May 6, 2011
Benno Schmidt, Chair Board of Trustees
City University of New York
535 E. 80th Street
New York, NY 10075
Dear Benno Schmidt:
I am writing to protest the CUNY Board of Trustees' recent action to override the decision of John Jay College to offer an honorary degree to the playwright Tony Kushner.
I am also writing to find out how to return the honorary degree from John Jay that I was awarded in 2008. It was the greatest honor I had ever received; and my gorgeous yellow-and-blue satin hood, which I am thinking of giving to Mr. Kushner, is—or at least was—one of my most cherished possessions, since I had been selected for the honor by the John Jay faculty in recognition of my scholarship on academic freedom.
But with honor comes responsibility. I cannot, therefore, remain silent when the institution that once recognized the value of academic freedom now demeans it. That freedom is more than just the protection of the teaching, research, and public activities of college and university professors. It also extends to the entire campus, fostering the openness and creativity that allow American higher education to flourish.
When an academic institution lets extraneous political considerations override educational priorities, not only is it limiting its members' free expression, but it is also undermining the quality of the education it offers. Censoring outside speakers, including honorary-degree recipients, like refusing to hire instructors or firing them because of their reputed political views, tells students, faculty members, and the rest of the public that some ideas cannot be allowed on campus. Such constraints negate the sacred mission of higher education within a democratic society.
I received my honorary degree from CUNY because of my scholarship on the McCarthy period, when over a hundred professors (including at least 15 from the New York City municipal colleges) lost their jobs for political reasons. I assume that no one on CUNY's Board of Trustees or in the administration wants a repeat of those dark days. Certainly, the John Jay faculty and administration, whose judgment the CUNY Trustees overrode, realize the value of academic freedom today.
I urge you, therefore, to reconsider your decision with regard to Tony Kushner and to restore to this eminent, albeit controversial, American playwright the honorary degree that the faculty at John Jay has appropriately awarded him.
Professor of History