While NCAC is happy the CUNY Board Of Trustees ultimately voted to grant Kushner an honorary degree, academics who voice criticism of Israeli government policies are consistently demonized as anti-semitic. Read more at Blogging Censorship.
It is appalling that the trustees of CUNY initially voted not to bestow an honorary degree on Tony Kushner, the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, because some trustees disagree with his views on Israel. Denying him this honor solely because of his political views violates core First Amendment principles and is wholly inconsistent with basic notions of academic freedom. NCAC member PEN American Center sent the below letter to the CUNY Board of Trustees, urging them to reverse this unjust decision.
Earlier this week, NCAC’s Kids Right To Read Project sent a letter to the board of the Fremont Unified School District advising against the rejection of Kushner’s Angels In America from a Grade 12 Advanced Placement English Course, also a violation of free expression principles.
May 5, 2011
The Board of Trustees of the City University of New York
535 East 80th Street
New York, NY 10021
Dear Chairman Schmidt and members of the CUNY Board of Trustees:
We are writing on behalf of the 3,400 members of PEN American Center regarding the decision of the CUNY Board of Trustees to remove our esteemed Member and colleague Tony Kushner from the slate of candidates to receive an honorary doctorate from John Jay College in New York.
As you know, Mr. Kushner has created a body of work that is among the most distinguished in contemporary American theater—a body of work that has been recognized with awards including the Pulitzer Prize and honored with a two-week celebration by the Guthrie Theater in 2009. He is manifestly deserving of an honorary doctorate; indeed, he already has fifteen honorary degrees, from institutions including Columbia, NYU, Northwestern, Occidental, Wesleyan, Julliard, Pace, SUNY, the University of Minnesota, and Brandeis. That he would be so honored by the City University of New York seems especially fitting: as a writer who was born in Manhattan and who has risen to the highest ranks of American literature and gained international acclaim as a powerful and compassionate voice willing to challenge political and cultural taboos, he embodies both the highest aspirations of many New York City youth and one of the bedrock values of all institutions of higher education, not least the proud and inspirational campuses of the CUNY system.
We were therefore deeply troubled to learn of the decision to remove Mr. Kushner from the list of those who will receive this year’s honorary degrees. We are especially concerned that the decision was apparently made after one trustee denounced the political views of the former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Mary Robinson and Mr. Kushner, particularly as they relate to the history and politics of Israel. You already have before you a letter from Mr. Kushner in which he describes this denunciation as a “grotesque caricature of my political beliefs.” But that Mr. Wiesenfeld presented an incomplete and distorted version of Mr. Kushner’s views is almost beside the point: there is nothing even in Mr. Wiesenfeld’s description of those views that is outside the bounds of legitimate questioning, discussion, and debate by scholars and ordinary citizens alike, in both the United States and Israel. The spirit with which Mr. Kushner has engaged these questions is the same spirit which has produced such memorable and justifiably-acclaimed theatrical work, and indeed it is very likely the spirit the John Jay College community sought to honor by nominating Mr. Kushner to receive an honorary degree. It is a spirit that you, as CUNY Trustees, must surely recognize and value, and which the CUNY system most surely wants to foster.
We therefore ask you to review the decision to set aside Mr. Kushner’s candidacy for an honorary degree as a matter of urgency, canvassing the entire CUNY Board with an eye toward reconsidering and approving the degree. We believe nothing will send a stronger message to the students of John Jay College and the entire CUNY system about the importance of free and open debate in the university community—and in the country as a whole.
Kwame Anthony Appiah
PEN American Center
Steven L. Isenberg
Director, Freedom to Write and International Programs