Monday, April 8, 2013

Trustee Profile: Political Fixer uses CUNY as a Platform to Attack Academic Freedom

 Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld is an investment banker at Bernstein Global Wealth Management, appointed to the Board of Trustees by Gov. Pataki in 1999. Wiesenfeld’s primary qualification for being a trustee is his loyal service to a string of local politicians, including Senator Alfonse D’Amato, Congressman Thomas Manton, Mayor Ed Koch, Borough President Clair Shulman, and Governor George Pataki.

Wiesenfeld’s primary accomplishment during 13 years on the Board has been to instigate a series of scandals in which he has denigrated local politicians and undermined academic freedom.

His most notable achievement is his launching of the Affair Kushner in May 2011. In his role as Trustee, he sought to block the awarding of an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner by John Jay College. In his speech at the Board and in subsequent comments he attacked the Jewish playwright as an anti-Semite and went on to accuse Palestinians who support attacks against Israel of being “non-human.” Wiesenfeld was joined in this embarrassment by 4 other Board members, who failed to stand up to his bloviating. They were Judah Gribetz, Peter S. Pantaleo, Deputy Mayor Carol A. Robles-Roman and Charles A. Shorter

In response, thousands sent letters, some past honorary degree recipients returned their degrees in protest, and dozens of news reports scoffed at the Board’s ignorance and intolerance. The faculty responded forcefully to Wiesenfeld’s ideological meddling as well, and Board President Beno Schmidt quickly orchestrated a vote to override by the Board’s Executive Committee, granting Kushner the degree.

Weisenfeld was also at the center of attacks against adjunct professor Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton, who was denied appointment by the Brooklyn College administration. This was the result of public protests by Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind and behind the scenes pressure from Wiesenfeld, who directly lobbied the Chancellor. Once again, as a result of public backlash and a strong response from the Political Science Department and the PSC, he was rehired. PSC Vice-President and BC faculty member Steve London spoke out at the time against Wiesenfeld’s interference in personnel matters saying, “A trustee intervening in this decision is completely inappropriate and out of bounds. He has a public trust, and he has violated that trust.”

In 2007, Wiesenfeld, as part of “Stop the Madrassa,” worked to block the opening of the Khalil Gibran International Academy and succeeded in ousting its first principal over the use of the word “intifada” on a sweatshirt being sold by a group that supported the school. Wiesenfeld claimed that, “while not all Muslims are terrorists, almost all terrorists are Muslims.” At the same time Wiesenfeld was involved in forming Citizens for American Values in Public Education, which was intended to be a national organization to fight a “radical Islamist agenda.”

In 2008 Wiesenfeld engaged in a very public scrap with City Council member Charles Barron, who was then chair of the Council’s Higher Education Committee. He verbally attacked Barron at an event celebrating the reopening of Fiterman Hall at BMCC, which was destroyed on 9-11. Wiesenfeld went on to actively oppose Barron’s bid for Congress last year.
More recently, Wiesenfeld played a similar role in trying to block the BDS event at Brooklyn College. He accused the Political Science Department of staging a racist, anti-Semitic, and “Nuremberg- type event.” He again worked closely with Dov Hikind, who organized a protest outside the College gates, attacking the rights of faculty to co-sponsor the event. Some of those involved, including City Council members, went on to write letters threatening the College’s funding, a position Wiesenfeld has never publicly denounced.

Just before being appointed to the CUNY Board by Gov. Pataki, Wiesenfeld was at the center of a scandal involving the selling of paroles for incarcerated violent offenders, including drug traffickers from Israel and Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, who was convicted of kidnapping teenager Shai Fhima Reuven from his mother. Wiesenfeld wrote several letter to the Parole Board calling for the paroles in his capacity as a Jewish community liaison in the Pataki administration. Prosecutors termed his conduct “outrageous.” Though Wiesenfeld was never charged, four others involved in the scandal were convicted and several of them pointed to Wiesenfeld’s involvement as part of their defense.

Finally, according to the Daily News, during Wiesenfeld’s conformation process for appointment to the Board there were “allegations that he referred to blacks as ‘savages’ and Hasidic Jews as ‘thieves,’ leading Sen. Daniel Hevesi to speak out against his confirmation.

Wiesenfeld's conduct demonstrates his lack of concern for academic freedom and his behavior as trustee has been injurious to the reputation of the university. We join with the late Ed Koch, Charles Barron, and others in calling for him to step down and we call on Gov. Cuomo not to reappoint him, when his term ends later this year.

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