It is nearly impossible to open a newspaper without encountering evidence of violence. Whether in our own community, our state, our nation or most places throughout the world, from Iraq to Darfur, violence is the rule, not the exception. University campuses and communities tend to be places of open discourse. We generally prefer to make our arguments with words, rather than with weapons or fists. But, even at Cornell, we have had the misfortune of experiencing acts of violence or attempted violence many times. We must reject violence as a means of interacting with each other and must not accept violent acts by others, under any circumstances, no matter whom or what the target might be.
It’s been over a year since a stabbing incident catalyzed wide discussion on our campus and, unfortunately, I still hear of violent acts or the intent of violence involving members of the Cornell community. The recent incident of alleged animal cruelty is a vivid example of violence apparently carried out by a member of our campus community.
In some instances, violence has been perpetrated by organized groups in the form of hazing. Hazing is against New York State law and Cornell policy, yet it has been documented at Cornell and nationally in a range of organizations, from fraternities and sororities, to performance groups, to athletic teams. The problem received attention most recently in a March 29 Cornell Daily Sun editorial, and it is a problem that should concern us all.
Although each act or threat of violence is the result of an inappropriate personal decision, sometimes compounded by the abuse of alcohol or other drugs, we must all do our part to improve the climate for discourse and to help all individuals understand the fact that violence solves no problems, leads to worse problems and harms us all, not least the perpetrators. How can the Cornell community prevent violence and heal the wounds opened by such acts?
First, we must respect and honor all opinions and perspectives in our marketplace of ideas that is a university. No matter how much we may disagree, resorting to violence will not change perspectives and will not silence others with a different perspective. Even strongly held political views must not be expressed through violence. Satyagraha, one of the most effective philosophical and social movements in the 20th century, led, in part, to freedom for India. Although much violence accompanied the birth of an independent India, nonviolent resistance, as demonstrated most visibly by Mohandas Gandhi and his followers, was a key to the positive result. Similarly, nonviolent protests by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the American civil rights movement began the process of reducing racial discrimination in our own country, in part, because of their stark contrast to the violent methods of white supremacists.
Second, we must intervene in situations that may lead to violence, including heated arguments between individuals, group settings in which violence is being encouraged, hazing activities and other precursors to violence. While such intervention is not without its own risks, prevention is very important and should be a constant goal.
A new Cornell website, http://www.hazing.cornell.edu/, attempts to lift the veil of secrecy that often surrounds hazing activities. The website provides a way to report hazing incidents and offers alternative activities for building group cohesiveness. It also lists six steps that individuals may move through to go from bystander to change agent — including acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to act and overcoming the fear of negative consequences. These steps apply in many situations where there is a threat of violent behavior, and I urge you to consider them.
Third, we must treat violence as unacceptable and demonstrate by our actions, including appropriate sanctions, that our university is no place for violence and that we will strive to make Cornell an exemplar of nonviolent alternatives. Title II of our Campus Code of Conduct, concerning regulations for the maintenance of public order, makes it clear that using physical force or violence to interfere with or attempt to interfere with the lawful exercise of freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of peaceable assembly or other rights of individuals, will not be tolerated. Of course, due process in all alleged violations of community standards is absolutely essential. Nonetheless, in those cases where violence is proven, appropriate consequences must follow. As I consider the recommendations concerning revisions to the Campus Code of Conduct, I will be looking carefully to ensure that any changes continue to make it clear that violence or the threat of violence has no place in our campus community.
Fourth, fear or intolerance of difference, including differences in race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or political viewpoint, is one of the great causes of violence in the larger world, but on our campus we must not allow such fear or intolerance to infringe on human rights. The main currency of a university is its climate of open inquiry, mutual respect and curiosity —such a climate cannot exist under threat of harm.
As an educational institution, Cornell has an important role in teaching its students how to interact in a positive and constructive way with diverse groups and a responsibility to be a model for such interaction campus-wide. In months to come, I will attempt to engage the university community in further dialogue on this critical issue, and I call on all of you to join me in the discourse and in rejection of violence at Cornell.
David J. Skorton is the President of Cornell University. He can be reached at email@example.com. From David will appear every month.