Controversy at CUNY: An Interview with Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner’s latest play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Guide to the Scriptures opened this month in New York to critical acclaim. But praise for Kushner, whom many consider the greatest living American playwright, was drowned out by outrage at the CUNY Board of Trustees’ decision to deny him an honorary degree from John Jay College. On May 2, the board met to rubberstamp the entire group of notables slated to receive honorary degrees from the various CUNY campuses. Before the vote was taken, trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld—no stranger to controversy—voiced his objection to Kushner’s nomination based on what he considered the playwright’s unacceptable political views as regards Israel. The Board of Trustees ultimately removed Kushner’s name from consideration.
In response, thousands of students, faculty, and others from around the country mounted a campaign in Kushner’s defense. The angry chorus of voices demanding that Kushner be restored to the list of honored nominees ultimately forced the CUNY’s hand. Benno Schmidt, the chairman of the board, called an emergency meeting for May 9, where the executive committee of trustees voted unanimously to overturn their previous decision and grant Kushner the award. I spoke with Tony Kushner on behalf of the GC Advocate just hours after the emergency meeting to discuss the momentous reversal, the politics of free thought and expression in higher education, and the playwright’s close connections to the CUNY community.
To begin with, can you give us a sense of your immediate reaction to today’s events? Were you happy with the Board of Trustees’ decision to reverse their earlier vote, and grant you the honorary degree from John Jay?
Kushner: Yes, absolutely. I am happy they reversed the decision that they made last week. I recognize it was exclusively the result of the enormous protests mounted by the faculty and students of CUNY and of people all over, and I am very, very grateful to everyone who protested. I realize that it has a lot to do with things that are bigger than me. But I think the protests held the board to account, and really made them change their decision and I think that it is appropriate that they did that.
You originally said that you wouldn’t accept the degree even if the board reversed course. Is this still true? And if so, do you plan on speaking at the commencement ceremony?
Kushner: I‘ve been contacted by several people on the faculty of John Jay, the president of John Jay and Karen Kaplowitz, president of the faculty senate, who have all asked me to accept if I am offered the degree, or I guess I should say accept for the second time, since I had already accepted the first time, and I intend to do that, yes. I am really looking forward to being at the commencement ceremony on June 3, and celebrating everyone who is graduating. My understanding is that we are supposed to deliver a speech at commencement. Certainly Mr. Wiesenfeld was under this impression, and as we know he’s always accurate, so I am assuming that I will.