Tony Kushner at John Jay -- Both Giving and Receiving

By John Tarleton, Clarion Associate Editor

[Click here for additional coverage of Kushner's honorary degree.]

Tony Kushner came Friday to John Jay's commencement both to give and to receive.

The Pulitzer Prize winning playwright was awarded the honorary degree that was almost denied to him a month ago by the CUNY Board of Trustees. In turn, he poured himself into the day's event – giving speeches at both the morning and afternoon ceremonies and shaking the hands of all 3,000 members of the Class of 2011 as they exited the stage.

Tony Kushner speaking at the John Jay graduation. (AP photo/Mary Altaffer)

“It was a remarkable act of generosity,” said Karen Kaplowitz, president of the John Jay Faculty Senate. “I never envisioned a full day of Tony Kushner giving two speeches, shaking thousands of hands and winning over the hearts and minds of everyone who was in the building.”

The Kushner controversy began May 2 when the Board of Trustees denied authorization to John Jay College to grant an honorary degree to Kushner after one trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, argued that Kushner was anti-Israel. Kushner subsequently described the attack as “a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs.” After a firestorm of protest, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees reversed the Board's initial decision and voted to grant Kushner an honorary degree.

In his graduation address on Friday, Kushner was at once wry, humorous and heartfelt. Speaking in the torrent of words and images that has been a hallmark of much of his work as a playwright, Kushner began by joking that of all his honorary degrees this was “the one I had to work the hardest for.”

John Jay's motto is “educating for justice” and Kushner encouraged graduates to go forth from their “Acadia on 10th Avenue” to repair the world by using their hard-won knowledge and skills for the greater good.

“Help! Help! Help! The world is calling for you...find the hero in you,” he said.

Kushner urged the graduates to help save democracy from “narrow-minded ideologues who are dragging public debate into the 9th circle of hell.” He also noted that when one kind of injustice is allowed to fester (such as marriage inequality), other ideals of justice are also weakened.

“Justice is God,” he said, and after reciting a passage from the Book of Isaiah that calls for lifting up the downtrodden, Kushner concluded by urging the Class of 2011 to “go forth and bring justice to the world.”

“It was fabulous,” said Blanche Wiesen Cook, a professor of history who led the John Jay faculty procession into a packed Javits Center building where the graduation ceremonies were held. “It was a great triumph of the spirit of academic freedom, democracy and the vision to heal the Earth, heal our hearts and heal the future.”

Kushner's address also received rave reviews from John Jay's newest graduates, for both the serious points he made and the way that he delivered them. Marie Springer, who received a Masters in Public Administration, said she especially valued Kushner's ability to “laugh at himself and make grace of human folly.” Springer said, “He was hysterical...He offered keen insights and a great sense of humor. The whole speech was great.”

“He didn't hold anything back,” said David Marshall IV, the Class of 2011 salutatorian. “That form of communicating is what moves people.” Marshall brought many in the crowd to tears when he followed Kushner by describing how attending John Jay transformed his life after he nearly committed suicide as a college freshman while attending an out-of-state school where he was routinely harassed due to his sexual orientation.

Kushner's speech intrigued Victor Reynoso. An Iraq War veteran who received a B.A. in Criminal Justice, Reynoso is slated to deploy to Afghanistan in January 2012. He said he was previously unaware of Kushner’s work and the controversy over his honorary degree but was now interested in reading Homebody/Kabul, a Kushner play set mostly in Afghanistan during the 1990s. “His speech and all the work he's done makes you want to go and look into him some more,” Reynoso said.

While waiting between ceremonies, Kushner said he was drawn to CUNY students because they are “the most interesting, diverse and smartest students in the whole country.” He said the idea for shaking hands with every student was initiated by Judith Kaye, former Chief Judge of New York State, who also received an honorary degree during the morning ceremony. “It's a wonderful way to meet the kids commencing,” he said.

PSC President Barbara Bowen attended the morning graduation to show her solidarity with both Kushner and the John Jay faculty who had selected him for an honorary degree.

“This is a perfect example of why unions and institutions of self-governance are so important and not just in academia,” added Michael Meeropol, a visiting associate professor of economics at John Jay, who together with Amy Green, a professor of interdisciplinary studies, had formally nominated Kushner for the honorary degree.

Kaplowitz, who was at the forefront of the battle to reinstate Kushner's honorary degree, said that the John Jay Faculty Senate plans to explore how trustees are chosen for the boards of other university systems across the country. Depending on what they learn, she said they may take their findings to the University Faculty Senate during the coming academic year.

“Of the huge pool of potential trustees, many of them do not work for the Governor or the Mayor,” Kaplowitz said. If she had her wish, Tony Kushner might be spending a lot more time around CUNY. “He would be a fabulous,” she said. “I would love to see him as a trustee.”