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.