It’s been quite a week for Tony Kushner, starting with an invitation to receive an honorary degree from John Jay College being revoked, and ending with his new play opening last night at the Public Theater — and Kushner meeting the protesters who were there on his behalf.
John Jay had planned on giving the Tony Award-winning playwright of Angels in America an honorary doctorate during its graduation ceremonies next month. However, on Tuesday night, the City University of New York made the rare decision not to approve John Jay’s decision.
From press accounts, and according to a lengthy open letter Kushner released Wednesday, CUNY board member Jeffrey Wiesenfeld attacked Kushner for his criticism of the state of Israel. Kushner writes in the letter that he “wasn’t told in advance that my willingness to accept an honorary doctorate from John Jay would require my presence at a meeting to defend myself,” and he “accepted the kind offer of a degree from John Jay College not because I need another award, but because I was impressed with the students and teachers there — as I have always been impressed with CUNY teachers and students — and I wanted to participate in celebrating their accomplishment.”
But at the approval meeting Kushner was unaware of, after board member “Weisenfeld’s vicious attack on me, eight members voted to approve all the honorary degree candidates, including me, and four voted to oppose the slate if my name remained on it. Lacking the requisite nine votes to approve the entire slate, the Board, in what sounds on the podcast like a scramble to dispense with the whole business, tabled my nomination, approved the other candidates, and adjourned. Not a word was spoken in my defense.”
According to the Jewish Week, it may be the first and only time the CUNY board has not conferred an honorary degree proposed by one of its colleges.
We ran into Kushner last night outside the premiere of “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism With a Key to the Scriptures,” where he was surprised to find a small group of demonstrators, holding signs defending him to CUNY.
“I’m incredibly touched,” Kushner said of the group. While he noted that he didn’t want to be interviewed about the CUNY “situation tonight, because it’s the premiere of my new play, and I want to focus on that,” he said “I’m still so touched to see them here.”
Kushner took a few minutes to chat with the demonstrators before going inside, telling them he was going to have his assistant find a way to get them tickets to the show and thanking them for their support. The group was made of CUNY faculty, including Sándor John, who teaches history at Hunter College.
John came out to show his support, he said, because he was “recognizing [Kushner’s] a great playwright and an important contributor to the cultural life of the city and of the world, actually.” He wrote off Wiesenfeld as “a member of the board with a history of attacking academic freedom, and a history of attacking any views which are at all critical of Israel’s policies.” But he was incensed not just over the Middle East aspect of the controversy, but because he saw the CUNY board overruling John Jay as “a scandalous intrusion on the rights of the faculty, the rights of the students, and a attack on academic freedom and artistic freedom.”