Last night the executive committee of the City University of New York approved an honorary degree for playwright Tony Kushner, reversing a decision last week to withhold the degree because Kushner was not sufficiently pro-Israel. The decision aims to end an embarrassing week for the university in which academic and literary scholars including Michael Cunningham and Barbara Ehrenreich returned their degrees in protest and others criticized the board for imposing a pro-Israel litmus test on a nominee barely even known for his views on Israel-Palestine. It's not clear whether Kushner will now accept the degree.
There's also no word yet from the man responsible for canceling Kushner's degree, board member Jeffrey Wiesenfeld. He was also involved in a dispute in February, criticizing an adjunct professor for not being supportive enough of Israel. He has suggested that some Palestinians are "not human" because they "worship death for their children."
So what was learned? "It's not entirely clear that the episode shows there is an expanded space for debate about Israel," Justin Elliott at Salon. "It may be just that the CUNY board chose the wrong guy to pick on."
Kristofer Petersen-Overton, the adjunct professor haggled by Wiesenfeld earlier this year agrees. "Though bizarre, Wiesenfeld's antics are only symptomatic of a deeper malaise. Both my and Kushner's cases point to one of the more threatening crises facing CUNY and American universities generally: corporatisation and the adoption of a boardroom mentality in university administrations," he writes, in a column for The Guardian. "As CUNY relies ever more on private funding and student tuition – already the majority of its budget – this once-great public institution gradually concerns itself primarily with cultivating and protecting a brand image. It seems CUNY no longer has much time for those with views likely to upset the largesse of its donors. This is quite simply poisonous for an institution grounded on the free exchange of ideas."
Meanwhile, the New York Times' Clyde Haberman puts the affair in context of how the city traditionally deals with issues of intolerance. "Experience suggests that sooner or later, we will have more of the same in this city that never tires of congratulating itself for its tolerance," he writes. "The Kushner affair has probably changed nothing, though at least this controversy is now in the rear-view mirror."