Kushner & CUNY: Smart Artist, Dumb University

Tony Kushner

Rarely is there such a stark distinction between an artist who enlightens us and an educational institution that shames us.

Last week, the trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) blocked an honorary degree to be awarded to Tony Kushner by one of CUNY’s twenty campuses, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The trustees turned down Kushner’s nomination because of his alleged political views. John Jay College’s tagline? “Celebrating Student Research and Creativity.” So much for either.

This is the first time in fifty years CUNY’s trustees have declined to follow a college recommendation for an honorary degree. According to published reports, one trustee, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, tagged Kushner as an “extremist” who had made disparaging remarks about the State of Israel. An “extremist”? Really? In this day and age, Tony Kushner is considered an “extremist”? Wow.

Kushner is, of course, one of the world’s leading playwrights. His work is often informed by his own Jewish background, including A Dybbuk, Caroline, or Change and the monumental Angels in America. There’s not just Jewish spirituality in these plays, there is also humor, intelligence, compassion, and revelation.

In fact, all of Kushner’s works share a common determination to see multiple sides of an issue, to examine our world today, and to unmask our humanity. Considering his wide range of work, it is rather shocking to hear of such a narrow-minded understanding of Kushner and his political engagement. (You can see for yourself. Now playing at The Public in New York is Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.)

Perhaps for better examples of extremism and cowardice, how about Mr. Wiesenfeld on the Palestinians: “People who worship death for their children are not human,” he told the New York Times. Or an earlier group of trustees of CUNY who, in 1981, apologized to faculty fired in 1941 and 1942 because of their alleged political associations during the McCarthy era. Apparently, they can do the right thing — even if it takes forty years.

In fairness, according to some published reports, Mr. Wisenfeld merely felt compelled to voice his own opinion about Kushner and never expected so many other trustees to agree with him. The trustees voted 11 to 1 to block Kushner’s nomination.

Board Chairman Benno Schmidt, a former president of Yale University, is bringing the board back together to re-vote. In a statement Schmidt released, he wrote, “I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken. But when the board has made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy, review is appropriate and, indeed, mandatory… Like other honorary degrees, it is not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored. Any other view is impractical as well as wrong in principle.” That’s the good news. The bad news is that Schmidt was at the meeting when the vote was first taken. Sometimes hearing protests from far and wide can help someone discover a “mistake of principle.”

Many have written the Trustees, including previous honorees and leading lights in education and the arts. In one of the better responses, Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison wrote on Facebook:

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I read about this “controversy” with some amusement.  It seemed to emerge right out of an Oscar Wilde or Bernard Shaw play: a policing body thwarting an artist for views unapproved by that body, views which the artist neither held nor advertised.   But my amusement quickly disappeared when I learned that the decision to remove Mr. Kushner from the list of candidates for the honorary degree was not theater, and that some board members appeared to have taken Plato’s exile of poets [artists] from an ideal state seriously.

After hearing what had taken place, Kushner wrote the board. Although he wasn’t invited to articulate his point of view, Kushner is an artist who is always willing to engage an audience:

My questions and reservations regarding the founding of the state of Israel are connected to my conviction, drawn from my reading of American history, that democratic government must be free of ethnic or religious affiliation, and that the solution to the problems of oppressed minorities are to be found in pluralist democracy and in legal instruments like the 14th Amendment; these solutions are, like all solutions, imperfect, but they seem to me more rational, and have had a far better record of success in terms of minorities being protected from majoritarian tyranny, than have national or tribal solutions. I am very proud of being Jewish, and discussing this issue publicly has been hard; but I believe in the absolute good of public debate, and I feel that silence on the part of Jews who have questions is injurious to the life of the Jewish people. My opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel’s right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr. Weisenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks.

(See Kushner’s complete letter to the CUNY Trustees.)

Isn’t it great when one can learn from an artist? Too bad the City University of New York has demonstrated such a lack of interest in education and art. Shame on them.

- Bill Reichblum

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3 Responses to “Kushner & CUNY: Smart Artist, Dumb University”

  1. Ann Jareckie
    May 12th, 2011 13:22

    This year the Shaw Festival included in its programming Tony Kushner’s “The Speed of Ideas: A Theatrical Forum” — co-written by Suzan-Lori Parks and Michael Billington. Visit the Shaw Festival’s profile page at http://kadmusarts.com/festivals/5270.html

  2. KadmusArts Culture News » Blog Archive » Tony Kushner’s Teachable Moment
    June 5th, 2011 00:14

    [...] Associated Press Kushner & CUNY: Smart Artist, Dumb University [...]

  3. KadmusArts Culture News » Blog Archive » On the Record: Tony Kushner
    August 17th, 2011 00:13

    [...] Guardian Kushner & CUNY: Smart Artist, Dumb University [...]

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