Support Free Speech on CUNY Campuses: Reject Board of Trustees Decision on Tony Kushner

We the undersigned write to the CUNY Board of Trustees to say that we are appalled by the recent refusal to confer an honorary degree upon Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner on the grounds of his alleged political beliefs.    
DEAR CUNY BOARD OF TRUSTEES: Benno Schmidt, Charles Shorter, Carol Robles-Roman, Rita DiMartino, Hugo Morales, Freida Foster, Joseph Lhota, Judah Gribetz, Kathleen Pesile, Peter Pantaleo, Philip Berry, Cory Provost, Sam Sutton, Sandi Cooper, Valerie Lancaster Beal, Wellington Chen, and Jeffrey Wiesenfeld,

We the undersigned write to tell you that we are appalled by the recent refusal to confer an honorary degree upon Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner on the grounds of his alleged political beliefs.    

1.)  We believe that free speech and academic freedom are essential to an institution of higher learning.  No member of CUNY - faculty, student, administrator, or trustee - should use his or her position to determine the legitimacy of the political views of others. We believe in courageous engagement and respectful disagreement: neither of which the Board of Trustees has displayed in their recent meeting.  No member of the board should base decisions on his or her political views.  

2.) We hold that New York City, a metropolis that is a beacon of diversity for millions worldwide, must not become a place where intolerance of diverse opinions, including those related to the conflict in the Middle East, is encouraged.  We cannot hope for peace in other places if we thwart intellectual rigor, courage, and respect at home.  We believe that a public university for this city must reflect the diversity of its population.  Intellectually, this means accepting a plurality of voices on any given issue.  

3.) We assert that the decision to table Mr. Kushner's nomination during the May 2, 2011 board meeting, which effectively refused the faculty's request to award the honorary degree, does not represent our values.  With this action, the CUNY Board of Trustees has tarnished the reputation of an academic institution in which thousands of faculty, adjuncts, students, and administrators have invested time, resources, and good faith. Decisions like these undermine the efforts of educators, the development of students, and the reputation of the entire institution. Moreover, the misrepresentation of Mr. Kushner's words is a poor example for our community of learners.

In your efforts to protect the CUNY community from what Mr. Wiesenfeld has labeled "radical politics," you have set a dangerous precedent, effectively discouraging dialogue about Israel or the Middle East and silencing voices that do not share Mr. Wiesenfeld's stance.  When we refuse credit, honor, and/or opportunity based on allegations of political beliefs, we discourage others not only from voicing similar political beliefs, but from venturing to express political ideas at all.  We find this detrimental to the building and maintaining of intellectual integrity in academic environments.

WE SUPPORT the scheduling of an emergency session of the Board of Trustees on Monday, May 9, 2011.  We urge that the concerns articulated here are reflected in that meeting.  We encourage a balanced discussion of Mr. Kushner's nomination.
WE REQUEST public apologies to Mr. Kushner and to the students, faculty, and administration of John Jay College and the larger CUNY system for the unprofessional proceedings of the CUNY Board of Trustees in tabling Mr. Kushner's case.

WE STRONGLY URGE the Board of Trustees to approve John Jay College's nomination of Mr. Kushner for an honorary doctorate.  

WE RECOMMEND the organization of a public forum dedicated to this matter, where Board members can explain their positions in open dialogue with the community they serve.

WE REQUEST a sincere declaration of the Board's renewed commitment to free speech and academic freedom on CUNY campuses.  

Thank you for your consideration.

Written by students, faculty, and alumni of the PhD Program in Theatre at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
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