The FIRE Warns Of “Threat to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression at Cornell” From CRT Mandates (Update)
Foundation for Individual Rights In Education: “the proposal raises concerns that faculty will be compelled to affirm and promote certain views as a condition of their employment and eligibility for promotion and tenure, contrary to Cornell’s robust promises of free expression and academic freedom.”
The situation at Cornell University with regard to a presidential “anti-racism” initiative launched in July 2020 is, to put it mildly, a mess, something I have been documenting for almost a year:
- Cornell University takes a major step towards compulsory racial activism for faculty, students, and staff [July 16, 2020]
- Cornell Faculty Coalition Calls for Race-Based Hiring, Promotion, and Curriculum [September 9, 2020]
- Cornell Daily Sun Interviews Professor William Jacobson Re Critical Race Training Database [February 24, 2021]
- Higher Ed Approaches the Antiracism Training Abyss [March 19, 2021]
- Statement of Prof. William A. Jacobson Opposing Cornell Faculty Senate Proposed Critical Race Mandates [April 14, 2021]
- Faculty Fear At Cornell: “I worry every day I enter class that I will say something that a student will find offensive” [April 29, 2021]
- National Review: Cornell Professor Warns ‘Anti-Racism’ Training Mandate Will Exacerbate ‘Toxic’ Campus Environment [May 11, 2021]
- Cornell Hot Woke Mess – No Clear Mandate for Critical Race Theory Mandates Emerges From Faculty Senate Voting [May 18, 2021]
The short version is that an effort by some faculty to impose Critical Race education and training mandates on faculty and students ended up with muddled and underwhelming support after Faculty Senate votes that reached unclear and contradictory endings.
Yet as described below, the threat remains as the senior administration pushed futher decision-making and implementation down to academic units, where there will be less public scrutiny and transparency. The senior administrative directive is to have new programs in place by the Fall of 2022. Those who seek to impose their ideological will on others are more likely to succeed now that the centralized transparent process that generated so much opposition is over.
Muddled Faculty Senate Votes
Michael Poliakoff of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which has publicly opposed mandates in communications with the Faculty Senate, summed up the result of the Faculty Senate in a column at Forbes, How Will Cornell Balance Academic Freedom And Anti-Racism?
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….
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….
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.”
Most of my coverage and objection focused on the mandates, but there are other pernicious provisions of compelled speech whereby faculty candidates seeking promotion or tenure would have to issue “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” statements, forcing people to go along with a misleadingly titled “anti-racism” program.
The FIRE Letter
The Foundation for Individual Rights In Education (the FIRE), the leading campus free speech and academic freedom group, issued a forceful objection to the proposed compelled speech in a Letter (pdf.) today to Cornell University President Martha Pollack. The letter recites and documents the chronology of the President’s initiative and Faculty Senate votes.
The pertinent part of the FIRE letter reads, in part:
FIRE writes today out of concern for the threat to academic freedom and freedom of expression at Cornell posed by the proposal for a “required educational program for faculty,”5 as part of an “Antiracism Initiative.”6 The program would, among other things, require faculty candidates for renewal or promotion and tenure to submit a statement of contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”), extending the current DEI-statement requirement applicable to applicants for faculty positions.
FIRE understands that the proposal may represent a well-intentioned effort to promote an inclusive academic environment for all students and faculty, including those from backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented in academia and American society. However, the proposal raises concerns that faculty will be compelled to affirm and promote certain views as a condition of their employment and eligibility for promotion and tenure, contrary to Cornell’s robust promises of free expression and academic freedom.
Accordingly, we ask that your administration reject the recommendation of a “required educational program” of this nature, and to ensure that any newly adopted anti-racism or DEI programs are strictly voluntary for all faculty. We also call on your administration to eliminate the existing DEI-statement requirement, in order to meet the university’s obligations to uphold free speech and academic freedom.
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Although, for purposes of the present matter, Cornell University may not be a state actor bound by the First Amendment,18 Cornell has nevertheless made morally and legally binding commitments to the freedom of expression and academic freedom of its faculty. These commitments preclude Cornell from requiring faculty to affirm, support, or teach beliefs they may not hold….
Cornell cannot, consistent with its strong promises of freedom of expression and academic freedom, prescribe orthodoxy for its faculty on questions of politics or ideology. Yet some of the WG-F recommendations would, in practice, require faculty to adopt or express alignment with the university’s preferred views on hotly debated issues related to race, diversity, and history….
Cornell, having enshrined freedom of expression and academic freedom in its written policies—including “freedom to engage in reasoned opposition to messages to which one objects”—cannot require its faculty to affirm any specific political or ideological perspective. Nor can it require them to demonstrate commitment to a preferred set of beliefs with evidence of their efforts to promote or raise awareness of it. To do so amounts to compelled speech and puts a straitjacket around academic freedom and freedom of conscience. Contrary to what the WG-F report states, its recommendations do “impinge . . . on what faculty choose to teach, write, or think about.”
While the FIRE focused mostly on compelled speech, it also objected to faculty educational mandates:
We urge Cornell to think carefully about the consequences of the proposed mandatory educational program on faculty whose views, pedagogical choices, or associations are unpopular or simply out-of-step with the majority on- or off-campus. Notably, UFC-F faced significant faculty opposition, with almost half of the voting faculty members opposing its recommendation of a mandatory, university-wide approach to addressing DEI. And resolution Senator-F-2, which recommends voluntary participation in anti-racism and bias education programs, received more “yes” votes than “no” votes.
To adhere to its own promises of academic freedom and freedom of expression, and to honor the individuality of both current and prospective faculty members, we urge your administration to reject the implementation of WG-F’s viewpoint-discriminatory recommendations as mandatory for all faculty. We further call on your administration to eliminate the existing DEI-statement requirement for applicants for faculty positions.
Administration Pushes Decisions Down To Academic Units
The matter is now in the hands of the Cornell senior administration, which has indicated (in a June 1, 2021, statement prior to the FIRE letter) that the proposals warrent further investigation and implementation in a form to be determined. The statement gives short shrift to the very serious destructive impact of these proposals and the strong opposition, and pushes decision making down to academic units (emphasis added):
As you all know, there were three resolutions on each of these initiatives—student education and faculty education—and each of the six resolutions passed with a plurality of votes: none received majority support. Additionally, the resolutions directly conflict with one another on a number of key aspects about how these initiatives would be implemented if pursued.
While there is disagreement about the specific steps to be taken to better inform students and faculty about issues of racial justice, the commitment of faculty to address these issues emerges clearly from the discussion and the resolutions. As the resolution from the working group on an educational requirement for students correctly notes, the university bylaws place graduation requirements in the units that grant degrees. Therefore, the next logical step is to ask each college and school to take stock of the Faculty Senate resolutions, and determine how best to be responsive to the recommendations that students be ensured an educational experience that enables them “to thrive and lead in a multiracial democracy,” while achieving a focused and broadly consistent approach across the university. As they are engaged in this work, it makes sense for the faculty in the colleges and schools also to explore ways of enhancing “faculty engagement with diverse colleagues, students, members of the staff, and with the broader community.” Note that while these descriptions of the student and faculty education programs are taken from the working group proposals, all of the resolutions support these goals; what differs across the resolutions, as noted above, are the details of implementation. Resolving those differences is the purview of the faculty itself. Accordingly, the deans of each school and college should work with their faculty to develop programs that address the aims outlined in the resolutions, with the goal of having these programs in place by the fall of 2022.
We embarked on this work as a university almost a year ago, soon after the murder of George Floyd, but more importantly after decades of work by our faculty, staff, and students to continue to move Cornell towards being the kind of inclusive environment that our founders envisioned, one where justice of all kinds, including racial justice, is pursued. Some have questioned whether this work this work can be done while continuing to honor our also critical commitment to academic freedom and free expression. The openness of the discussions at the Faculty Senate has, in our view, demonstrated that there is no incompatibility, and in fact, we note that many of the resolutions themselves call for involvement of the Academic Freedom and Professional Status of the Faculty Committee. We look forward to seeing the next steps in this process as the faculty throughout the campus engage with this work.
The Threat Remains
While once I was a lone public voice of objection warning about the destructive power of the proposals on academic freedom and free expression, many faculty came to the same view.
Now that the influential and respected FIRE has weighed in, hopefully the Cornell administration will shelve in their entirety the ill-conceived Faculty Senate “anti-racism” proposals with regard to faculty and students. That seems unlikely, however, in light of the June 1, 2021, statement from the President and Provost. Instead, the fight to preserve academic freedom and free expression at Cornell now shifts to academic units, where there will be less public visibility, and those who seek to impose their ideological will on others are more likely to succeed.
“Democracy dies in darkness.” So do academic freedom and free expression.
The FIRE has posted a blog post on its website, FIRE calls on Cornell to eliminate diversity-statement mandate, reject ‘educational requirement’ for faculty, which includes the following response from Cornell to the FIRE’s letter:
Today, Cornell responded to say “no decision has yet been made on the [proposal’s] recommendations,” but the university “will be sure to take [FIRE’s] viewpoints into consideration as the process moves forward.”…
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As reported by Legal Insurrection yesterday, the administration sent a letter to the Faculty Senate on June 1, acknowledging disagreements about how to implement the proposal and directing the deans of each school and college to “work with their faculty to develop programs that address the aims outlined in the resolutions, with the goal of having these programs in place by the fall of 2022.”
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