Tony Kushner, Honorary Degrees, and CUNY

Writing in The Times, Stanley Fish concludes about the flap over the Trustees of the City University of New York’s refusal to confirm the decision of John Jay College to give playwright Tony Kushner an honorary doctorate that:

this is not an academic, a moral, a philosophical or an educational moment; it is a moment of ceremony and self-presentation.

Well, not exactly.

Ceremony and self-presentation both contain within them moral, philosophical, and educational assumptions and even possibilities.

I can’t quite figure out Fish’s agenda, why he thinks this is, as he calls it, ‘much ado about nothing.’

Any time a university starts to determine honorary degrees based on politics, something is out of order.  Of course, something is out of order in most universities, for politics do determine many honorary degrees (I wonder how many Bill Clinton has received), but there are times when the use of politics to block a degree is particularly egregious–and the Kushner incident is clearly one of these, as CUNY has belatedly recognized (the executive committee of the trustees will likely over-ride the denial tonight).

Fish is right, however, that this is not a question of academic freedom, but that doesn’t make this incident any less important or potentially instructive.

Clyde Haberman, also writing in The Times notes that Kushner:

was to be honored as a giant of the American theater, they said; instead, he was punished because his politics did not meet the standards set by one trustee.

This is an extremely important point, and one that our academic institutions need to keep in mind: they are supposed to be expansive, not restrictive–something board chairman Benno Schmidt seems to have recognized, though a little belatedly.  The question may not be one of academic freedom, but it is certainly one of the place and responsibility of academic institutions in society–and as examples to the rest of us.

4 thoughts on “Tony Kushner, Honorary Degrees, and CUNY

  1. I do think it's important to note, though, that the trustee's objections to Kushner, at least in the trustee's own mind, were not technically political. Rather, the trustee argued that Kushner's remarks (particularly his use of the term “ethnic cleansing”) branded him an extremist, far beyond the pale of the mainstream. This may be an incorrect assessment on the trustee's part and different people may hold differing views on what qualifies as “extreme” but I think the distinction is still worth noting. For instance, if Glenn Beck had been up for the award (for his success in media, etc) and a trustee objected on the grounds of his “extreme” views, they would have every right to express that opinion, just as the other trustees would have every right to vote each according to his or her conscience.


  2. Thanks, “Anonymous.”

    Your distinction, however, is one without a difference, as far as I can make out. Or it should be.

    Unless, that is, you are arguing that views outside the mainstream are also outside what can be considered “political.” Then I would disagree completely. My point is that what this action represents is a narrowing of discourse where we should be expanding it.

    Your distinction is a narrowing, for you are making 'extremists' fair game for exclusion. Be it Kushner or Beck, they need to be judged on their accomplishments, not on how extreme their views may be.

    Of course everyone has every right to express their opinion, but to sandbag a process at the eleventh hour, as happened in this case, is not quite the same thing.


  3. First of all, an honorary doctorate is one way to get an engaging and important graduation speaker with little or no speaker’s fee. Sometimes an honorary doctorate is awarded to a wealthy donor.

    With that financial obligation out of the way, the administration and faculty of any college spends months in advance planning who should be honored and speak at the college’s graduation. This decision is made with due diligence by a quite learned group who has both the college graduates’ interest in mind and the prestige of the college.
    How can a group of trustees so quickly dismiss what its trusted guardians have so thoughtfully decided? As a faculty member at one of the CUNY colleges, I see that such reckless top-down decisions are becoming standard practice.

    If you link to Tony Kushner's letter to the Board of Trustees published in the New York Jewish Week, you will read, as one might expect from Mr. Kushner a defense not short on words, nor short on ideas. Poor guy, he just found out what many faculty members and department chairs have to do all the time, i.e. unnecessarily provide a rationale against the irrational decisions of the leadership of the University of the City of New York. The lunacy of the CUNY bureaucracy we see goes right to the top of the food chain. But unlike most of the serfs who work at CUNY, Tony struck back with the powers of his pen and of his intellect. He did not complacently accept it for fear of not being promoted or granted tenure. And he has suggested that his thoughts go into public debate before they become part of a unilateral decision. Now that's the posture that all of us in a knowledge community should welcome and vigorously promote. But when?


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