For the first time since assuming office, President Elizabeth Garrett met with the University Assembly Tuesday, emphasizing that she wants a University that promotes open dialogue but also has sensible rules of conduct.
“We need to look at what we do regarding freedom of expression, but in such a way that we can have expression, association and constructive dialogue, while at the same time acknowledging that we’re a University,” Garrett said. “We are not about shouting, we’re about discussing.”
“Vigorous debate” needs to be balanced with the fact that the University’s goal is to promote regular learning and the fact that there are also faculty and staff on campus, Garrett said. Still, she emphasized her commitment to free speech.
“You won’t find a bigger supporter of free speech than I am,” Garrett said. “And that comes not only from my training as a lawyer, but also from who I am as a person.”
She said that to her, a university culture should center on “reason and rationality.”
“I believe that what we are about is putting out propositions, testing them, arguing about them, figuring out what is right, and figuring out what conclusions we will come to,” Garrett said.
Garrett touched on a variety of other prominent issues, including campus sexual assault, student financial aid and student mental health.
On the issue of creating a community bill of rights, Garrett said she believes forming a coherent and comprehensive University policy is not easy, in part because some federal laws can be “obscure.”
“It’s like digging a hole,” Garrett said. “It takes a lot of work, but once you finish, you’ve really done something.”
Garrett also addressed the mounting debt many students must take on to access a Cornell education. She divided undergraduates seeking financial aid into two pools: students who are poor and students who are middle to upper middle class.
“The father works at a high school, the mother works at a bank, they live in the middle of the country,” she said of the latter group. “They’re not poor, they live a comfortable life, but college is still a very expensive proposition for them.”
She said the University has to remain focused on allocating money to meeting those students’ needs, along with students in the lowest economic quartile.
Asked about student mental health, Garrett said that the new circumstances of college can cause some students to experience negative feelings they have never felt before. She said that it was important for students to know that when coming to the University, they are entering a “caring community,” and that she personally cares about their lives here.
“I’m on email a lot. So if I get a message, where someone is reporting that someone they know is showing symptoms, I’ll forward it to the relevant person,” she said. “As president, I feel that it’s my job to take care of every student here in the best way I can.”
Garrett also lauded President Emeritus David Skorton for the work he did to eliminate hazing from Greek life rituals on campus.
“We have seen, in the incidence of hazing, a decrease of thirteen percentage points. That’s good. But one case is one too many, so there is still work to do,” she said. “If I find out about this happening, it won’t end well for the person.”
Correction: A previous version of this story quotes President Elizabeth Garrett saying “It’s like digging a hole … It takes a lot of work, but once you finish, you’ve really done something,” with regards to creating a comprehensive sexual assault policy. However, the story misstated the context in which Garrett spoke. In fact, she was referring to creating a community bill of rights, not a sexual assault policy.