Anatomy of CUNY’s board of trustees

The City University of New York’s board of trustees is composed of seasoned political players appointed by the gouveneur or the mayor. The trustees represent big money and influence that have benefitted its sprawling 23 colleges and almost a half million students. CUNY traditionally has been the ladder for the poor and the immigrant to ascend the ladder of social melioration which the American dream promises. Generally the trustees’ decisions decisions have not attracted public notice. But, 10 days ago, Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale and professor of constitutional law, decided table the award of a Ph.D. ‘honore causis’ to Tony Kushner one of America’s foremost dramatists, best known for his award winning ‘Angels in America’.

The denial of CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s request to honour Kushner, based on the rant of a trustee, Jeffrey Weisenfeld, claiming that the playwright, who’s a Jew, had defamed Israel. As a child of Holocaust survivors Weisenfeld wears the badge of his parents’ suffering at the hands of the Nazis, and has made him judge and jury of any criticism of the Zionist state. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of ‘the Atlantic Monthly’, he went as far as claiming that his mother would pin the label of ‘Kapo’, a concentration camp prisoner appointed by the SS as overseer of slave work gangs of fellow prisoners.

So completely suffused and skewed is public discourse favouring Israel that any critical standpoint of the Zionist state is tarred and feathered with ‘anti Semitism’. As frequently happens, any critical views on Israeli policy is quashed or sidelined. And if one is a Jew like Kushner who supports the existence of the state of Israel, yet is not blind to its shortcomings, he is called a ‘self hating Jew’. So ends discussion.

The board’s decision raised an outpouring of protest, which GuamDiary has commented on. A special session of the trustee’s executive committee rescinded the board’s action and in Benno Schmidt’s admission that it was not only a bad decision but it violated the principle of academic enquiry and  freedom of thought. Nonetheless, despite his clamming ‘apologia’, he was not present when the committee reversed course. The trustees, however, did not see the bitter irony of its initial decision: the denial of justice!

Kushner was gracious enough to say that he will accept the degree at John Jay’s graduation ceremony in early June. Still the tear in CUNY’s reputation is not mended yet. As GuamDiary sees it, Benno Schmidt shares some of blame in caving into Weisenfeld’s violent denunciation of Kushner and his racialist slurs on Palestinians.

As a former president of Yale, Schmidt knows the time honoured tradition of a university’s academic freedom. He himself had defended it often during his tenure at the Ivy League university. And as a constitutional lawyer, he should have at his finger tips legal precedent defending Kushner’s right to dissent. Nevertheless, to avoid controversy, he took the easy way out by tabling the awarding of the degree, thereby killing it. The trustees did not raise any questions of substance, but, like sheep, concurred. In fact, one trustee admitted he didn’t know who Kushner was [and he sits on a university board!].

Schmidt’s pusillanimous move brought shame on CUNY. And if he had any decency, he along with Weisenfeld should step down. But he wont in all probability: he is in the charter school business these days and he depends on Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers [of which Weisenfeld is], to fund his business ventures, which milks the public coffers for private gain. So, he is not one to upset his own applecart. Furthermore with visions of billions directed from public to privately run education, he should not be sitting on CUNY’s board of trustees.

Luckily the public outcry put the spot light on the intellectual dishonesty and the board’s cowardice. CUNY has to examine appointments of political ‘hacks’ and yes men and women, and demand accountability and strong academic oversight.

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