CUNY’s Political Mugging of Tony Kushner

When the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York mindlessly voted without debate last week to purge America’s greatest living active playwright, Tony Kushner, from the roster of those slated to receive honorary degrees at CUNY’s commencement ceremonies, the cultural and ethical pygmies who people that board had no idea they would be forced to reverse themselves a week later.

But after a firestorm of protests against this blatant violation of the principle of academic freedom –– picked up and amplified by the global media –– brought dishonor to CUNY and seriously degraded the reputation of the once-great university, at a hastily convened emergency meeting to deal with the Kushner affair on the evening of May 9, the trustees’ executive committee was forced to eat a huge helping of crow, overrule the board, and restore the invitation to Kushner.

Meanwhile, the university’s top brass, including Chancellor Matthew Goldstein –– who had been remarkably silent when Kushner was targeted for a political mugging by the trustees –– unleashed a hypocritical gusher of praise for this giant of the American theater whom their institution had smeared and insulted.

This sordid tale began when the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, one of the CUNY campuses, proposed to invite Kushner to speak at its commencement ceremony and receive an honorary doctorate for his prolific work in the theater. When the university board met last week for what was supposed to be a pro forma ratification of the list of honorees chosen by CUNY’s colleges, Kushner was targeted by one of the trustees, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who falsely accused Kushner of “anti-Semitism” for his views on Israel. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld moved to remove the playwright’s name from the list.

In what amounted to a rash and reckless star chamber proceeding, in just a few minutes Kushner was “tried” in abstentia. Tapes of a podcast of the meeting show that not a single voice was raised in Kushner’s defense. Only Wiesenfeld’s prosecutorial presentation, based entirely on material he’d gleaned from a website, was heard. No representative of the John Jay faculty, which had proposed the honorary degree for Kushner, was invited to speak on his behalf.

And without further ado, on the evening of May 2, the CUNY trustees voted 11 to 1 to quash the honorary degree for Kushner. In doing so, they in effect endorsed Wiesenfeld’s mendacious smear.

Who is this Wiesenfeld? A former FBI agent, he’s a longtime Republican political operative who for years ran then-Senator Al D’Amato’s downstate political operation (as a senator, D’Amato was a leading political homophobe). He then went to work for D’Amato’s handpicked Republican governor, George Pataki, who appointed Wiesenfeld to the CUNY trustees in 1999.

All of the 17 voting members of the board of trustees are political appointees, and only one of them has any serious academic credentials. Most of them are either business people or political hacks and cronies like Wiesenfeld, whom the New York Times described as a “political fixer.”

Wiesenfeld is known as a slavish and unconditional supporter of Israel who tolerates no criticism at all of the policies of the Hebrew state; a former counsel to CUNY who knows Wiesenfeld well told this reporter he is “irrational” on the subject.

Wiesenfeld today is a principal at Bernstein Global Wealth Management, which controls more than $100 billion in assets. His boss at Bernstein is Roger Hertog, a major Republican fundraiser and bundler, as well as a big-time funder of neo-conservative projects. Mark Gerson, editor of “The Essential Neoconservative Reader,” has described Hertog as the “one man who has, far more than anyone else, financially enabled this movement to exist.”

Hertog was also the financial principal behind the now-defunct New York Sun, in partnership with jailed media magnate Conrad Black. The Sun was noted for its militant pro-Israel stance and its vicious attacks on any and all who dared to question the policies of the Israeli government.

Hertog is on the board of the American Enterprise Institute, a neo-conservative think tank, and is a primary financial backer of the Shalem Center, known as “the AEI of Israel.” Neo-con ideologist William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, has said that the Shalem Center –– on whose board he serves, and of which Hertog served as president for a number of years –– was “founded as Israel’s first neoconservative think-tank.”

Even more important for understanding the CUNY attack on Kushner, Hertog is a huge donor to CUNY, having given at least $4 million to the university, according to published reports. As Hertog’s man on the CUNY board of trustees, therefore, Wiesenfeld carries enormous weight.

Criticism of Israel is still the third rail of intellectual and political discourse in America, and the phony charge of “anti-Semitism” against those who criticize Israel’s violations of the human rights of Palestinians is frequently deployed by neo-conservatives and the Jewish right to stifle dissenting voices like Kushner’s.

Joining Republican Wiesenfeld in voting to purge Kushner from the list of those to receive honorary degrees from CUNY were three trustees appointed by Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg –– Judah Gribetz, Carol Robles-Roman, who is also the Mayor’s counsel, and Charles Shorter.

Bloomberg’s press office refused a request for comment on his appointees’ votes from my colleague Andy Humm.

Tony Kushner already has 15 honorary degrees from prestigious American universities and colleges –– including Brandeis University, a Jewish-sponsored secular institution founded to combat anti-Semitism in higher education –– and did not need, or seek, one from CUNY.

Kushner is best known for his stunningly original play about the AIDS crisis, “Angels in America,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award, and which was brilliantly filmed by director Mike Nichols. He also won a Tony for the book for his musical play “Caroline, or Change,” as well as three Obie Awards, an Arts Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Oscar and Golden Globe nominations (for his screenplay for the film “Munich”), and a Cultural Achievement Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, to name just a few of the many honors bestowed on him.

The CUNY smear against Kushner came just as his latest play, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism with a Key to the Scriptures,” opened at the Public Theater (the play is reviewed in the current issue by my colleague Christopher Byrne).

The New York Times, in its review of Kushner’s new play, hailed him as “perhaps the most intellectually far-reaching of all major mainstream American playwrights.”

That’s why, in voting to revoke Kushner’s honorary degree, the trustees reduced CUNY to the ethical and intellectual level of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

When the news of the trustees’ action finally made the New York Times on May 4, the tsunami of protest was overwhelming. A raft of prominent writers and artists who’d previously received honorary degrees from CUNY wrote to the trustees renouncing those honors.

Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of 21 books, including the best-selling “Nickel and Dimed,” wrote: “In 2004 I was proud to receive an honorary degree from John Jay College in recognition, as I recall, for my work exposing poverty and promoting social justice. At the time, it did not occur to me to question John Jay’s qualifications for awarding such an honor. But today, having read of the Trustees’ vote to deny a similar honorary degree to playwright and activist Tony Kushner –– as well as Jeffrey Wiesenfeld’s comment in the New York Times suggesting that Palestinians “are not human” — I do have to question both your qualifications and the legitimacy of the honorary degree I was given. Hence my decision to renounce my own honorary degree, which I will return to you if I can find it. Please expunge me from your record of past honorees.”

Michael Cunningham is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novels “The Hours” and “A Home at the End of the World” –– both made into successful films, with “The Hours” winning an Oscar. He wrote, “I was shocked and dismayed to hear about the treatment Tony Kushner received at the hands of the CUNY board of trustees. To deny [Kushner] an honorary degree because certain members of the board disagree with some of his political views is a chilling indictment of the freedom of expression CUNY has always championed.”

Ellen Schrecker, an historian at Yeshiva University and author of “No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities,” published an open letter to CUNY board of trustees chair Benno Schmidt in the journal Inside Higher Education under the title “Take My Degree Back” in which she wrote: “When an academic institution lets extraneous political considerations override educational priorities, not only is it limiting its members’ free expression, but it is also undermining the quality of the education it offers. Censoring outside speakers, including honorary degree recipients, like refusing to hire instructors or firing them because of their reputed political views, tells students, faculty members, and the rest of the public that some ideas cannot be allowed on campus. Such constraints negate the sacred mission of higher education within a democratic society.”

In addition, distinguished historian Martin Duberman, known as “the father of gay studies” for having established CUNY’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS), a first among American universities, told this reporter: “Compare Wiesenfeld and Kushner. The former –– like most of the GOP –– feeds on the one-dimensional (‘you’re for us or against us’); the latter is multi-dimensional in everything he says and does. He knows how to criticize Israel for some of its cruel policies while at the same time strongly supporting Israel as an entity. By the way, does anyone recall whatever happened to free speech?”

And the Nobel Laureate for Literature Toni Morrison also weighed in, writing to the trustees to request the reinstatement of the honorary degree for Kushner: “Censure, whether subtle or blatant, of any artist — let alone one with the stature of Mr. Kushner as well as his creative and intellectual power –– should be anathema in the Academy where the free exchange of ideas is its raison d’être… The stifling of debate that is the hallmark of fear should never be tolerated. Mr. Kushner’s compassionate and revelatory challenges to conventional wisdom are to be praised as the healthy signs of a democracy and the signature of an intelligent, gifted artist.”

Even former Mayor Ed Koch, whose staunch support for Israel is legendary, wrote the trustees in support of Kushner, despite the fact that he is the butt of a big joke in “Angels in America.” Koch wrote: “I can’t think of a dumber academic action… Mr. Wiesenfeld and the trustees who followed his request should immediately reverse their action and urge Mr. Kushner to forgive them. I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld’s action to be so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees.”

The final straw came when the New York Times, in a May 6 editorial entitled “CUNY Shamed Itself,” wrote: “The trustees of the City University of New York got it exactly backward this week. They supported the political agenda of an intolerant board member and shunned one of America’s most important playwrights. They should have embraced the artist and tossed out the board member.”

At the end of his lengthy letter to the trustees (the entire text of which appears in at refuting point by point Wiesenfeld’s “false” slanders, Kushnerconcluded: “I decided long ago that my job as a playwright is to try to speak and write honestly about what I believe to be true. I am interested in history and politics, and long ago I realized that people uninterested in a meaningful exchange of opinion and ideas would selectively appropriate my words to suit their purposes. It’s been my experience that truth eventually triumphs over soundbites, spin and defamation, and that reason, honest inquiry, and courage, which are more appealing and more persuasive than demagoguery, will carry the day.”

Thanks to the public outcry against the trustees’ McCarthyism, Monday’s reversal of the CUNY purge of Kushner proved him right.

This reporter wishes to thank my colleague Andy Humm for generously sharing some of his unpublished reporting on this matter.