Janet Reno ’60, former U.S. Attorney General and Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor, attracted an audience of roughly 900 students and community members last night for a public lecture at the Alice Statler Auditorium.
Speaking on “Truth and How We Seek It,” Reno addressed the importance of knowledge and reasoning in finding truth and then acting upon it.
“Knowledge and truth have always been premiums for me,” she said, arguing that one needs knowledge to understand “what is wrong, and how to right it.”
This search for truth and answers guided her 25 years of public service, which began with a resolution she made at a young age during a trip to Germany.
During her visit, Reno said, she toured the remnants of the concentration camp at Dachau and questioned her guide about how such a tragedy could occur.
“[The guide] said ‘We just stood by,'” recounted Reno, “and I resolved never to stand by.”
She expressed this willingness to ensure justice in her role as U.S. Attorney General, proceeding to use DNA evidence to exonerate those wrongfully imprisoned.
Reno highlighted an example of a Florida man who served 22 years in prison for allegedly poisoning his children. Reno, then a Florida state attorney, found evidence to dismiss the charges. She felt the charges stemmed from a “tunnel vision” mindset of the investigators and prosecutors, who responded to public concern rather than facts.
“We must constantly question what we have come to accept as the truth,” she stressed, “to keep an open mind.”
Reno also focused her message on the importance of universities like Cornell in solving serious public policy issues.
“Cornell is a goldmine,” she asserted, citing the work of University faculty in explaining, for example, the bias inherent in eyewitness identification in the criminal justice system.
She called on researchers to prove to policymakers that long-term dollar gains could be achieved by programs that help prevent crimes rather than punish offenders.
In a question-and-answer session following her remarks, Reno further clarified her message of truth-seeking. Responding to a student’s criticism of the accuracy of DNA evidence, Reno acknowledged the possibility of human error, whether accidental or intentional.
“It makes the search for the truth more difficult, but not impossible,” she said.
In several asides, Reno also addressed more lighthearted issues, including her experience on Saturday Night Live.
“We need to laugh at ourselves a little more in this country,” she said to resounding applause from the audience.
Reacting to the presentation, Colleen Ramsey ’05 praised Reno’s content.
“It was really great how she had concrete solutions to public policy concerns,” Ramsey said, “but also gave us something to bring [back] with us about truth.”
Prof. Karl Pillemer, human development, a faculty sponsor of Reno’s visit, also expressed praise for her message.
“Her talk demonstrated she is interested in the promotion of optimal human development,” he said. “She has a broad view of law and the legal system and is really enthusiastic about outreach and applying knowledge to solve public policy questions.”
Over the past week, Reno has committed herself to this message, meeting with students in various forums, political organizations and classes.
Reno is currently in the second year of her three-year term as a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor, although her February visit marks her first in this professorial role.
Administrators suspended her position last year as she vied for the Democratic nomination for governor in her home state of Florida.
In addition to last night’s public lecture, Reno’s upcoming schedule includes participating in class meetings across the colleges as well as an additional public lecture entitled “Collaboration Between Law and Public Health” on Feb. 12 in Myron Taylor Hall.
Archived article by Michael Dickstein