I suspect many, but not all of you, are aware of the recent controversy surrounding Tony Kushner’s receipt of an honorary degree from the City University of New York (CUNY). Here’s a brief recap.
Several weeks ago, John Jay College, (a member of the CUNY system) following standard procedure, submitted its request to the CUNY Board of trustees that Tony Kushner receive an honorary degree. Kushner is, of course, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of the play Angels in America, along with many other notable works. During their considerations Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who had been appointed by Republican former Governor Pataki and had been an aide to Republican former Senator D’Amato, attacked Kushner for being anti-Israel and urged the rejection of John Jay’s request. Seven of the 12 trustees voted to grant the degree anyway, but since a super majority of nine was required, the request was tabled. This is the first time a request for an honorary degree had been tabled since 1961.
A tremendous outcry ensued. The story made the front page of the New York Times. Under growing pressure, the executive committee of the CUNY Board of Trustees met in closed session and voted to confer the degree. Kushner, who called the attack by Wiesenfeld slander, and previously said he would no longer accept the degree even if it were offered, then reversed himself and accepted it because he did not want to disappoint the people at John Jay.
That much is widely known, but fewer are aware of the story behind the headlines. In early 2009 my older brother, Michael, retired from the faculty position he held for 40 years at Western New England College. Since then he’s been a visiting professor at John Jay. He’s organized two lecture series there: one in 2010 that focused on the 1950’s and one this year that covered the 1960’s. After Tony Kushner spoke at one of the events, my brother and another professor set in motion the process that resulted in Tony’s honorary degree nomination.
When the right wing discovered my brother’s involvement they went ballistic. Phyllis Chesler blogged: “When I first described the City University of New York as the Communist University of New York, I had no idea how right I was. It seems that Dr. Michael Meeropol, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, is one of two professors at John Jay College who nominated Tony Kushner for this honorary degree.” Another blogger stated that Chesler had “discovered who it was that started this mess. It turns out that it was none other than Michael Meeropol…. Meeropol is, of course, the son of Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg….”
It was presented as a nefarious leftist conspiracy. As one of the comments on Phyllis Chesler’s blog stated: “I am not surprised that one of the Meeropols, who were (in my opinion) the child victims of an injustice ... but who grew up to be the worst sort of left-wing conspiracy-mongers and cheerleaders/enablers of the ugliest political causes, and who instead of dealing with their grief and outrage in mature ways chose instead to build their entire lives and careers as professional grievance-mongers, were behind Kushner's nomination in the first place.”
It seems by the end of the quote above that I was also in on the plot. But I can’t take credit. I knew nothing about this until I read it in the newspapers. And my brother can’t even claim the honor of initiating this communist coup, since Tony’s already received 15 honorary degrees from other academic institutions. In any event, Tony Kushner’s brilliant literary achievements coupled with his presentation in my brother’s lecture series, plus the fact that he’d given so generously of his time to the students, made him an obvious candidate for an honorary degree from John Jay.
To receive a notification whenever there is a new post to Out on a Limb Together, subscribe now.