Frank Episale is an editor, writer, educator, and theatre artist living and working in Brooklyn. He holds a BFA from New York University, an MA from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and an MPhil from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This is his (infrequently updated) blog. He's pretty google-able, if you'd like to know more.

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Thursday
May052011

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, Tony Kushner, and the Assault on Academic Freedom

Tony Kushner is a red herring.

My first academic conference was a graduate Humanities conference at the University of California, Riverside in 2005, while I was still a Masters student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. The keynote speaker that year was Judith/Jack Halberstam, a scholar and activist for whom I have a great deal of respect. During Halbserstam's mostly extemporaneous remarks, s/he took a detour to note what s/he saw as a potential chilling effect on the future of intellectual exchange and academic freedom. Looking back to the "culture wars" of the 1980s and 90s, Halberstam asserted that the war against artists that had been waged in the late 20th century would be waged against teachers and professors in the 21st century. We're next, s/he claimed. They're coming for us.

About eight months later, it should be noted, David Horowitz published his inflammatory (and ludicrous) shot across the academy's bow: The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. a book marked, like much of what has followed, by intellectual dishonesty, out-of-context quotations, a dearth of primary sources, and deliberate distortions of the work of its subjects. Like much of Horowitz's recent work, it disguises these attempts at supressing free speech in the academy as an attempt to preserve free speech in the academy (see his Orwellian, deceptively resonable-sounding "Academic Bill of Rights.")

When I began my doctoral studies in 2006, I was proud to be studying at CUNY. This was partly because of the extraordinary faculty of the Graduate Center's theatre department, many of whose books already adorned my shelves, but also because of the unique and inspiring history of the wider university. Founded as a tuition-free open-admissions institution (though neither free tuition nor open admissions survived the vissisitudes of the late twentieth century), the City University of New York has a long history of intellectual inquiry, community engagement, and the open exchange of ideas and beliefs across an extraordinary range of demographics.

Inevitably, I've suffered some bumps and bruises on the path to my PhD: Intra- and interdepartmental politics often subvert the ideal of collegiality; juggling writing, teaching, and paying bills extends the dissertation process; the two-tier labor system of teaching at the college level is rife with injustice and exploitation; etc. Most of these concerns are familiar to doctoral candidates at any university. They're part of the process: a collision of ideals, and pragmatism, and stamina, and attention span that mark the passage into the profession and help us determine what roles we want to play in the academy.

Most students, doctoral or otherwise, also experience frustration with administration and bureaucracy, particularly at public universities. CUNY is made up of twenty-three institutions that together serve approximately half a million students; there is no way to avoid some red tape entanglements. It should come as no surprise, then, that I have occasionally had to deal with administrative obstacles, both as student and as faculty, over the past several years.

The most disheartening and disillusioning aspect of my doctoral education, though, hasn't been confronting my own lapses in judgment, or the the limitations of my tenacity and time management; or navigating the personality quirks of senior faculty and administrative assistants; or dealing with delayed paychecks and lost paperwork; it has been the increasing centralization and polticization of authority in the university, too often leading to compromises in, and subversions of, open inquiry and academic freedom. 

The latest example, the one that has spurred the writing of this post, is the CUNY Board of Trustees having voted to table a motion to honor Tony Kushner with an honorary degreee from John Jay College. Much has already been written about this debacle, about how Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, an investment consultant who was appointed to the board by former Governor Pataki, voiced his objection to Kushner's award on the basis of alleged anti-Israel statements. The rest of the board, unprepared to defend Kushner, hurried to table the motion and approve the University's other thirty-nine honorary degrees. The next day, the Jewish Week reported on the events; Kushner responded forcefully; the New York Times started covering the story; faculty and students were appalled; John Jay's honorary degree committee was livid; CUNY's union responded; petitions were launched; former honorary degree recipients started threatening to return their degrees; and people with very different views on Israel than Kushner's, from Ed Koch to Andrew Sullivan, spoke out. By the time the Times editorial board weighed in, board chairman Benno Schmidt had called for an emergency meeting to reconsider the decision to snub Kushner.

Along the way, we all learned a little more about Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld.

(For a more thorough recounting of the Wiesenfeld-Kushner saga, check out the blog kept by the Graduate Center Advocate here).

It seems almost certain at this point that the Board of Trustees will reverse itself, and offer the honor to Kushner (who may or may not accept, given the drama of the past few days). But the resolution of this specific issue shouldn't be the end of the conversation.

Which brings me back to how I began this post: Tony Kushner is a red herring. Important as they are, even Israel, Zionism, and Palestine are, in this case, distractions from the core issue (though it is indeed troubling how often this debate, and this dynamic, catalyze such controversies). I've received a few responses from friends and colleagues asking how refusing to honor Kushner is repression of free speech: after all, no one is censoring him; they just don't want to honor him. Others have pointed out that they don't like "honorary degrees" anyway, seeing them as a hollow gesture that inadvertently devalues the years of work that go into receiving ACTUAL degrees. Jonathan Mandell, theatre critic for the Faster Times, recently posted to his twitter account that "Kushner has been given 15 degrees from institutions of higher learning. He'll survive without a 16th." These objections, too, are beside the point.

By choosing to override the decision of John Jay's honorary degree committee, the Board of Trustees subverted both academic freedom and the autonomy of John Jay College's adminstrators and faculty. CUNY has long allowed its constituent institutions a great deal of autonomy, in part because a number of them (City College, Brooklyn College) predate CUNY itself. This has its advantages and disadvantages, of course, but one of the primary strengths of the City University system has been that its colleges maintain distinct identities and its faculties are able to exercise significant agency in how to best serve their respective communities. There is certainly room for streamlining certain aspects of the system, and an eye toward reform is a necessary part of university governance. But a disturbing trend has emerged throughout the university: the consolidation of power at the top of the proverbial food chain, disenfranchising both students and faculty.

Like Horowitz/Wiesenfeld-style attacks on academic freedom, this consolidation of authority attempts to masquerade as positive change for the university. In a lettter to the New York Times, Wiesenfeld wrote that "CUNY should remain a place of comfort and welcome for all of our students, faculty and administrators—including supporters of the Jewish state." This distorted notion of what academic freedom entails seems to imply that students should be "free" not to be exposed to ideas that will offend them, or make them uncomfortable.

Very similar arguments were made by State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, when he pressured the Brooklyn College administration to fire Adjunct Lecturer Kristofer Petersen-Overton, calling him "pro-suicide bomber." The administration did try to fire Petersen-Overton, but they pretended to be enforcing a policy that did not exist, attacking Petersen-Overton on the basis of his credentials and saying that they were attempting to preserve the high standards of the university. In reality, they were bowing to pressure from Hikind, Wiesenfeld, and others who deliberately distorted Petersen-Overton's politics and misrepresented the content of his syllabus. This political controversy was used in an attempt to undermine the agency and autonomy of the Political Science department, who had decided as a faculty to hire Petersen-Overton for the semester. (Read more about the Petersen-Overton case here.) 

(When I say these distortions were deliberate, I may be giving too much credit to Wiesenfeld, et al.; I am not in fact convinced that they have the capacity to evaluate sources of information, or to navigate the complexities of academic writing. This is particularly concerning since Wiesenfeld, as a trustee of a major university, must be seen as an influence on students; how can I teach my students the importance of rigorous and ethical research practices when the people in charge of the university apparently haven't mastered those skills?)

CUNY's Graduate Council, which consists of elected representatives of various graduate programs throughout the system, has proposed a change to their bylaws that would prohibit students from running for Secretary of the Council, a move that council leadership says is not "substantive," but is pushing for anyway. (Read the Doctoral Student Council's response to this proposal here.)

In June, the CUNY Trustees will vote on a resolution that will give them a great deal more power over curriculum at the colleges. While University bylaws now state that "the faculty shall be responsible . . . for the formulation" of curriculum, the proposed changes would drastically reduce that authority to “the faculty makes policy recommendations” regarding curriculum. The ostensible reason for this change is to make it easier for students to transfer between colleges. The transfer issue is a real one, but the solution is a Trojan horse. (Read the CUNY union's statement on this proposal here.)

This last proposal, like the Kushner debacle, raises the question: who are the Trustees anyway? Who are these people who are in charge of university policy, and who seem to be taking more and more control over the fundamental decisions and structures of the colleges themselves?

The City University of New York's Board of Trustees is made up of seventeen members, fifteen of whom are political appointees (ten from the governor; five from the mayor). The president of the University Student Senate serves as a student representative. The chair of the University Faculty Senate serves as a faculty representative, but is a non-voting member because the trustees often have to vote on matters of labor relations. As the Graduate Center Advocate points out, "Of the fif­teen appointed mem­bers of the board, not one has a Ph.D., many have only B.A.s or M.B.A.s. and very few have any real expe­ri­ence in acad­e­mia beyond admin­is­tra­tion. How these appointees, then, are sup­posed to rep­re­sent and pro­tect the inter­ests of the stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff of the uni­ver­sity is a ques­tion worth ask­ing."

(The Advocate also printed an editorial last year, following through by calling for a radical restructuring of the board that would give far more representation and agency to students, faculty, and staff of the university.)

That the trustees are, on the face of it, not qualified to run an institution of higher learning, doesn't always seem to matter much. They often take the advice of faculty and administrators, deferring to the judgment of those who seem to know what they are talking about. With an increasing number of moves throughout the university to centralize and consolidate power, however, the importance of the board is coming more and more into focus.

The crisis of leadership at CUNY is, in my opinion, central to a much wider attack on the academy, and on education and intellectualism in the United States. From Wisconsin Republicans demanding access to the e-mails of a professor who ran afoul of them politically to the current "war on teachers" being waged in legislatures and newsrooms around the country, it seems that Professor Halberstam may very well have been right.

We're next. They're coming for us.

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Reader Comments (3)

This is great, Frank. Your question about who comprises a board of trustees goes directly to the heart of the matter. Who is deciding what it is that our students ought to know? Who decides what it is that we teach them? The men and women who do so ought, certainly, to understand what it is that we do in the first place.

May 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

I'm glad to see this discussion about the wider balance of power b/w the trustees and colleges.

May 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrdavis

Interesting commentary. I normally observe the "war on teachers" at the K-12 level, where the war appears to have already been entirely lost. (All the curriculum is centralized to such a degree that I don't think there's really any room left for it to get much worse. Though I suppose the current shift from state standards to national standards is in fact concentrating the decisions with a smaller group of people than ever, it makes little difference in the lives of most teachers because the teachers lost their own say in these decisions years and years ago.)

Oh, and your "war on teachers" hyperlink at the end of this post isn't working.

May 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGayle Madwin

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