October 3, 2003

Forecasting the Political Climate

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The Cornell University Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds statement declares: “Free expression is essential to this mission, and provocative ideas lawfully expressed are an expected result.”

Although most students and faculty agree that free speech at Cornell is not in imminent danger, some conservatives on campus argue that the campus’s political climate stifles open discussion.

Expressing the opinion that many students seem to hold, Ben Gruberman ’05, managing editor of Turn Left, said, “Overall, I’d given Cornell a fairly good grade in terms of their positions on speech.”

“I think it’s always been quite strong and healthy,” said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, senior consultant to President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77.

However, Joseph Sabia grad, a columnist for the Sun who previously wrote for the Cornell Review, holds a different viewpoint of free speech on campus.

“I think overall, the state of the world at Cornell in terms of free speech is poor,” he said.

Sabia thinks that many people have a “free speech for me, but not for thee” attitude.

The official University policy on free speech, stated in the Campus Code of Conduct, says, “Freedom to teach and to learn, to express oneself and be heard, and freedom to assemble and lawfully protest peacefully are essential to academic freedom and the continuing function of the university as an educational institution.”

It continues to explain that students and faculty may freely express themselves through protests, demonstrations, signs and by inviting speakers to campus.

“My experience has been that we protect it quite vigorously,” said Kent Hubbell ’67, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students.

However, Prof. Richard Baer, natural resources, argues that although speech is never explicitly limited on campus, the administration implicitly limits dialogue on key political and ethical issues.

“The reality of Cornell University is that in some respects it is a very parochial institution,” he said. “Students are exposed to a very narrow range of ideas.”

In particular, he believes that the administration does not hire faculty with dissenting, often conservative, views.

“There’s widespread and pervasive censorship by omission,” he said. “People with truly different points of view don’t get hired, they don’t get tenured.”

He pointed out that although faculty in some departments have disparate ideas, in the government department, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the College of Human Ecology and other departments that address political and ethical issues, diverse viewpoints are rare.

He thinks that the administration makes an effort not to hire faculty with strong religious beliefs.

“In the field of Christian normative ethics, there is almost total censorship,” he said.

This lack of diversity of ideas discussed in classes affects students’ individual freedom of speech, he said.

“If students mainly hear one point of view on various issues … it becomes more difficult for them to express opposing views,” he said. “Speech will always be constrained if students are not exposed to different ideas.”

Similarly, other conservatives on campus have said they have felt stifled by a “politically correct” climate.

Joseph Pylman ’04, editor-in-chief of the Cornell Review, has said he has seen students feel the need to “self-censor.”

“They’re afraid to speak their minds,” he said. “If your views aren’t mainstream, you’ll be ridiculed.”

This opinion may not be limited just to conservatives on campus.

A self-proclaimed liberal, Daniel Sternberg ’06, said, “A lot of anything said that doesn’t mirror the real liberal views on campus … people start to censor. It can be hypocritical, and I think it drives the more conservative people away because they’re feeling threatened.”

However, some people on campus feel that conservatives may be greatly exaggerating the issue.

“I think it’s a dishonest trick [for] the American Right to present itself as an oppressed minority,” said Prof. Anna Marie Smith, government. “The idea that American conservatives are oppressed is patently false.”

Referring to the Review, she commented, “The idea that they don’t have the freedom [to print] low-life garbage journalism is ridiculous.”

Conservatives who believe political and ethical dialogue is lacking on campus have proposed a variety of solutions to the problem.

Baer believes that the administration should make a concerted effort to hire faculty with diverse ideas and cut back on many of the diversity programs in the University.

“Much of the talk about diversity by the University is exceedingly hypocritical,” he said. “Pushing diversity just in terms of skin color and so on, this has tended to lower diversity in terms of the political spectrum.”

Sabia believes that the administration should adopt the Academic Bill of Rights promoted by Students for Academic Freedom. The document states that a university should not hire or fire faculty based on political views, that professors should discuss a variety of viewpoints in their classes and that students should have full intellectual freedom.

Although freedom of speech on campus has not been seriously challenged lately, it has been an issue during various points in Cornell’s history.

Most recently, protesters burned the Cornell Review on two different occasions in 1997. At a rally against an administrative announcement on program housing and the Review’s printing of an article on Ebonics, protesters burned copies of the newspaper in a barrel. Sabia, who was at the event, said protesters also tossed the barrel at Ying Ma ’97, the Review’s editor-in-chief at the time.

“It was a horrific, scary time,” he said. “I hope it never happens again.”

Later that year, Shaka Davis ’98 burned copies of the Review in front of Trillium Dining to protest a cartoon on abortion which the Review ran. Accounts of the number of copies burned varies; the Sun reported that Davis burned 500 copies, while Dullea claims that Davis burned only 50.

The incident attracted national press, with columnist Nat Hentoff condemning the administration’s lack of action against Davis in the Washington Post and Village Voice.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher