August 30, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Should Adopt the Chicago Principles

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A little over seven years ago, the University of Chicago issued a report defending free speech on campus. Since then, over eighty institutions or faculty bodies have adopted the report and committed themselves to promote free expression. We write this letter to encourage Cornell to do the same.

Free speech and academic freedom are essential to the kind of liberal education Cornell seeks to promote. Liberal education is meant to foster free thinkers who systematically reason through important issues. As such, universities should encourage their students to think freely and engage with different perspectives. As notable and ideologically opposite academics Cornel West and Robert George wrote, “All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments.” This includes those that think differently from the progressive orthodoxy.

As students, we seek good faith discussion and intellectual challenge. Such discourse is difficult, however, when many Cornellians are scared to challenge the progressive status quo and speak in opposition to those pushing ideological conformity. Cornell witnessed the basis of this fear firsthand last year when, in response to Student Assembly members voting against a controversial disarmament measure, many Cornell students engaged in harassment campaigns, bullying, and other shameful behavior to browbeat SA members into changing their votes. While some signatories of this letter agree with disarmament, we hope that regardless of a student’s stance on the issue, all students recognize the moral deficiencies in threatening those who disagree with them. 

We write as a group of liberals frustrated with the current campus hostility towards free speech and open dialogue. We believe that a repressive campus culture only isolates and radicalizes, but does not eliminate, those with dissenting views. The goal is to win hearts and minds — not to cancel them. While we find the left’s policy goals laudable, we question the tactics used by our fellow students to achieve those goals. It is important to approach others with goodwill and charity, yet oftentimes we struggle to extend these virtues to our peers and friends. 

Most importantly, however, goodwill is essential to honest political discourse. According to Prof. John Rose, Duke University,  68% of student respondents to an anonymous survey reported that they self-censor around their friends. It is hard to have honest conversations with our friends about difficult issues when we do not trust them with true representations of our core convictions. Universities are meant to breed thinkers, not groupthink. If we can’t trust our friends, how are we supposed to muster the courage to defend our values in the public sphere? Cornell has a strong history of producing leaders, but the University’s ability to continue that legacy is contingent on its ability to let its students think and reason. We worry that while many progressives stifle debate with the intention to make others feel included, they ultimately create a culture that is not only exclusive but dogmatic. 

To make Cornell a more inclusive and compassionate space, we commit ourselves to the Chicago principles and hope Cornell does the same. We commit to approach others with tolerance and goodwill, always assuming that our adversaries are speaking with good intent. We commit to reasoning with our peers, both inside and outside the classroom, without shouting them down or belittling their opinions. Most importantly, however, we commit to recognizing the humanity in all of our peers — even those we disagree with. There are 15,000 students at Cornell, all of us trying to share one campus. We believe that the best way to achieve this is to treat each other as equals who are deserving of respect and understanding. We hope that the University encourages the same.

Sara Stober ‘22

Chair of the Liberal Caucus of the Cornell Political Union

Callie McQuilkin ‘22

Vice Chair of the Liberal Caucus of the Cornell Political Union

Laura Jocelyn ‘24

Engagement Chair of the Liberal Caucus of the Cornell Political Union

Ben Feldman ‘22

Member of the Liberal Caucus of the Cornell Political Union

Elizabeth Rene ‘24 

Member of the Liberal Caucus of the Cornell Political Union

Sarah Hughner ‘23

Member of the Liberal Caucus of the Cornell Political Union

Brennan Kosut ‘22

Member of the Liberal Caucus of the Cornell Political Union

Carolyn Hale ‘22

Member of the Liberal Caucus of the Cornell Political Union

Sara Stober ’22 is the Chair of the Liberal Caucus of the Cornell Political Union. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester. Comments can be sent to [email protected].