Playwright Tony Kushner is to be receive an honorary degree at Brandeis University, a Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university (and my alma mater). Various groups, led by the Zionist Organization of America, are criticizing Brandeis for honoring Kushner, because of his harsh anti-Israel views. The interesting thing, though, is Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz's response to the controversy:
Brandeis bestows honorary degrees as a means of acknowledging the outstanding accomplishments or contributions of individual men and women in any of a number of fields of human endeavor. Just as Brandeis does not inquire into the political opinions and beliefs of faculty or staff before appointing them, or students before offering admission, so too the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.
Over the years, Brandeis has honored hundreds of men and women of distinction whose personal views, I am sure, span the full spectrum of political discourse, and the University applies no litmus test requiring honorary degree recipients to hold particular views on Israel or topics of current political debate.
Mr. Kushner is not being honored because he is a Jew, and he is not being honored for his political opinions. Brandeis is honoring him for his extraordinary achievements as one of this generation's foremost playwrights, whose work is recognized in the arts and also addresses Brandeis's commitment to social justice.
There is an obvious contradiction between Brandeis President Reinharz stating that "the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions" and his stating that the school is honoring Kushner in part because his work "addresses Brandeis's commitment to social justice."
Moreover, given that Brandeis has officially (and not just in this context) stated that it has a "commitment to social justice," any decision Brandeis makes can be judged in that light. So it's entirely fair, based on Reinharz's own premises, to ask whether Kushner's views on Israel advance "social justice."
Two other points: I've been appalled for some time that Brandeis,
allegedly which perceives itself one of the nation's top universities, now includes a "commitment to social justice" in its mission statement. When I was a student there, its much more appropriate motto was (and probably still officially is) "truth even unto its innermost parts." But a precommitment to some particular notion of "social justice" [update: itself an ideologically charged term; why not just "justice"?] can obviously interfere with the pursuit of truth, and a university's mission should be the pursuit of truth, not furtherance of ideology.
Second, while Reinharz claims that "the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions," Brandeis almost never honors Republicans, and has never, to my knowledge (and I've had correspondence with President Reinharz about this, and he didn't give me any counter-examples), given an honorary degree to anyone more conservative than a moderate Republican.
In sum, it's entirely fair to conclude that Brandeis University does consider the political views of its honorees, but that being harshly anti-Israel (which is apparently consistent with a "commitment to social justice") isn't disqualifying, unlike, say, being a conservative Republican (which apparently is not).
UPDATE: Reader (and fellow Brandeis alum) Mike Feinberg points out that Brandeis offered Jeane Kirkpatrict an honorary degree in 1994, just before Reinharz became president of the university. Prof. Gordon Fellman, in an article in the Boston Jewish Advocate, recounts what happened next:
The movement in question began at a faculty meeting I missed. I was out of town Four Latin Americanists at Brandeis, familiar with Kirkpatrick's influence south of the border, spoke in favor of a motion by one of them, to ask the Trustee to rescind the offer of a degree.
Two days later, I joined colleagues in soliciting signatures to a letter one of them wrote to the Brandeis student newspaper explaining our reasons for protesting a degree for Kirkpatrick. Of about 50 professors canvassed over a weekend, 45 signed the letter, scores more would have had there been time to ask them.
As opposition built, Kirkpatrick, assumedly sensing a lack of support from the university, withdrew. I don't suppose we will see any similar outrage over Kushner, who wrote: "The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community." Quite something for Brandeis, a university named after the most important American Zionist, and whose largest financial supporters, are, according to Kushner, "the most repulsive members of the Jewish community." Anyway, given that there is precedent for an honoree withdrawing under public pressure, I don't see how anyone can ask the Zionist Organization of America and its supporters to restrain themselves from putting the same kinds of pressure on Brandeis the anti-Kirkpatrick folks did.