Simone Jacobs/Sun Contributor

President Pollack and Provost Kotlikoff, citing academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, rejected a March 23 Student Assembly resolution requesting content warnings for graphic classroom content in an April 3 email.

April 7, 2023

University Rejects Student Assembly Proposal for Content Warnings in Classrooms

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President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff rejected Student Assembly Resolution 31 — which asks the University to implement content warnings for what it calls “triggering” classroom content — in an April 3 email to S.A. president Valeria Valencia ’23, citing concerns about academic freedom and freedom of inquiry. 

The resolution — which was sponsored by Claire Ting ’25, School of Industrial and Labor Relations representative, and Shelby Williams ’25, a College of Arts and Sciences representative — passed the S.A. on March 23 and requests content warnings for course content that may trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such content includes, but is not limited to, ​​domestic and sexual violence, racial and homophobic behavior and suicidal actions. It additionally requests that students be allowed to opt out of viewing or working with said content without academic penalty, so long as they make up missed content. 

In their email, Pollack and Kotlikoff wrote that although they understood the interests of the S.A., the necessary actions that would be required by adopting the resolution would violate Cornell’s policy of free and purposeful inquiry and expression.

“Common courtesy would suggest that in some cases faculty may wish to provide notice, whether via the course syllabus or in the classroom, when they will be addressing topics that some may find challenging or painful,” Pollack and Kotlikoff wrote. “Similarly, it may also sometimes be appropriate for faculty to contextualize such topics, and explain why they are being introduced. But requiring that faculty anticipate and warn about all such situations … would unacceptably restrict the academic freedom of our community, interfering in significant ways with Cornell’s mission and its core value of Free and Purposeful Inquiry and Expression.”

In addition, Pollack and Kotlikoff did not support permitting students to opt out of viewing the content without penalty, stating that exposure to challenging ideas is crucial to the University’s educational experience for students.

“Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education: essential to our students’ intellectual growth, and to their future ability to lead and thrive in a diverse society,” Pollack and Kotlikoff wrote. “As such, permitting our students to opt out of all such encounters, across any course or topic, would have a deleterious impact both on the education of the individual student, and on the academic distinction of a Cornell degree.”

Though Ting and Williams expressed disappointment at the University’s decision, they both said that they understood its reasoning in rejecting the resolution. 

Ting believed that the University and the S.A. were approaching the issue from different perspectives.

“I agree with the core of what she addresses in terms of academic freedom and learning to engage with challenging material, I think that we’re very much on the same page there,” Ting said. “At the same time, I also believe that we are both individuals who seek for a better Cornell community — trying to make the environment better for Cornell students so that we can produce the next generation’s leaders — and in doing so we must serve the needs of our [student] communities.”

Williams shared similar sentiments to Ting, saying that she understood the feedback that President Pollack shared with the S.A., but that the impetus behind the resolution — which the S.A. did not originally disclose in the resolution’s text to protect the victim — caused mischaracterization in national press.

“I think that the backstory behind the drafting of the resolution is something that we didn’t include in it out of respect for the person who approached Representative Ting to draft it as well,” Williams said. “And I think that because that wasn’t included, it’s being misinterpreted and mischaracterized, not by President Pollack, but in the press. I understand what [Pollack is] saying: if professors fear some type of retribution for not including this warning, that it might have a chilling effect. I understand that.”

Since its passage, the resolution has drawn fire from conservative news organizations and opinion columns such as Newsmax, Fox News and the New York Post, with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board lambasting the S.A. for even considering the resolution.

“The entire idea of a trigger warning for speech is antithetical to the idea of a university, and in a previous age no one would have taken it seriously,” the board wrote. “But this is era [sic] of woke censorship, so it’s news when campus leaders push back, as they have at Cornell.”

Ting said that the resolution was passed in response to reports of a student — who had recently experienced sexual assault and a Title IX trial — being required to read multiple, graphic, scene-by-scene depictions of sexual assaults for a class in the context of studying the 1937 Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese soldiers committed atrocious human rights abuses against captured Chinese civilians.

“Students have to understand that this material is challenging to interact with to learn from the mistakes of prior history,” Ting said. “At the same time, there’s an understanding that ought to be upheld from instructors that because these are inherently human experiences, past, present or future, students will have some sort of history that will align with this.”

The resolution also drew condemnation from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a think tank that advocates for and defends free speech in American public spheres, as well as a letter to President Pollack urging her not to adopt the resolution. FIRE states that they are nonpartisan, but they have received a large amount of money in donations from conservative interest groups including the Charles Koch Institute, the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Bradley Foundation

“Were Cornell to impose such a policy, it would not only violate the university’s clear commitments to open inquiry, but also constitute a gross infringement of faculty members’ academic freedom to discuss pedagogically relevant material in class in the manner of their choosing,” wrote Sabrina Conza, FIRE program officer for campus rights advocacy, in the letter.

Though Williams expressed surprise with Pollack’s forceful tone in her rejection of the resolution, she said that the media attention the resolution attracted may have been the reason why Pollack responded in this manner.

“I was surprised that the rejection was so fervent, because [S.A. has] passed resolutions this calendar year that the president hasn’t necessarily agreed with, but it’s typically not a firm denunciation,” Williams said. “Now, I think the media attention was certainly playing a role in that, but I think that the way the resolution has been tokenized into a culture war bit, I think, is what probably contributed to the denunciation being so firm.”

Moreover, Ting and Williams both stated that they believed that the media had misunderstood the purpose of the resolution, saying that their vision of it was to institute best practices regarding displaying graphic content in the classroom, rather than enforcing any type of University policy.

“I didn’t draft [the resolution]. However, the goal was to work in conjunction with the Faculty Senate to advise professors and other instructors to include such warnings in their curriculum,” Williams said. “Now, you’ll notice that there isn’t any type of punishment or penalty for not including that — that’s not something that we even considered, trying to derive the power to enforce. But I think it’s, again, a recommendation for a strong suggestion for professors to put forth.”

Ting concurred with Williams, saying she had hoped to institute a guideline for professors and instructors rather than a hard and fast rule.

“I think that a lot of the media and buzz surrounding the resolution has really mischaracterized what the intention of the resolution is supposed to be, rather than an iron-clad fist rule,” Ting said. “We want to instill this idea of this best practice of providing greater context around material that might be graphic.”

Ting went on to explain that the intent of the resolution was to request content warnings similar to how news organizations air a content warning such as “viewer discretion advised” prior to displaying graphic material.

“All we’re asking for is the same sort of courtesy to students,” Ting said. “If we as students are to learn from disturbing content, then I personally don’t believe it’s egregious to ask that this disturbing content be brought in with an approach that is aware of [the fact that] its disturbing content by nature tends to activate certain responses in students. That’s something instructors should be aware of if this content is to be taught nonetheless.”

Still, despite the setback, Williams said that she hoped to reopen the conversation at some point.

“I think that in some capacity, we’re going to try to re-articulate the intent of the resolution in a way that is better understood by community members,” Williams said. “I can’t give you an answer at this moment as to what that will look like. But I certainly don’t think that this is over. I think it’s an ongoing conversation.”