From University Board Chairman Benno Schmidt today:
“I believe the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees needs to reconsider the Board’s decision to table the motion to approve the award of an honorary degree to Tony Kushner. I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken. But when the board has made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy, review is appropriate and, indeed, mandatory.All well and good. And proof once again that the only effective response to unfair pressure is...counter-pressure!
“Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name. If it were appropriate for us to take politics into account in deciding whether to approve an honorary degree, I might agree with Trustee Wiesenfeld, whose political views on the matters in controversy are not far distant from my own. But it is not right for the Board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here. The proposed honorary degree for Mr. Kushner would recognize him for his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater. Like other honorary degrees, it is not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored. Any other view is impractical as well as wrong in principle. Would we want it thought that we approve of the politics of everyone who receives a CUNY honorary degree? Certainly I have moved the approval of honorary degrees for persons with whose opinions I differ.
“In addition, I am concerned about the procedural unfairness of our action. The objection arose at the eleventh hour without any opportunity for research and preparation necessary for the presentation of a full and balanced appraisal. Accordingly, the Chancellor and I agree that reconsideration of the motion to table the honorary degree for Mr. Kushner is not only the right thing to do, but is our obligation. I will ask the Secretary of the Board to convene an Executive Committee meeting to reconsider this matter.”
But do note that phrase "not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored." So, if Mr Wiesenfeld doesn't like Kushner's screenplay for the film Munich, for example, canceling the award is ok? Dangerous precedent...
(I'll put aside for the moment Schmidt's statement of solidarity with Wiesenfeld's extreme rightist views. Perhaps he's just trying to quell the firestorm on both sides.)
I maintain, though, that the key issue here is not free speech in the abstract (important thought that is) but the utter and deliberate distortion of Kushner's actual views. Wiesenfeld characterized him in terms usually reserved for Holocaust deniers. So I agree with Kushner that someone owes him a direct apology (or at least retraction) for putting slanderous statements about him in the public record.
Let's save the "Israel-haters have free speech rights, too" for another time--when such a person needs defending. Here Kushner's own respectful record of nuanced dissent from Israeli-Likud military policy is defensible enough for to justify his not being academically blacklisted.