Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning playwright of Angels in America, will be receiving a honorary degree from the City University of New York next month after all, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s graduation ceremony on June 3rd.
Kushner was under the impression that he would simply accept the honorary degree — the 15th of his career — after John Jay told him they wanted to give it to him. He was unaware that the CUNY Board of Trustees had to sign off on John Jay’s offer after they had made it to him.
But even though the Board’s vote is normally just a formality, they approved all candidates but Kushner and tabled his nomination at a meeting last week, after CUNY board member Jeffrey Wiesenfeld attacked Kushner for what he described as his anti-Israel views. Wiesenfeld seemed particularly incensed at Kushner’s alleged use of the term ethnic cleansing, and said in an interview, “My mother would call Tony Kushner a kapo.”
Kushner said that he was unaware that of the approval meeting, was given no chance to defend himself, and that his political beliefs were grossly mischaracterized. When the board overruled John Jay’s desire to give him the degree, they faced a huge backlash of criticism, which increased throughout last week. Kushner’s many allies in academic and artistic circles came to his defense. Other honorary degree recipients, including Barabra Erenreich and Michael Cunnigham, planned to return their degrees. Protestors held signs outside the premiere of his new play at the Public Theater, supporting him and denouncing CUNY. In keeping CUNY from awarding the degree, Wiesenfeld opened CUNY to charges not just of being intolerant of any views critical about Israel, but to charges of academic freedom in general.
Under mounting pressure, the seven member CUNY Executive Committee met last night, and voted to overrule the 17 member Board of Trustees and uphold John Jay’s original decision. There was some doubt about whether Kushner would accept the degree after all of this, which he reportedly no longer wanted but seemed reluctantly willing to accept if it proved important to John Jay. Michael Busch, a CUNY instructor who has been closely following the story, tweets that Kushner has told him he will, in fact, accept the degree next month.