Now that the CUNY-Tony Kushner flap appears to have wrapped itself up, let's reflect for a moment. Because -- correct me if I'm wrong -- as far as I'm concerned, the system worked.
How can I say that? Isn't the very fact that Kushner was originally rejected for the degree proof of some sort of failing?
Well, yes, obviously. But the whole point of having a system in place regarding academic freedom is to have failsafes and redundancy. A working system of academic freedom is not one in which nobody ever screws up. A working system is when those screw ups are rectified by other actors in the process, protecting the freedom of persons to make statements or hold positions others find distasteful.
So let's go to the timeline here:
1) CUNY faculty votes to award Tony Kushner an honorary degree.
2) A CUNY trustee delivers a speech mischaracterizing Kushner's views on Israel.* This persuades a minority of trustees to vote to block Kushner's award.
3) Everyone flips out. The New York Times, J Street, Ed Koch, Jeffrey Goldberg ... people who like Kushner, and people who find his views on Israel deeply wrong. Everyone.
4) CUNY reverses its decision and decides to grant the honorary degree.
5) Kushner indicates he'll accept the award.
As far as I'm concerned, that transition from #2 to #3? That's kind of what we want to happen, no? I mean, yes, obviously, it'd be better if Jeffrey Wiesenfeld wasn't a dick in the first place. But the next best thing is the part where the entire social community unites across their partisan divides and says "wrong, bucko." And then the board immediately reverses itself. Hurray! The great failures of academic freedom aren't cases like this -- they're the ones where the suppression happens, and the world collectively shrugs.
A culture of open inquiry and academic freedom isn't one where nobody ever tries to stifle opinions they dislike (anymore than it is one in which nobody promotes an idiotic idea). A culture of academic freedom is one in which, when those missteps happen, the broader community acts quickly and decisively in defense of the enterprise. That, by all appearances, is what happened here. And in that, it was a great success.
* Kushner has said that Israel's founding involved ethnic cleansing, and has expressed grave misgivings about Israel's founding in the first place. He has not supported a campaign of boycott against the state. Obviously, I disagree, strongly, with anyone who thinks Israel shouldn't have been founded. The ethnic cleansing claim is a factual question towards which I am unqualified to opine. The historian Kushner relies on, Benny Morris, argues that some cleansing occurs but that it was not official policy -- it was an ad hoc decision by individual commanders on the ground.