Under mounting pressure from supporters of the playwright Tony Kushner, the chairman of the board of the City University of New York has called an executive committee session for Monday to reconsider awarding Mr. Kushner an honorary degree.
Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the chairman of CUNY since 2003, issued a statement on Friday afternoon saying that he believed that board members had “made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy” in failing to award the degree to Mr. Kushner earlier this week.
“Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name,” Mr. Schmidt wrote, referring to the opposition that had been expressed by one trustee, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, toward Mr. Kushner’s political views.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
My diary about this, posted at MyFDL yesterday, and explaining fully how this went down – Kushner was being sanctioned for advocating Palestinian rights in the past – is here. Commenters at most articles on this debacle are not being kind to board of trustees member Wiesenfeld, whose views about the supposed natural inferiority of Arabs and Blacks have given pause in the past. Former NYC mayor, Ed Koch has asked for the ouster of Wiesenfeld:
“Mr. Wiesenfeld and the trustees who followed his request should immediately reverse their action and urge Mr. Kushner to forgive them,” Koch wrote. “I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld’s action so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees.”
Had CUNY tried to go through with the commencement ceremony with no action past last Monday’s decision to withhold Kushner’s honorary doctorate, the ceremony might have seen some of those to be honored this year refusing to accept the award, possibly demonstrations by graduating students. Already, America’s leading scholar on the McCarthy era, Ellen Schrecker, had informed CUNY that she was returning her honorary doctorate, and the doctoral hood (!) over what she termed the board’s “negat[ing] the sacred mission of higher education in a democratic society.”
It is not clear yet whether or not Kushner will accept the degree.