November 1, 2015

DANBERG BIGGS | Mr. Watters’ Visit

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The Daily Sun, The Washington Post and Bill O’Reilly spent the better part of last week trying to criticize Cornell for entirely the wrong reasons. After Fox News’ Jesse Watters was kicked off campus for interviewing students about a recent Daily Sun report stating that 96 percent of political donations made by Cornell professors went to liberal campaigns, many responded that Watters should have been allowed to stay. Interestingly, there were some who wanted to absolve Cornell of any responsibility. Tristan Keil, a student involved in the segment, wrote in an op-ed last week that it was Fox News, not Cornell, that was at fault. Both of these sentiments are equally wrong.

Cornell has a problem, but it is not that it asked Mr. Watters to leave. The Sun and The Post all claimed that the University was using the guise of student privacy to protect its own name. In an editorial, The Sun wrote, “We fail to see how Fox News was violating the privacy of students on campus, as students could have declined to be interviewed.” Erik Wemple, of The Post, wrote, “The idea that he was harming anyone is unfair.” Additionally, The Sun’s editorial went on to note that it was unfair for the University to grant more leniency in asking permission to its student newspaper than it does to external sources. None of these claims deal with the functional reality of a student’s involvement in a segment like Mr. Watters’.

Any familiarity with these segments is enough to know that they consistently seek to embarrass and shame their participants. This particular segment cut together clips from Animal House along with strategically clipped comments from students that sought to portray them as uninformed. Surely, adults should be able to consent to be interviewed, and the harms that stem from that consent are not too unreasonable. But this is only true to the extent that a student can meaningfully agree to participate.

Media outlets carry the implicit approval of the University when they operate on campus, and according to policy, they are meant to hold explicit approval from the Office of Media Relations. Functionally, this signals to students that if they encounter a media outlet on campus, they can expect that it will treat them with same degree of respect that they would expect from the University. Given this reality, the University has a responsibility to employ a great degree of discretion in which outlets it allows to interact with and publicize its students in such un-moderated environment. The University should allow its students to feel comfortable expressing whatever views they may have, and should enforce as high a standard of conduct in such discourse as is possible. But Mr. Watters only sought to use the students he interviewed as objects of derision and ridicule. I feel perfectly comfortable with my University asking him to stay off campus.

As for The Sun’s concern that the University was preferencing student news outlets over others, there are a few key differences between these two sources of media. Despite what my grandmother tells her Mahjong friends, The Daily Sun’s audience pales in comparison to that of Fox News. The Daily Sun can be given more leeway because, in the case of poor conduct, the University can request that the paper retract whatever was written, and the paper is much more likely to put out a statement in the next day’s paper that would mitigate the situation. Students themselves also have far more recourse in address problems they have with the paper than they could ever have with Fox.

But let’s get to where the University is absolutely in the wrong. To be clear: Mr. Watters is a man whose primary qualifying factor for his current employment is his ability to steadily grasp a microphone, but the thrust of his “report” is crucial. It is massively problematic for the University if its instructional faculty is so dominated by a singular political ideology.

Mr. Keil wrote in an op-ed last week that this 96 percent is inevitable. He wrote, “In short, if Jesse Watters and his friends at Fox News want to see more Cornell professors donate to Republicans I suggest the Republican Party first become less hateful, backward and ignorant.” This mentality is fairly common among liberals, and I’m very inclined to slip into it, because it’s easy. If those that disagree with me do so because they’re immoral, ignorant and incapable of reason, then it makes my life a lot easier. But it’s just silly. Is there a mind more capable of logic and reason than that of John Roberts or an economist more renowned and respected than Milton Friedman? No, logic and good intentions do not belong solely to Democrats, and professors do not all have to be liberal. In fact, it’s a huge problem when they are.

Ideology causes people to value and highlight certain facts over others, and it often does so implicitly. It is an inevitably skewed outlook on the world, and when an entire faculty shares a similar ideology, it does damage to the education its students receive. We are less likely to be exposed to the way in which millions view the world, and our conceptions of what is possible, morally and logically, is limited to just half the spectrum. As for those whose politics are different, they are constantly alienated by the people who hold firm command over their academic success.

Cornell is an overwhelmingly liberal community. It is something that’s easy for me to forget, because this is a bias that I’m comfortable with. But when a singular ideology dominates our professors, it becomes something different. Yes, Fox is wrong to call it indoctrination, but they’re right to call it a problem.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.