gifted artist."

Even former Mayor Ed Koch, whose staunch support for Israel is legendary, wrote the trustees in support of Kushner, despite the fact that he is the butt of a big joke in "Angels in America." Koch wrote: "I can't think of a dumber academic action… Mr. Wiesenfeld and the trustees who followed his request should immediately reverse their action and urge Mr. Kushner to forgive them. I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld's action to be so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees."

The final straw came when the New York Times, in a May 6 editorial entitled "CUNY Shamed Itself," wrote: "The trustees of the City University of New York got it exactly backward this week. They supported the political agenda of an intolerant board member and shunned one of America's most important playwrights. They should have embraced the artist and tossed out the board member."

At the end of his lengthy letter to the trustees (the entire text of which appears in