- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Tony Kushner won a Pulitzer Prize for “Angels in America,” his epic play about the AIDS epidemic, and is a New York literary fixture who has received more than a dozen honorary degrees from American colleges and universities.

So it was a shock when the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York voted last month to withhold a promised honorary degree after a trustee said the playwright was anti-Israel.

CUNY later backtracked under a barrage of criticism, and Kushner will accept his degree on Friday.

But he is still smarting over how a seemingly uncontroversial invitation to a graduation ceremony ended up with trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld blasting Kushner as “a Jewish anti-Semite” and a “kapo,” a term for Jews who worked for the Nazis in concentration camps.

“I’m not happy about having been called a kapo in the Jerusalem Post,” Kushner said.

In the aftermath, critics including The New York Times editorial board called for Wiesenfeld to resign. Some also now are questioning the way trustees are chosen at CUNY, a public university system with 262,000 degree-seeking students at 23 schools. Trustees now are chosen by either the governor or the mayor.

Karen Kaplowitz, head of the faculty senate at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said a committee of faculty members would study how other university systems are governed and make recommendations for possible changes.

“We do think there are better ways,” Kaplowitz said. She suggested that an expert panel might be convened to recommend candidates.

The union that represents faculty issued a statement calling for Wiesenfeld’s resignation and for changes to the way trustees are chosen.

Union head Barbara Bowen said the board should be composed “of qualified people with genuine expertise in higher education, who will respect the faculty, staff and students in whose interests they serve.”

Disputes over honorary degrees are not unusual but typically involve complaints from outside the university administration.

In 2008, students and faculty members at Washington University in St. Louis decried the granting of an honorary degree to anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly.

When President Barack Obama was invited to give a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in 2009, thousands protested in an online petition, saying his views on abortion contradicted Roman Catholic teachings.

The brouhaha over Kushner was unusual because a trustee who wants to scuttle an honorary degree would typically voice his or her concerns in private rather than airing them first at a public meeting, as Wiesenfeld did on May 2, said Scott Jaschik, editor of the website Inside Higher Ed.

“Controversies are common,” Jaschik said. “This one played out in an unusual way.”

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