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):

Anonymous says:April 18, 2021 at 11:12 am

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.”

Source: https://legalinsurrection.com/2021/04/faculty-fear-at-cornell-i-worry-every-day-i-enter-class-that-i-will-say-something-that-a-student-will-find-offensive/

Image: https://medium.com/cornell-university

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.