When I last spoke at Cornell University, the turnout was small but attentive. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who graduated from Cornell a few years before me, drew a much larger crowd when she visited campus in November, but her speech was repeatedly interrupted by loud and angry protesters, and she left in frustration after half an hour.
It was not a proud moment for Cornell. But the university’s response to this embarrassing incident has been encouraging, and Cornell President Martha Pollack recently provided further evidence that she is committed to defending civil debate and academic freedom against illiberal activists who do not support opposing points of view. His example is worth following.
In 2019, two years into Pollack’s term as president, the university adopted “fundamental valueswhich include this statement: “We value free and open research and expression – principles that underpin academic freedom – even ideas that some may consider false or offensive. Inherent in this commitment is the corollary freedom to object in a reasoned way to the messages to which one opposes.
The Cornell Trustees reaffirmed these values in a policy statement they adopted in March 2021. After Coulter’s aborted speech, a spokesperson for the university apologized to her and “all members of the public who hoped to hear her remarks”, saying that “all Cornell students among the disruptors will be referred for conduct violations”. He pointed out that their “inappropriate behavior” did “not reflect the values of the university”.
The need for this apology, of course, showed that some students had not taken these values to heart. While “Cornell’s speech protection policies are laudable,” the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression saidsuch policies are “not sufficient to independently guarantee freedoms of expression,” which requires fostering “a climate of free speech” by “educating students about the importance of policies in safeguarding freedom of speech.” ‘expression”.
Pollack seems to rise to this challenge. “Key theme” for the next school year, it announcement this week, will be “the importance, history, and challenges of free speech and academic freedom”, which students and faculty will explore through “a wide range of events and scholarly and creative activities”, including lectures, book readings, art exhibitions and performances.
“It is critical to our mission as a university to think deeply about freedom of expression and the challenges that result from attacks on it, which today come from both ends of the political spectrum,” Pollack said. saidreiterating the points she raised in her 2022 address to new students. “Learning from difference, learning to engage with difference, and learning to communicate through difference are key elements of a Cornell education. Freedom of expression and academic freedom are the foundation not only of the university , but of democracy.”
A move by Pollack this month was consistent with that position. After the Cornell Student Assembly unanimously approved a resolution urging the university to require faculty to warn students of “traumatic classroom content,” she quickly and unambiguously the idea was dropped.
Pollack acknowledged that such a sweeping and ambiguous requirement would have a chilling effect on teaching and undermine the benefits of a collegiate education, which requires struggling with difficult and sometimes disturbing material. “We cannot accept this resolution,” she said. writingbecause “the actions it recommends would undermine our fundamental commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and are at odds with the goals of a Cornell education.”
Pollack defies a malign impulse. Like Coulter’s hecklers, proponents of mandatory “trigger warnings” believe universities should shield students from speech that might upset or offend them.
In a Knight-Ipsos 2021 investigation, only 22% of students agreed with this premise. Still, 65% believed that “the climate at their school or campus prevents some people from saying things they believe in because others might find it offensive.”
The latter percentage increased steadily from 2016 to 2021. Over the same period, the share of students who considered freedom of expression guaranteed fell from 73% to 47%.
Pollack has his work cut out for him.
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