Of Kushner, Kerfuffle, and Culture

May 11, 2011

In my last two posts, I have asked that (sadly) perennial question, “Where was the board?” In each of those organizations I wrote about — the Central Asia Institute and the Fiesta Bowl — the board appeared to be on the lam from any serious oversight or even, it appears, much interest, relative to their chief executive’s activities.

In today’s situation, we know exactly where the board was — and that’s the problem. Let’s take a mental stroll into the boardroom of the City University of New York, where the board of trustees was tasked with approving the conferral of honorary degrees for John Jay College. Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Angels in America,” was up for one of the awards selected by the faculty. (CUNY makes podcasts of its board meetings available to the public.) One of the trustees made an impassioned speech against Kushner’s receipt of the award because of his political opinions, which he characterized as anti-Israel. Without further debate, the board approved all the degrees except Kushner’s; the vote on his degree was tabled until after the graduation, and…the world took notice, very quickly. After a public uproar, a letter from Kushner, and a letter from a prior degree recipient wanting to give hers back, the board’s executive committee reconvened a week later and unanimously voted to confer the degree upon Kushner, who accepted the award.

If I were tasked with illustrating the Culture of Inquiry concept we teach at BoardSource, I might consider using this board as the “before” example. The vote was the last item on the agenda and Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the dissenting trustee, apparently surprised the board with his remarks. It appears that the “culture” is to rubberstamp the faculty’s selections, which raises the question, “why bother?” An institutionalized rubberstamping process begs for re-examination. But given that the board was expressly tasked with approving the nominations, Wiesenfeld was quite within his rights to question Kushner as a nominee, for any reason he chose. It was the responsibility of the rest of the board to enter into the debate, rather than passively tabling the nomination and killing Kushner’s chances. This is no referendum on the substance of Wiesenfeld’s remarks; rather, on the board’s silence in the face of them.

And speaking of silence, Wiesenfeld has continued to speak out in the media, defending his position on Kushner.  While that’s fine from a legal standpoint, far better from a governance standpoint for the board to have chosen one spokesperson to address this kerfuffle.

Think of it this way – the board should have several voices inside the boardroom, but only one voice outside of it.


3 Responses to “Of Kushner, Kerfuffle, and Culture”

  1. Fantastic points Linda! As a trustee, Wiesenfeld fulfilled his fiduciary duty in bringing his concern to the board – with passion. What is quite shocking to me is that none of the other trustees appeared to voice similar concerns about CUNY’s proposed action.

    I’m finding less and less donors willing to make planned gifts to traditional educational institutions for fear that the trustees of such institutions have abandoned their governance roles which require them to challenge the organization’s proclivity toward “groupthink.” The idea that activists like Ward Churchill can be full time “educators” in our tax subsidized educational institutions, with the tacit approval of the institution’s trustees, is disturbing.

  2. Linda is certainly correct about the importance of board engagement (rather than passive deferral to the most passionate voice). And, she’s right about the spokesperson issue. Regardless of the topic, it is completely INappropriate for Wiesenfeld, as a sitting board member, to be addressing this matter in the media and taking a position contrary to that of CUNY. His fiduciary duty is to the institution upon whose board he serves. CUNY ultimately made a decision with which he, one board member, disagreed. As long as he stays on the baord, his responsibility in public is to either support or be silent about the institution’s position. Or, if he feels the decision is so aggregioius that he cannot fulfill his duty of loyalty to CUNY, then he must step down. Then he can talk all he wants.

    But Linda leaves one question unasked. Why was the board of trustees making decisions about honorary degrees in the first place? I’m sure they do not get involved in decisions about granting non-honorary degrees. There’s a strong argument to be made that this should be a responnsibility of the CUNY Chancellor and his delegees, not a board function. Within an environment of academic freedom, CUNY executives are in the best position to implement CUNY’s mission in this way. If they make a misstep in doing their jobs, then the Chancellor answers to the board.

  3. david herzig Says:

    I think this also reflects a problem that falls directly on the lap of the chair of the board. Too often a single board member can raise a question that seems to blackball the issue. The chair needs to take control of the discussion, invite others to comment on the issue and then take a formal vote up or down. Not let it be tabled. Force the rest of the board to participate and take responsibility for their actions.

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