The Letter CUNY Should Have Written to Tony Kushner

Monday night, the Executive Committee of the City University of New York's Board of Trustees did its best to stem an endless flow of bad publicity and buck-passing in the wake of its earlier decision to first grant and then rescind an honorary degree to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. The committee rescinded the rescission and granted the degree to Kushner, but that doesn't mean all is well.

The two figures missing from Monday's meeting were -- not coincidentally, I think -- the two CUNY officers central to the Kushner debacle. Notably absent was trustee Jeffrey S. Wisenfeld, whose vehement objection to Kushner, whom he characterized as an opponent and critic of Israel, met with no resistance from his peers. (Several days after his initial outburst, Wisenfeld topped himself by telling a New York Times reporter that certain Palestinians were not human.)

Also missing was Benno C. Schmidt, the current chairman of the CUNY Board and a former president of Yale, who voted to table Kushner's award rather than devote one iota of energy to defending him against Wisenfeld. Schmidt just happened to be out of the country and did not vote.

Matthew Goldstein, the chancellor of the university, who presided over Monday's meeting and was criticized in a New York Times editorial just days before for not speaking out "forcefully on this issue," embodied the spirit of the whole nasty shindig by seizing on the occasion to try to blame someone else for his failure of leadership:

"I'm not sure why the appropriate people didn't chime in at that time," Dr. Goldstein said. Dr. Goldstein, who was present at that meeting, (emphasis mine) said the presidents of the various colleges are generally expected to address specific questions.

Monday's meeting was one long, failed exercise in saving face. It convinced no one and settled virtually none of the issues that led to the debacle in the first place, namely the board's utter failure to stand up against one pontificating bully or for the absent artist they had intended to honor, or for free speech, followed by a week's worth of mumbling and bumbling and blaming everyone but themselves. The only person who will come out of it unscathed is Kushner. He's carried himself like a mensch through the whole ordeal, first writing the board members a brilliant letter that pins them wriggling to the wall for their cowardice, then leaving the door open for CUNY to apologize and beg him to come be the undisputed hero of its graduation.

Imagine how much better this would all be if only CUNY's mucky-mucks had written Kushner a frank letter admitting their mistake and showing that they'd actually learned something from the experience. A letter like this:

Dear Tony Kushner,

We, the officers of CUNY, are very sorry for all that we have put you through. By first offering and then rescinding your honorary degree, we have dishonored you, our students, and our community, who we are supposed to lead by example. We think we've finally got ourselves straightened out. Will you please accept our apology and our honorary degree?

We would like to think we've learned from our errors, and we will do our best not to repeat them.

We should have anticipated that there might be some objections to our awarding you this honorary degree. There was, after all, a similar Israel and Jewish loyalty debate when Brandeis honored you in 2006 -- and it held firm. Had we done just that little bit of research, we could have been better prepared for inevitable objections and defended your right to free expression. Instead, we were blindsided when one of our members, who has given much to our school and whose views on Israel were well known, demanded your ouster.

We froze. As you said in your May 5 letter to us, the podcast of the meeting sounded "like a scramble to dispense with the whole business." We were cowardly. We hastily tabled your nomination, approved the other candidates, and adjourned. None of us wanted to confront Wisenfeld and offend him or draw his wrath: That 's a very uncomfortable thing to do with any colleague, especially over such a volatile issue. No one was quite sure who should step up and lead. And frankly, not all of us had read your work. We had fallen into the bad old habit of rubber-stamping and reacting rather than thinking, discussing, and evaluating.

Going forward, we think you'll find us a smarter, braver body -- one that's working hard to respect differences among ourselves and within the CUNY community while upholding the core principles of free thought and speech. Please let us know if you will do us the honor of accepting a CUNY degree in appreciation of your remarkable body of work.

Sincerely,

(Signed by all of the CUNY board members, by board chair Schimdt, and by chancellor Goldstein)

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