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Faculty Fear At Cornell: “I worry every day I enter class that I will say something that a student will find offensive”

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):

I don’t know what “accreditation” means here. Surely it doesn’t mean you will lose your job at Cornell, or otherwise be sanctioned, if you refuse to read “all sorts of things [you] disagree with.” But that, as I understand it, is precisely what the proposal contemplates.

You want to eliminate “certain kinds of racist language, supremacist lines of research, unjust community structures, and unequal treatment become taboo among the faculty.” Cast in the abstract language in which they are cast, one would be hard-pressed to disagree with them. Who could be in favor of “racist language,” “unjust . . . structures” and so forth? But what do those abstract phrases mean? What “racist” language — which words — will now become “taboo”? Which “unjust . . . structures” will become taboo? Which “unequal treatment” will become taboo? Moreover, if these are the things you want eliminated, why can’t the University simply prohibit them, finding language everyone can understand to do so? Why can’t the University use its coercive power to change actions? Why must it use its coercive power to try to change beliefs? I have no objection to the use of coercion on my body. I object when it is used, albeit indirectly, on my mind.

I believe the taboos you seek are already being created. I worry every day I enter class that I will say something that a student will find offensive. 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. I believe some of these topics would be of special interest to my Black students, and I can recall at least one Black student — who is now herself an academic — telling me so. I will not say what those topics are, because I don’t want to reveal my identity, and I don’t want to reveal my identity because I am afraid. I think many of my students are afraid too. All I have are anecdotes, but here is one: I was speaking with a student after one of my classes. The Zoom recording was still going, unbeknownst to me. The student had beliefs I would say are consistent with today’s progressive left, and also beliefs consistent with libertarianism. The student was from a country that had experienced dictatorial rule. In the middle of our conversation, the student asked if the video recording was still going. He was afraid that it might somehow be made public. I don’t think anything said during the conversation should have been especially controversial. We were just talking about ideas. But he was still concerned. I assured him I would ask our IT people for assurances that the recording, which I turned off once he brought it to my attention, would not be accessible to anyone but me and the IT people. Is that the type of University we are to become, where people are afraid to exchange ideas?

I will be retiring soon. When I came here over 20 years ago I never thought I would believe it, but I now do: that day of retirement will not come soon enough. I find I now seek intellectual engagement outside the University and most of my colleagues. Perhaps some will celebrate this new reality. I don’t. I will stay quiet in the meantime, afraid for my livelihood, and will step aside soon enough. Perhaps that too will be cause for celebration.

I like to think I am a good, decent person. Perhaps I am wrong about that. But I believe the “required programming,” whatever its intentions, is asking me to see myself as something other than a good, decent person. I’m afraid that is something I cannot do.

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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Jordan Peterson said it best and still is saying it. (paraphrased) You *might* be able to talk to one person without saying something that offends them. It becomes very difficult if you add a few more people. When you reach a hundred, it becomes darned well impossible.

The First Amendment is there to protect speakers who say something that others find offensive. That’s it. That’s the point. If you claim offense allows you to override that…

Cornell used to be a great university that encourage free expression and fueled intellectual curiosity. I know, I went to Cornell and graduated 25 years ago. I would not even apply today.

Many schools are becoming no different that Russian and Chinese institutions where toeing the party line is paramount.

It’s not just bad for faculty. Students also have to be careful what they say otherwise they could find their grades are notched down one or two levels.

    txvet2 in reply to Ben Kent. | April 29, 2021 at 3:19 pm

    “”they could find their grades are notched down one or two levels.””

    That’ s nothing new. I experienced exactly that in 1960.

      lichau in reply to txvet2. | April 29, 2021 at 8:47 pm

      Me too. 1961. Picked the Yalta Conference for an English term paper. Dumb move. Fortunately, I was an Engineering major. Numbers don’t have politics, or at least didn’t then.

        Aarradin in reply to lichau. | April 30, 2021 at 12:49 am

        Now, “math” exercising from the earliest age are simply another opportunity to promote social justice. All the questions are couched in those terms, and any learning of math that accompanies it is purely accidental and irrelevant.

    RG37205 in reply to Ben Kent. | April 29, 2021 at 3:37 pm

    I’m with you. I graduated 41 years ago (hard to believe it’s been that long) and that is not the Cornell I attended. Unfortunately, while Cornell seems to want to be in the vanguard of the woke DIE crapology (my term) movement, it’s by no means alone. A friend who’s a UVA alum just got a fundraising appeal that was “privilege bingo” asking for each privilege box she could tick off, she give X amount of money to UVA Mutual Aid.

    I can’t think of an American college campus on which a faculty member would feel comfortable criticizing BLM, Critical Race Theory, or Diversity/Equity/Inclusion (i.e., DIE which is what your educational quality is doing) programs.

      gibbie in reply to RG37205. | April 30, 2021 at 10:09 am

      Hillsdale and a few others are good. Hard science and engineering departments at some others are still mostly uncorrupted, but their websites are full of DIE and they are likely to get worse.

Academia is where people go to turn off their brains.

Call this phenomenon what it plainly is, merely one manifestation of contemporary Dhimmi-crats’ infantile, obnoxious, thuggish and vindictive totalitarianism. Americans who reject Dhimmi-crat orthodoxies and who possess the temerity to hold other opinions and viewpoints, must be vilified, ostracized, threatened and punished, unless they recant their “heretical” views in a public struggle session, just as was done in Stalin’s Soviet Union, or, in Mao’s China.

    Aarradin in reply to guyjones. | April 30, 2021 at 1:15 am

    What makes you think this particular professor holds any views outside liberal orthodoxy?

    Even the most radical SJW Prof, anywhere, can be cancelled if they say anything that any student decides to pretend is offensive.

    So, they all live in fear of the monster they themselves created.

Richard Feynman could not teach quantum chromodynamics there today.

I find it unforgivable when engineering/science schools go woke. I no longer donate to my alma mater.

    CapeBuffalo in reply to lhw. | April 29, 2021 at 12:51 pm

    Than you, thank you thank you! You have hit one of the nails on the head. Universities, especially private ones rely heavily on alumni donations. STOP DONATING!

    lawgrad in reply to lhw. | April 29, 2021 at 3:36 pm

    Richard Feynman left Cornell for Cal Tech. Cornell had probably the world’s greatest Physics Department. Many were recruited by Hans Bethe from among the staff of the Manhattan Project at the end of World War II. One of whom, Dale R Corson, went on to become Cornell’s President. If you talked to faculty of that generation, they told stories about how Cornell stood up to Joe McCarthy and deeply believed in academic freedom. It is a shame that the current faculty are not similarly outspoken defending academic freedom.

    jb4 in reply to lhw. | April 29, 2021 at 4:08 pm

    IMO thanks to a poorly educated populace – a feature not a bug with the Democrats – the inmates are now running the asylum.

    When math is called “racist”, this country has had it.

    MAJack in reply to lhw. | April 30, 2021 at 11:27 am

    I stopped decades ago.

    gibbie in reply to lhw. | May 2, 2021 at 8:55 pm

    Feynman would be canceled in a leftist second if anyone read his book, “Surely You Jest”. A brilliant man, but he mistreated women. High IQ seems to be inversely related to wisdom.

I graduated nearly 60 years ago and stopped donating to the school after the admin allowed the armed seizure by black students of Willard Hall seven years later.

I worry every day I enter class that I will say something that a student will find offensive.

Yeah, that’s exactly the point of what they are doing.
And you are lucky you are still in the “worry” phase. The expectation is that by now you should be in the “dead scared” phase.

You better give everyone an A and hope they forgive you /s.

If people don’t stand up to the bullies of critical race theory, then this is what we get. Never bend the knee.

“I worry every day I enter class that I will say something that a student will find offensive.”

As Homer Simpson once said,

“Dogs can smell your fear … and they don’t like it.”

Isn’t faculty fear a micro-aggression against the students?

The Friendly Grizzly | April 29, 2021 at 12:13 pm

It is high time the students stop running the show. If they find some word or turn of phrase offensive, they are perfectly free to walk out of class, withdraw from the college, and find one more to their liking.

Students: colleges are not a Union Shop. You don’t tell the bosses how things work. They tell YOU.

    CapeBuffalo in reply to The Friendly Grizzly. | April 29, 2021 at 1:30 pm

    Griz, in a normal world you are absolutely right! But we are approaching the “Brave New” one. As we grazed happily on plentiful food, entertainment and toys. Marx’ little elves have been hard at work with plenty of help from Russia and China.. “Cells “ in public education and academia promoted “new math” and the like-minded to power positions. They used government loan money to bring in marginal students and make the government the driving force of education.
    Now the students, along with complicit companies, NGO’s, NPO’s and the Federal bureaucracy drive the economics of education. Or so they think .Withdrawal, even significant reduction of private funds and privately funded students will quickly change the picture.
    Right now the radical students and their radical mentors in academia and administration have seized power but it is a tenuous hold and can be reversed if the majority rise up and stop being scared to talk and act.
    It is now, or never.

    nordic_prince in reply to The Friendly Grizzly. | April 29, 2021 at 2:39 pm

    Think it’s bad now? Just wait until all these brats get out into the working world and start dictating who will be hired and fired. It’s already happening – stupid corporations are already filling their ranks with these smart ass know-it-alls because they know they can pay them peanuts. You’ve got 20-somethings infesting the HR departments who will only hire drones like themselves (in the name of “culture fit,” you know) and presto, the system becomes self-replicating. Thus it spreads from the campus to the rest of society.

Can teachers lay out ground rules for disagreement etc w/in the course?

Day 1- Here are my rules. You sign and agree to these rules or you withdraw NOW. Thus pre-empting the thin skinned virtue driven snow flakes.

“Far above Cayuga’s Waters there’s an awful smell…
Some say it’s Cayuga’s Waters, others say Cornell!!”

Son, brother, and nephew of 4 Cornellians

    Mim Moco in reply to Mim Moco. | April 29, 2021 at 1:08 pm

    By the way, all went through the Chemistry or Chemical Engineering program which is still one of the best in the world.

      RG37205 in reply to Mim Moco. | April 29, 2021 at 3:40 pm

      Not for long. Look at the websites for every single department and program at Cornell. It’s all about Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DIE) and how to kill the educational excellence for which Cornell was once known.

“I worry every day I enter class that I will say something that a student will find offensive.”

I’ll bet if you invited Hunter Biden to guest lecture at Cornel he wouldn’t wouldn’t have any worries about anything he said.

How did we get to this point where everything is upside down and backwards? The patients have taken control of the nut house. Somene came in the night and switched the barcodes. Nothing is what it;s supposed to be anymore.

Still waiting for all you cancelled educators to start up Parler University, or whatever you decide to call it. Missing a big market niche, here.

The key fact is that the WG-F Report is much more than 1.5-2 hours of mandatory “anti-racism” faculty training. It also introduces “accountability” measures such as adding questions to the student end-of-semester course evaluation surveys to to identify faculty who make students feel uncomfortable. (The Report then notes “BIPOC and women faculty … are likely to receive harsher evaluations shaped by forces of bias, racism and sexism within our student body.” Yet, the Report is not open to the possibility that BIPOC or female activists might try to lower the scores of while male faculty.)

Worse yet, the WG-F Report recommends making a faculty member write a “DEI statement” when applying for reappointment or for tenure. A letter from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni notes the problems which such requirements.

In a rational world the administration would be terrified of their law school professors.

Isn’t it curious how one student’s criticism can get a professor canceled while those who teach or support CRT offend, harass and worse large numbers of students on a daily basis and they remain immune to criticism. In fact, should anyone try to tell them how offensive they are, then those complaining get canceled. Clearly a head’s I win, tail’s you lose proposition.

Read “Cornell ’69” by Donald Downs.

I was there.

The children will always be willing to escalate to the point of bloodshed. The school administrators need to be willing to close the doors and send the children home. Since they will never do that, the children will always win. And everyone will lose.

So called “higher education” continues on its downward spiral.

“I worry every day I enter class that I will say something that a student will find offensive”

That doesn’t sound like academic freedom to me!

Martha E. Pollack, President of Cornell University sits on the board of directors at IBM. (I’m a shareholder.) To encourage shareholders to vote their proxies the following is noted on IBM’s extremely woke Website along side the logo for Girls who Code (which did not transfer here):

“To express our appreciation for your participation, IBM will make a $1 charitable donation to Girls Who Code on behalf of every stockholder account that votes this year.
Girls Who Code is closing the gender gap in technology and changing the image of what a programmer looks like and does.”

The intersection between big business and universities is very real. Who in his/her right mind would want to work in an environment like Cornell’s?

How can this be good for sales?

maxmillion | May 1, 2021 at 9:59 pm

The thing is, college done right is supposed to challenge cherished assumptions and often be offensive. What woke people want is not education by any definition.

I went to UCLA as an undergraduate–I was appalled when a professor was fired for his “tone” when responding to an email by a white student calling for postponement of final exams during protests in June. Many faculty do not have tenure and are subject to this blackmailing by the CRT and BLM. This should be seen in conjunction with the anti-police movement which threatens the breakdown of public safety itself in the name of racial justice. The opposing impulses of authoritarian ideology on institutions on one hand and street anarchy and abolish the police on the other are creating a 1984 style dystopia. Seeing how they are emanating from the same ideology and fighting both is imperative that conservatives and liberals come together and put partisanship aside.

This is how the Faculty Senate’s choice on the “Education Requirement” has actually been “reframed”:

“Yes. You think (overall) that the report recommendations have sufficient potential to be considered for implementation by the President and Provost and trust that the continued engagement of faculty and the Senate is effective.”

“No. You think (overall) that the report recommendations are so bad that they should not even be considered for implementation by the President and Provost, even if continued engagement of faculty and the Senate is effective.”

This — and especially the laying down of the law about what a “No” vote would mean — is as brazen and ugly a piece of well-poisoning as I, for one, could ever imagine. Its dishonesty is breathtaking.

In my estimation this whole misbegotten attitude-adjustment regime deserves to be discarded — for faculty, students, staff and any other class of person on whom it casts its bullying eye.

Alan J. Nussbaum
Professor of Classics and Linguistics
Cornell University