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Vol. 55, No.4 May 06, 2011
BOWEN: REGARDLESS OF HIS VIEWS,
Never missing an opportunity to take time away from contract negotiations to burnish her anti-Israel credentials, our Dear Leader, Barbara Bowen, has waded into the controversy over whether the Trustees acted appropriately when they decided not to award an honorary degree to Tony Kushner because (along with several CUNY professors) he signed a petition advocating boycott/divestment/sanctions against Israel and because of his repeated anti-Israel statements.
According to the Dear Leader, Kushner deserves the degree because of his “long history of public defense of CUNY and his courage as a speaker of truth to power.” It seems, alas, that by “defense of CUNY,” our Dear Leader really means “defense of me.” We hear from a couple of New Caucus sources that Kushner held a fundraiser for Dr. Bowen's election campaign; now, Dr. Bowen is paying him back. And her New Caucus allies are going even further, demanding—in the name of academic freedom, no less—that the trustee who spoke against Kushner, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, resign from the board.
The First Amendment guarantees Mr. Kushner the right to criticize Israel as often as he wants. It likewise ensures that he has every right to ruminate on how the creation of Israel was a “mistake.” And it gives him the right to sign as many petitions as he desires demanding that other nations boycott Israeli cultural events, or to remain on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, which “supports the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, through divestment from companies that profit from the occupation.” (Kushner claims that he only supports certain types of boycotts against Israel, but has remained on the JVP board.)
But the First Amendment doesn't guarantee Mr. Kushner, or anyone else, the right to receive an honorary degree. No one would argue—to take an extreme example—that the Trustees must accept a recommendation from local faculty to award an honorary degree to someone who holds racist or ethnically inflammatory views.
Indeed, Bowen ally Ellen Schrecker unintentionally confirmed the wisdom of the trustees' decision. She complained that by denying Kushner an honorary degree, the college would be making a “quasi-official statement” on Middle Eastern affairs. If so, wouldn't John Jay have made a “quasi-official statement” in support of Kushner's assault on cultural freedom, and his prominent role in Jewish Voice for Peace if the trustees hadn't acted?
It's hard to imagine that Dr. Bowen would be charging “academic freedom violation” if the Trustees had—on the proper grounds that the University doesn't want to use its honorary degree platform to associate itself with holders of distasteful views—decided not to award an honorary degree to someone who had advocated boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. Or someone who had written that history would be better if the Palestinians never received a homeland. Or someone who, after expressing sympathy for the “humanity” of apartheid followers, had a long track record of contending that Nelson Mandela's South Africa should be held to a higher, and different, standard than every other country in the world.
In these cases above, Dr. Bowen would have agreed with the decision ideologically. And so doubtless she would have been praising the Trustees' “courage,” not charging “academic freedom violation.” To have done otherwise would have offended her anti-Israel electoral base.
This episode proves yet again that our Dear Leader's definition of academic freedom amounts to little more than the “freedom” of faculty members and institutions who agree with her views to do or say anything they want, free from any checks from administrators or trustees.
Sharad Karkhanis, Ph.D.