Statement | Freedom of Expression

Will President Martha Pollack Lead after Cornell’s Coulter Cancelation?

November 21, 2022 by ACTA

Comments made during a recent university assembly by Cornell’s president, Martha Pollack, suggest that the response to the disruption of Ann Coulter’s speech last week may ultimately be tepid and dismissive. Her words do not inspire confidence that Cornell will do the right thing and set a clear expectation that free expression and intellectual diversity will be respected on its campus.

While President Pollack said she is “disgusted by the behavior of these students” and noted that they “were warned,” she promised only that “the students will be referred to the Office of Student Conduct. They will decide what the punishments are.” President Pollack should be taking the lead in emphasizing the gravity of the offense and the grave consequences that must follow; instead, she is deflecting responsibility.

Cornell’s procedures state that the students will be referred to a hearing board comprised of three students, one faculty member, and one nonfaculty employee. Is this a sufficient process for dealing with a violation that strikes at the very core of the university? As Ann Coulter observed in her statement on her deplatforming, “the students who prevented me from speaking were not engaging in fiery argument, or any kind of argument at all, but the most anti-intellectual response imaginable: whoopie cushions, screaming, and loud circus music—mocking the very purpose of a university.” University leadership should be prepared to take swift and decisive action in response to such an egregious attack on the institution and its core values. That means expulsion, or at least suspension, of the students guilty of this outrage.

Astonishingly, when asked how to prevent similar disruptions in the future, President Pollack admitted, “I don’t have a good answer to the question of what will deter this in the future. . . . It’s something I think we need to continue to discuss as a community. I think it’s going to take community pressure. I think it’s going to take a real lot of talking about why we have to have free speech.”

ACTA knows exactly what Cornell should do, and we outline it in our Gold Standard for Freedom of Expression—which we have twice sent to President Pollack. It is also available on our Campus Freedom Initiative website for Cornell.

President Pollack has already talked about free expression. The problem is she does not act. She had the bully pulpit, a perfect opportunity to express a rock-solid commitment to intellectual diversity, civil discourse, and freedom of expression on Cornell’s campus. Instead, she threw up her hands, unable to muster the words when it would have constituted more than lip service and had the most impact. And therein lies the problem.

Cornell must take action to promote a culture of free expression and intellectual diversity on its campus. As a first step, President Pollack should ensure that the students involved are met with serious sanctions as soon as possible. Students who plagiarize properly meet with severe sanctions: Is silencing an invited speaker a lesser affront to the academic community?

Yale University’s storied C. Vann Woodward Report clearly addressed this issue nearly half a century ago: “Disruption of a speech is a very serious offense against the entire University and may appropriately result in suspension or expulsion. Accordingly, one who is alleged to have committed such an offense should be tried before the University-Wide Tribunal. The Tribunal’s jurisdiction should vest upon complaint by the President or Provost. The collective assent of the deans should not be required in cases of this sort.”

Cornell also needs to do much more to promote a culture of free expression and intellectual diversity on its campus. Is it any surprise that some students at a university that has cultivated a monoculture and is continuing to develop new ways to ensure compliance with the reigning campus orthodoxy would have trouble respecting free expression?

In addition to punishing the students and revising its policies for enforcing its Student Code of Conduct, Cornell should:

  1. Adopt an uncompromising statement on freedom of expression such as the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression;
  2. Establish institutional neutrality on political and social issues (as detailed, for example, in the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Committee Report);
  3. Make intellectual diversity a stated goal in hiring and admissions; and
  4. Add a program on free expression to new-student orientation.

Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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