Trustees | Intellectual Diversity

How Will Cornell Balance Academic Freedom And Anti-Racism?

FORBES   |  June 3, 2021 by Michael B. Poliakoff

Judging from the voting in Cornell University’s Faculty Senate in late May, it appears that faculty representatives are showing significant prudence and discernment in the hard work of finding a way forward in a time of reckoning over racial justice that also protects academic freedom. Colleges throughout the nation need good models, particularly for process, and Cornell’s Faculty Senate seems to be providing one.

Last year, Cornell’s president, Martha Pollack, announced a series of racial justice initiatives. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the nation’s task of confronting its past, present, and future, the need was compelling. She called upon the faculty for proposals on which she would take action.

What was problematic, though not surprising, was the radicalism and infeasibility of the faculty proposals that initially emerged, which threatened long held academic freedom and established procedures for curriculum development. The Faculty Senate faced the task of getting light, not heat, to lead campus reforms.

It would not be easy. In September, over 700 faculty, graduate students, and staff signed a “Fall 2020 Demands” petition. It called on the school to “embed decolonized readings in every possible course at Cornell” and to “abolish colorblind recruitment policies and practices in partner/spousal hiring and replace them with intentionally anti-racist policies and practices.” It included an anti-Zionist challenge to Cornell’s partnership with the storied Technion in Haifa. The list of demands was disquietly vague about freedom of speech: “We can and must honor academic freedom and disciplinary authority without allowing such principles to serve as mechanisms for perpetuating structural racism.”

Shortly thereafter, the Dean of the Faculty appointed three working groups to develop a report with recommendations for the creation of a Center for Antiracist, Just, and Equitable Futures; a new student requirement concerning structural racism, colonialism, and injustice; and an educational requirement for faculty. The working groups of students, faculty, and administrators included several of the signatories of the “Fall 2020 Demands.”

To its credit, the Faculty Senate exhibited remarkable openness to discussion and debate. It did not assume that the reports of the three working groups possessed a privilege to which it needed to defer, and when its extensive discussions ended, there were not three, but seven different proposals up for vote. The Senate’s voting on the package of proposals before it also showed prudence and discernment.

The Faculty Senate overwhelmingly favored a plan to create a Center for Antiracist, Just, and Equitable Futures, supporting it 101-12 (with five senators abstaining and eight not voting). A place where ideas on the volatile matter of race can be debated and tested is exactly what the academy is supposed to do. If the Center ultimately numbers among its visiting scholars academics and public leaders who dissent from the Critical Race Theory that is widely supported in higher education and can be a place for dialogue with the likes of John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, Ward Connerly, Robert Woodson, and William Allen, it will be a national model. 

Cornell Dean of Faculty, Dr. Charles Francis Van Loan, noted how the university connects research to teaching. He communicated by email, “Among Senators there is broad consensus that (a) the university should create a research center that deepens our understanding of structural racism and injustice and that (b) regarding these issues students and faculty alike need to become critical thinkers.”

While they so strongly approved the Center, the same senators refused to support a proposal to coerce faculty into mandatory training about “structural racism, colonialism, and injustice.” Out of 126 faculty senators, a narrow plurality voted yes, but a clear majority withheld support. (71 voted no, abstained, or declined to vote on the issue at all.) Judging from comments on the Faculty Senate web page, many senators likely balked at the proposal’s iron fist: Faculty who failed to participate each semester in two or more hours of anti-racism training would lose their teaching privileges and would be barred from serving as advisors, mentors, or supervisors. In other words, non-compliance with the proposed Faculty Education Requirement for Antiracist, Just, and Equitable Futures would be a quick path to termination.

The faculty senators also withheld majority support for a requirement that all Cornell students take an anti-racism course. (For the record, Cornell has no requirement, as some institutions do, for foundational study of United States history and government that provides context and background for the issues of our times.) In answer to President Pollack’s call, the Faculty Senate entertained three different proposals for a required anti-racism class. The most extreme of the three envisioned a 3 to 4 credit, graded course designed and taught only by the six departments that focus on “BIPOC,” (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) plus LBGTQ studies. As before, the proposal garnered a plurality of votes, but the majority of senators refused to give their assent to this proposal or to the two other proposals for an undergraduate anti-racism requirement. 

William Jacobson, Clinical Professor and Director of the Securities Law Clinic at Cornell Law School, observed in an email that the Cornell faculty is in general politically liberal, but, “Clearly, there is no consensus that coercion is either appropriate or beneficial. Particularly in contrast to the overwhelming Faculty Senate support for an educational Center devoted to issues of race, this should be a signal to the Cornell senior administration to reject mandates.”

It is often difficult in a time of crisis and pain to hold fast to the principles of academic freedom and institutional neutrality that have characterized American higher education, albeit with some failures. These are the values articulated in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Committee report of 1967 and Yale University’s C. Vann Woodward Committee report, and they are urgently relevant today. The prudent circumspection of Cornell’s Faculty Senate, however, has laid a foundation for its academic departments to approach issues of social justice in the time-honored manner of American higher education—and of a free society: discussion, debate, and open-minded inquiry.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.


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