Faculty Fear At Cornell: “I worry every day I enter class that I will say something that a student will find offensive”
Anonymous faculty member opposing proposed Critical Race Theory mandates: “I no longer teach topics that I taught only a couple of years ago, and which I taught without anyone complaining that I was being offensive…. Is that the type of University we are to become, where people are afraid to exchange ideas? … I now seek intellectual engagement outside the University….”
I have been writing and speaking out for a long time about the toxic climate at Cornell University when it comes to free expression, particularly in light of public attacks by senior administrators on a Chemistry Professor and me over criticism of the riots and looting that took place after the death of George Floyd.
When the university as an institution, or in my case the law school, attacks dissident professors, it sends a message that only one view is acceptable to the institution. When that institutional position is framed in the manner of “we can’t fire him because he has job protection, but ….” it sends a clear message to faculty who do not have job protection, to students, and to staff, that they are at risk if they express similar views. The negative impact of such denunciations was set forth very well by the National Association of Scholars, An Open Letter to Eduardo M. Peñalver, Dean of Cornell Law School In Support of Professor William A. Jacobson.
My writing and observations were vindicated when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (the FIRE) and two other free speech groups released a survey of students in September 2020, which I covered in this post, Cornell ranks low in campus free speech survey, abysmal on student free expression.
There is more evidence of this toxic campus climate, which shows it is not only top-down, but bottom-up. There currently are a series of Faculty Senate Working Group proposals to impose Critical Race Theory mandates on faculty and students, which of course I oppose, Statement of Prof. William A. Jacobson Opposing Cornell Faculty Senate Proposed Critical Race Mandates:
Why such compulsion? This campus already is awash in CRT-driven programs, courses, events, workshops, and faculty and student activism, and the separately proposed Center will further the breadth of CRT-based education. These voluntary educational opportunities apparently are not sufficient to those supporting Proposals F and S. Rather than being introspective as to why the message is not resonating more broadly and engaging in debate, Proposal F (and separately, Proposal S) uses administrative power to impose the ideology on the campus.
There has been unexpected pushback from many faculty, leading to a watering down of a Faculty Senate resolution for which voting starts May 5.
The original resolution stated ““Be it resolved that the Faculty Senate endorses the recommendations that are set forth in the WG-F Final Report.” The form of resolution has been changed due to “concerns” to “Be it resolved that the Faculty Senate believes that the recommendations set forth in the WG-F Final Report. are worthy of careful consideration by the President and Provost” with further limitations, among others, that ” broad, transparent consultation with the faculty must attend any decision to implement a WG-F recommendation.” A similar walk-back also is taking place as to the proposal for CRT educational mandates on students.
This change was made to make the resolution more palatable and to give faculty senators on the fence a face-saving way of voting in favor. The resolution now becomes merely a recommendation that the proposal be given “careful consideration,” not necessarily implemented. That’s a cop-out.
The “concerns” giving rise to this watering down are playing out in the comment section of the Faculty Senate regarding the proposals. Comments are limited to people with Cornell email addresses but also are moderated by the Dean of the Faculty who presides over the Faculty Senate, so it’s fair to assume that even comments designated “anonymous” were screened to make sure that the commenter was a verified member of the Cornell community. Commenters can choose whether to have their name appear, or to show as “anonymous.”
Almost all of the comments critical of the proposal are designated “anonymous.” That should tell you right there that even faculty are afraid to put their names on comments critical of the CRT campus push. You can read my comment, under my own name, here.
The comment below by an “anonymous” faculty member caught my eye, and I think reflects the negative campus climate. Responding to a comment supportive of the proposal, which argued that creating a “taboo” of discussing certain topics was beneficial “for minority scholars… and their ability to survive in the university seems much to outweigh whatever would be lost from the creation of such a taboo,” the faculty member wrote of the climate of fear (emphasis added):
That a faculty member who has been at the university for 20 years is counting down the days to retirement so he or she can escape the intellectually stifling atmosphere is a sad but accurate commentary on Cornell in 2021.
I expect the resolutions to pass the Faculty Senate despite the opposition, particularly with the new watered-down resolution verbiage. It will then be up to the president of the university whether and how to implement such proposals. I hope she will recognized and publicly acknowledge the campus free expression problem and how these proposal will make matters much worse.
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