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Who Deserves to Be a Trustee of an American University?

My colleague Jacques Berlinerblau has rightly written that Tony Kushner deserves an apology from the CUNY board of trustees, which last week, at the behest of trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, rescinded an honorary degree that John Jay College wanted to grant Kushner. But Jacques doesn’t go far enough. The basis on which Wiesenfeld came to his conclusion speaks to an appalling feature of contemporary academic life—the role of know-nothings and yahoos in governing universities whose commitments and obligations they do not begin to understand.

Wiesenfeld holds a high position at Bernstein Investment Research and Management, whose Web site declares: “Putting sophisticated planning tools and expert advice to work for you, we help you make well-informed financial decisions.”  I hope, for their clients’ sake, that their expert advice has been more thorough than Wiesenfeld’s research on Kushner. For in this particular university matter, Wiesenfeld displays a weirdly warped idea of intellectual pursuits. His idea of research is like Dick Cheney’s idea of WMD: in two words, cherry picking.

Cheney cherry-picked claims about Saddam Hussein and weapons development. Wiesenfeld cherry-picked certain quotes attributed to Kushner. He was impressed by the fact that a left-wing Web site approved of Kushner. The only words of Kushner’s of interest to him—and Kushner, it must be said, is not a reticent fellow—are a few sentences that circulate on right-wing sites. Without access at the moment to a good library, I cannot find their contexts, and it doesn’t seem to bother Wiesenfeld that he doesn’t pay those contexts the slightest attention, or look at contrary evidence, or think that he is obliged to do so.

Yet this man, who believes himself to be an ethics inspector for CUNY, also said this about Palestinians to the New York Times’ Jim Dwyer: “People who worship death for their children are not human.” Dwyer asked him if he meant that the Palestinians were not human. “They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history,” said this representative of humanity, who presumes to officiate over the university’s moral reputation.

Here are three propositions of which Wiesenfeld is woefully ignorant:  (1) Kushner has written a good deal about Israel. (2) Wiesenfeld’s version of Kushner’s views is sheer stripped-down propaganda. And (3), none of Kushner’s views, actual or attributed—none of them—is relevant to the question of whether he deserves an honorary degree from John Jay College. The idea was to honor him for playwriting, not for his views on the Middle East. It evidently does not occur to Wiesenfeld that a politically correct position on Israel is not a criterion for a university honor. Why is this man on the board of trustees of a university?

Yet Wiesenfeld seems to believe that Middle East views are credentials for the university’s honors.  Possibly they (combined with access to sufficient repositories of capital) are credentials for the choice of university trustees. Wiesenfeld worked for former Gov. George Pataki and former Sen. Al D’Amato. He brings a lot of money to the table. What he does not bring is any intellectual credential I can discern. Yet this man seems to think that a university official—a trustee, no less—is entitled to pop off at will to the effect that Tony Kushner is “an extremist,” that he “spews libel” upon the state of Israel (how does one libel a nation-state?).

Wiesenfeld’s appalling claim appears likely to be rescinded on Monday when CUNY trustees chairman Benno Schmidt convenes the trustees’ executive committee. What will be harder to rescind is the process by which American universities have landed in the hands of people who have little idea what universities are for.

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