Over the past year, it seems as if faculty at the City University of New York have done everything they can to make it seem as if hostility to Israel is the institution‘s official policy. First came Brooklyn College‘s decision to assign as the one and only required book for all incoming students a book penned by boycott-divestment-sanctions advocate Moustafa Bayoumi. The work contained such preposterous (and wholly unsupported) arguments as between 1987 and 2001, the U.S. government approach toward “Arab Americans” was “more often used to limit the speech of Arab Americans in order to cement U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Then, to open spring term, Brooklyn‘s Political Science Department assigned an M.A. class a graduate student who hadn‘t even passed his qualifying exams–but did possess the requisite wildly anti-Israel views. Then, to complete the trifecta, John Jay‘s faculty wanted to confer an honorary degree on BDS backer Tony Kushner, who has remarked that “I can unambivalently say that I think that it’s a terrible historical problem that modern Israel came into existence.”
At this point, the CUNY trustees finally stepped in to put a stop to the nonsense. At the urging of Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who has a long record both of supporting excellence at the institution and of standing up to extremist voices among the faculty, the Trustees exercised their authority and overrode John Jay‘s ill-considered decision.
As Wiesenfeld subsequently explained, “I would no differently oppose a racist for an honorary degree who personifies himself by calumny against a people . . . An honorary degree is wholly within the absolute discretion of the board to grant. It identifies the University with accomplished, generous citizens or public figures. It is also a tool which highlights the University and enhances its image in the educational marketplace. Every year, there are candidates that some trustees may not particularly favor. We can all express dissent where we warrant it – it is our right . . . No extremist from any quarter is a good face for any University — from far left or far right. Honorary degrees are public declarations of esteem by the university community conveyed to the honoree; for the university, they are image-building, advertising and publicity as well. The denial of the honorary degree to Mr. Kushner, despite his protestations, was a reflection of his long-held radical sentiments, which are a matter of indisputable and contextual public record. CUNY should remain a place of comfort and welcome for all of our students, faculty and administrators – including supporters of the Jewish State.“
The trustees’ action, alas, generated criticism from CUNY faculty institutions—whose leaders seem to be very sympathetic to Kushner’s viewpoints. Citing alleged dangers to academic freedom (though I’m unaware of an occasion in which she has expressed concerned about protecting the “academic freedom” of people with whom she disagrees), University Faculty Senate chair Sandi Cooper accused Wiesenfeld of inappropriately criticizing Kushner for his “presumed anti-Israel sentiments.”
That the highest elected faculty official at CUNY could describe such Kushner statements as Israel is involved in “a deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people”; or “the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity”; or “Israel is a creation of the U.S., bought and paid for” as merely “presumed” anti-Israel statements shows just how pervasive anti-Israel sentiment among the faculty has become. (Perhaps next week, Cooper can pen a letter discussing Hamas’ “presumed” support for suicide-murder attacks.) In Cooper’s vision of the University, it appears, trustees must rubber-stamp all faculty decisions, no matter how misguided.
PSC president Barbara Bowen—well-known for her anti-Israel extremism—likewise chimed in with faux outrage. The decision, she screeched, “is an insult to the academic judgment of the faculty,” and “an attempt to close off and narrow public debate.” Completing the anti-Israel trio was AAUP activist Ellen Schrecker, who has made a career out of detecting a non-existent danger of “McCarthyism” in an academic environment in which devotees of her viewpoint dominate. Schrecker asserted that it’s McCarthyism for trustees to exercise their legal authority to confer (or not confer) honorary degrees. Such a bizarre claim suggests that the Yeshiva professor fundamentally misunderstands the topic that has been the subject of so much of her scholarship.
In general, the argument that academic freedom applies to the awarding of honorary degrees is a dubious one. That academic freedom applies to such an extent that Trustees are required to ignore their powers in the academic system and simply rubber-stamp anyone whom the faculty wants to honor, no matter how offensive the honoree’s views, strikes me as a very difficult argument to make. That figures such as Cooper, Bowen, and Schrecker have nonetheless chosen to make it—and have chosen to slime Wiesenfeld in the process—reflects very poorly on the quality of faculty leadership at CUNY, and shows just how necessary the Trustees’ decision actually was.