In the Forward’s December 9 profile of Tony Kushner, he presents an alternative reality in expounding upon the “disgusting” circumstance of persons using “money to leverage power over non-profit institutions.” He is referring to my role as trustee at the City University of New York and to the attempt I made to prevent him from receiving an honorary degree. But he has everything wrong.
In the first place, I’m sure that he is far wealthier than I am. I was a civil servant for 20 years before becoming a money manager, and I possess no “financial leverage” over CUNY. As far as I am aware, neither do any of the other trustees. Mr. Kushner’s point of departure is akin to that of Michael Moore — accusing others of wielding the undue influence that he himself utilizes in an injurious fashion.
In my 12 years on the CUNY board, we have bestowed about 450 honorary degrees across our numerous campuses. A good number of these honorees could not even remotely be seen as “pro-Israel.” So why the kerfuffle over Tony Kushner? It was his selective and grotesque attacks on Israel and Zionism over many years and most significantly his utterances of obscenities concerning the founding of the modern Jewish state, as well as his accusations of “ethnic cleansing” by the Jews.
He also continues to manufacture his own facts in declaring the attempt to deny him an honorary degree as an attack on academic freedom.
An honorary degree is in essence a form of marketing, identifying the college or university with public figures, philanthropists, scientists, authors, performance artists and the like on a discretionary basis. It connects and identifies the university with that personage, and yes, often involves a grant or gift from the candidate (this should not be a quid pro quo). A candidate for an honorary degree can no more compel a university to grant one than I can compel a Jewish organization to honor me.
Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld
The City University of New York
New York, N.Y.