I haven’t written anything about the Tony Kushner – CUNY – Jeffrey Wiesenfeld story until today. My feeling was: who cares about Yet Another Jewish Intellectual Who Hates Israel?
But today the level of injustice has risen to the point that it’s impossible to ignore.
Playwright Kushner, a Jewish Voice for Peace member who has accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, called its creation a ‘mistake’, etc. (see a collection of his remarks here), was slated to get an honorary degree from the City University of New York’s John Jay College. The University’s Board of Trustees, called upon to rubber-stamp it, chose instead to table the nomination after an impassioned plea by trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld.
- An honorary degree is not a right, it is… an honor.
- If the trustees get to vote on honorary degrees, even if they normally approve them by acclamation, then they have a right to not approve one.
- The trustees are allowed to speak before voting.
Kushner and friends went postal. Kushner claimed he had been “slandered.” His supporters claimed academic freedom and freedom of speech denied. A special meeting of the executive committee of the Board of Trustees was called, and it voted to give the degree to Kushner.
OK, they can do that. But now a campaign, led by CUNY’s faculty union, is being waged to get Wiesenfeld kicked off of the Board of Trustees:
In 2001, he called participation in an October “teach-in” sponsored by the union about the 9/11 attacks “seditious.” In 2006, he blasted a book that Baruch College had chosen for its freshman reading, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” by Chris Hedges, calling it “deeply offensive” and “anti-Semitic.”
“That’s overstepping one’s role as a trustee,” [faculty union president Dr. Barbara] Bowen said. “There’s a consistent pattern of vilifying students and particularly faculty whose political views he objects to. He is entitled to his political views, but to use those views to interfere with academic freedom is not acceptable.” — NY Times
Bowen clearly thinks that ‘academic freedom’ means the absolute right for faculty to be political activists in the classroom, and that any criticism of such activism constitutes ‘interference’ with it, a firing offense for a trustee. Neither of these propositions is true.
Academic freedom is a controversial subject, but a reasonable understanding of it is that faculty have a right to propound unpopular points of view in their fields and to be free of coercion based on their personal politics. There is also a concomitant obligation to engage in honest inquiry, to teach in an impartial and disinterested way.
Wiesenfeld has a right and indeed a duty as a trustee to speak out on matters like the fitness of Tony Kushner for an honorary degree.