Jeffrey Wiesenfeld never had a chance against Tony Kushner.
So it now looks as if the City University of New York is going to overturn a decision by its own board of trustees to refuse to give an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner. The ironies of modern academic politics here are too rich to pass by without notice.
Start with the Friday announcement by CUNY “Chairperson”—that’s his official title—Benno Schmidt that he plans to convene a meeting today of the board’s seven-member executive committee to reconsider the decision the full board made against the Kushner degree only last week.
“I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken,” said Mr. Schmidt, who was once president of Yale. “But when the board has made a mistake of principle and not merely of policy, review is appropriate and, indeed, mandatory.”
As it happens, Chairperson Schmidt was on hand when this “mistake of principle” was made but didn’t raise a voice at the time. In the course of considering a slate of honorary degrees, trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld asked for a moment to speak and objected to the honor for Mr. Kushner due to his extreme anti-Israel views. His full remarks are available on the CUNY website.
After Mr. Wiesenfeld spoke, a board majority did not prevail for the full slate of honorees. The board then voted on a motion to table Mr. Kushner’s degree, and the other nominees were approved. Whereupon the CUNY faculty and the New York arts and media world rose in fury to assert that the school had done a grievous wrong by failing to honor such a pillar of the theater as Mr. Kushner.
So now Mr. Schmidt wants a subset of the board to overrule a decision taken by the ostensible overseers of CUNY. If there was ever definitive proof that university officials see their trustees as mere check-writing rubber stamps, this is it. Even on the symbolic matter of conferring university prestige, the trustees get put in their place when they don’t meet the politically correct standards of the faculty.
Mr. Schmidt’s statement includes the implication that the trustees had violated the right to “freedom of thought and expression” and that they had offended university norms by letting “politics” interfere with an honor intended to recognize Mr. Kushner’s “contribution to the American theater.”
But no one is denying Mr. Kushner’s right to say whatever he wants about Israel, or anything else. The point is whether he should be honored by CUNY, and Mr. Wiesenfeld was invoking his own right to freely express his opposition. As for the separation of art and politics, the New York Sun wryly notes that “you would need a late-model electron microscope spectrometer” to separate the two in Mr. Kushner’s work. It is precisely the liberal politics in his art that has caused the academic elites to rise up on his behalf.
Mr. Wiesenfeld’s “mistake” was not appreciating that hostility to Israel has become such a deeply embedded principle of the modern academy that objecting to it earns you denunciation as a censor and philistine. The only greater uproar might have come if CUNY’s trustees had voted to award an honorary degree to, say, the CIA interrogators of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.