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Tony Kushner and the Corporatization of CUNY

My parallel experience of being smeared by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld has convinced me of the very real threat to academic freedom

The taboo surrounding critical discussion of Israel in the United States never ceases to amaze me. But when the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) recently decided not to grant an honorary degree to Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner because of his views on Israel, it felt personal.

Three months ago, I found myself at the center of a similar controversy over my appointment to teach a course in Middle East Politics at Brooklyn College, a CUNY school. Lacking any evidence to support the charge, a local politician described me as "pro-suicide bomber" and pressed for my dismissal. Within 48 hours and before I had held a single session of the course, the college administration intervened to cancel my appointment. My case set off a groundswell of support from academics and activists around the world and Brooklyn College eventually reinstated me just in time for classes to begin.

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the board member behind the Kushner controversy, characterised Kushner's views on Israel as "extremist" and therefore unworthy of CUNY's recognition. Never mind that Tony Kushner is widely considered one of the greatest living American playwrights, his take on Israel was offensive to our man Wiesenfeld. When asked by the New York Times to elaborate on his objections, Wiesenfeld offered this piece of wisdom: "People who worship death for their children are not human … [The Palestinians] have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history."

This kind of behaviour is nothing new for Jeffrey Wiesenfeld. He was involved with the smear campaign against me earlier this year, charging CUNY professors with running a "cabal that suppresses the very academic freedom they claim to uphold". One can only wonder if his failure to keep me out of the classroom earlier this semester influenced his determination to block Kushner's award. In any case, Wiesenfeld seems to fancy himself an ideological enforcer on Israel.

Though bizarre, Wiesenfeld's antics are only symptomatic of a deeper malaise. Both my and Kushner's cases point to one of the more threatening crises facing CUNY and American universities generally: corporatisation and the adoption of a boardroom mentality in university administrations. As CUNY relies ever more on private funding and student tuition – already the majority of its budget – this once-great public institution gradually concerns itself primarily with cultivating and protecting a brand image. It seems CUNY no longer has much time for those with views likely to upset the largesse of its donors. This is quite simply poisonous for an institution grounded on the free exchange of ideas.

Fortunately, there is still hope. In both instances, a small but diverse and dedicated group of people helped mobilise responses and direct media attention. This is a lingering but powerful residue of academic democracy, for which CUNY was once famous, and it seems to be growing.

I draw one immediate conclusion from the cases in question: the board of trustees is an unnecessary body that should be disbanded. It comprises 17 political appointees who generally lack experience as educators and who – nearly all coming from business backgrounds – have little claim to represent the university's intellectual diversity. At a minimum, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld should submit his resignation, if only to spare CUNY any further embarrassment.

Although the board, on Monday night, cancelled its earlier decision and voted unanimously to grant Tony Kushner his honorary degree, the award itself was never the primary issue. The academic community needs to use this opportunity to launch a debate about the galloping corporatisation of American universities and the undue amount of power given to petty individuals like Wiesenfeld. The whole sordid affair would never have occurred were the university democratically controlled by those who actually use it.

© 2020 The Guardian

Kristofer Petersen-Overton

Kristofer Petersen-Overton is a political science doctoral student at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Centre and an adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College. He formerly worked with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza

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