Playwright Tony Kushner was to receive an honorary degree from CUNY before the board voted against it. After a week of controversy, the board reversed course and approved the honorary degree. Photo by Joan Marcus

On Monday, May 2, the trustees for the City University of New York voted to rescind an offer of an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner after Trustee Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld claimed that Kushner had been overly critical of Israel and supported a boycott of Israel. Kushner replied with an open letter to the CUNY claiming he had been “publicly defamed,” attacking Weisenfeld’s characterization of his political views, and asking for an apology for the “careless way in which my name and reputation were handled.” Facing mounting pressure from the CUNY faculty union, donors and other honorary degree holders, the CUNY trustees reversed the decision on Monday, May 9, and elected to award Kushner the degree.

 

The saga began when Weisenfeld, an investment adviser on the board, disputed Kushner’s nomination for an honorary degree from John Jay College at CUNY. Weisenfeld related quotes of Kushner he had found on a website critical of Israel, and claimed that Kushner “had tied the founding of Israel to a policy of ethnic cleansing, criticized the Israel Defense Forces and supported a boycott of Israel,” according to reporting in The New York Times. Weisenfeld’s comments were broadcast in a podcast.

After Weisenfeld’s comments, the number of votes needed to approve the slate of honorary degrees could not be reached. When Kushner’s name was removed from the slate, the degreees were approved. The trustees then voted to table the Kushner degree. The Times reported that, according to Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor for university relations and secretary of the trustees, no honorary degreed had been tabled after getting as far as the board.

Kushner replied to the decision almost immediately, telling The New York Times he was “shocked” by the accusations, and posting an open letter to the CUNY board. In the letter Kushner attacks the “grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I’ve given, the mention of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever and the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr. Weisenfeld strongly disagrees.” Kushner’s letter also calls out the rest of the board for failing to adequately discuss “the appropriateness of Mr. Weisenfeld’s using a public board meeting as a platform for deriding the political opinions of someone with whom he disagrees” or asking him to adhere to higher standards of debate than “internet gossip.”

Pressure soon mounted for CUNY to reverse the decision and award Kushner the degree. Literary scholars Michael Cunningham and Barbara Ehrenreich returned their honorary degrees in protest, letters were written to the board, The Atlantic and The New York Times wrote editorials about the decision, among lots of other press which quickly turned the decision into a PR disaster for CUNY. CUNY staff were also unhappy with the decision, with the CUNY faculty union renewing its calls for Wiesenfeld’s resignation.

All of this culminated in the board’s decision on Monday, May 9, to reverse course, and award the degree to Kushner. In a phone interview with The New York Times after the decision Kushner said he would accept the honorary degree, “because of the real gratitude I feel for the students and faculty of John Jay.” He added that “I think questions have been raised about what constitutes appropriate conduct for individual trustees and the board as a whole, and I hope those questions will go on to spark a vigorous and consequential debate.”



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