As Carol mentioned, CUNY has now reversed its decision not to award an honorary degree to radical anti-Israel playwright Tony Kushner. CUNY’s original decision, which so outraged the liberal intelligentsia that it immediately led to no fewer than three New York Times articles, was based on the brave stand of board member Jeffrey Wiesenfeld. Mr. Wiesenfeld quite justifiably felt that while Mr. Kushner had enjoyed considerable success, statements such as “I can unambivalently say that it is a terrible historical problem that modern Israel came into existence” classified him as an “extremist” and that “no extremist from any quarter is a good face for any university.”
The radical university establishment reacted, of course, with howls of outrage, arguing that the refusal to issue an honorary degree was somehow closing off or narrowing academic debate (I didn’t realize that open academic debate depended on the granting of honorary degrees to its participants). Everyone knows, however, that this argument was fundamentally disingenuous. These same faculty members would have reacted with equally intense howls of outrage had CUNY chosen to confer an honorary degree even on mainstream conservatives, if those conservatives held distasteful views on national security, or marriage, or Israeli–Palestinian relations.
But the reality is even worse. It was not so long ago that CUNY faculty members tried to punish professor K. C. Johnson merely because he published an op-ed criticizing their violations of academic freedom. In other words, their definition of academic freedom encompassed the right not to be criticized (K. C. Johnson’s academic freedom was immaterial). But now, I suppose, the right of academic freedom is even broader. Radicals not only have a right not to be criticized, they have a right to awards.