CUNY’s Principles

It looks like the executive committee of the board of the City University of New York is going to convene on Monday to approve an honorary degree for the playwright Tony Kushner that the full board was not prepared to approve a week earlier. In announcing this dodge, CUNY’s chairman, Benno Schmidt, said it was necessary because the trustees had made an error of principle in declining to approve the degree for Mr. Kushner the first time around. But if principles are the issue here, what is the logic of the decision of a full board of trustees being overturned a few days later by a subset of the trustees?

So far it looks as if the only person who has acted on principle in the CUNY affair is Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the trustee who first objected to the idea of giving an honorary degree to Mr. Kushner. He came to a meeting, and he stated his objection forthrightly. It had to do with Mr. Kushner’s views in respect of Israel. Mr. Kushner is entitled to his views and Mr. Wiesenfeld is entitled to dissent from a proposal to give him an honorary degree. The whole thing was filmed and is available at a CUNY Web site. Mr. Wiesenfeld comprehended he was making a dissident statement. Our guess is that he was as surprised as anyone when the trustees acted on his objection.

When the vote was called, Mr. Schmidt at first tried to suggest the full slate of honorary degrees had passed. No doubt he was merely confused. It was quickly explained to him that there was not a majority vote. So an amendment was put forth to table Mr. Kushner’s name and advance the rest of the degrees. Not a single director spoke up in favor of Mr. Kushner. After standing silent at the board meeting, Mr. Schmidt put out his statement announcing that the board had erred and calling a rump meeting of some of the trustees to overturn it. All it took was a whiff of grapeshot from the New York Times, which actually suggested the dissident Mr. Wiesenfeld be ousted from the board.

What a lesson for the students of CUNY. Mr. Schmidt, in the statement issued Friday, said “it is not right for the Board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here.” But that’s precisely the question. Clearly at least one of the trustees (and maybe more) feels that Mr. Kushner’s record presents precisely one of those extreme cases. Are the dissenting trustee or trustees going to be included in the executive committee meeting that Mr. Schmidt hopes will do on Monday what the full board of trustees was not prepared to do only a week before?

Now, whatever else Mr. Schmidt is, he’s not dumb. He has no doubt been on the phone rounding up support for the action he’s asking the committee take on Monday. By then Mr. Wiesenfeld may be alone in his dissent, in which case the more power to him. Mr. Schmidt’s maneuver will be dressed up with a lot of palaver about the First Amendment, though that storied article applies just as much to Mr. Wiesenfeld as it does to the celebrated playwright and, for that matter, to the CUNY board as an institution. Mr. Schmidt is claiming with a straight face that the board is going to give the honorary degree to Mr. Kushner for his art and not his politics. But you would need a late-model electron microscope spectrometer to separate Mr. Kushner’s politics from his art.

If there’s a silver lining in this scandal it lies in the possibility that out of it will come a reform of the process for handing out honorary degrees. What kind of process, if any, is there? What’s the logic of taking the trustees for granted on the substance of the work of those who are honored in their name? The fact is that New York is a big city, and some New Yorkers take a hard line in support of Israel. Under the current system, it’ll be a frosty Friday before one of them is handed an honorary degree by CUNY’s board. No doubt that’s a matter of principle, too.