Anthony Corrales/Sun Contributor

President Martha Pollack and Vice President Ryan Lombardi address the Student Assembly in the Willard Straight Memorial Room on April 13.

April 15, 2023

President Martha Pollack Expresses Importance of Free Speech to Student Assembly

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Thursday’s Student Assembly meeting included a visit from President Martha Pollack and Vice President of Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi to discuss updates on the prominent S.A. resolutions from this semester.

The Student Assembly recently garnered national attention with Resolution 31: Mandating Content Warnings for Traumatic Content in the Classroom, which proposed implementing “trigger warnings” on sensitive classroom topics. Pollack released a statement on April 3 opposing the content warning mandate.

Pollack explained that free expression is one of Cornell’s key values. 

“[Free expression is] a core value at the University, but so too is community and belonging,” Pollack said. “From my perspective, there are potential — if not outright — conflicts between our commitment to free speech and academic freedom on one hand, and being a welcoming and inclusive community on the other. But our responsibility as a University is to honor those commitments despite the tensions.”

Additionally, Pollack stated her stance on the importance of democracy — and students’ ability to express their views freely — to allow for further improvement of society.

“[I believe] that free expression is absolutely fundamental to democracy, and that academic freedom is absolutely fundamental for higher education,” Pollack said. “And why? First of all, because you can’t personally learn and the state of knowledge as a whole can’t advance if there isn’t an opportunity for all sorts of ideas to be exchanged.”

Pollack added that participating in conversations with differing opinions allows people to practice active listening, reasoning and communication skills. 

“What history has shown us is that the harms caused by regulating speech almost inevitably ended up hurting the very people the regulations were intended to protect,” Pollack said.

Pollack said enforcing trigger warnings could limit student and faculty willingness to speak freely in the classroom. 

“The true commitment to free expression is the only way to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard,” Pollack said. “The importance of free speech is just so great that we have to protect it, even if we try to mitigate and manage the harm it sometimes causes.”

Cornell as an institution can mitigate this problem by providing emotional and psychological support to its community members, Pollack said. She proposed establishing bias response teams and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms that can function without having to abridge free speech rights, while also minimizing harassment and threatening speech. 

Cornell is continuing its dedication to free expression and using it to communicate its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“The most challenging problems arise when there’s a tension between deeply held values — deeply valued free expression and academic freedom to deeply valued diversity, equity and inclusion,” Pollack said. 

The theme for the 2023-2024 academic year is free expression. 

“The goal will be to increase knowledge about these topics [the challenges to free expression and its significance in history] and provide opportunities for the development of skills that are just essential for effective participation in democracy, active listening and leading controversial discussions,” Pollack said.

Karys Everett ’25, LGBTQIA+ liaison at-large, asked Pollack how mandating content warnings would prohibit free speech.

Pollack responded by explaining how mandating these warnings could dissuade faculty from speaking up and discussing certain topics in courses, thus limiting open and free conversations in the classroom. 

“We are going to leave it up to our faculty to behave in appropriate ways, and we’re going to trust them to do what’s right,” Pollack said. “But sometimes they’re going to get it wrong, because that’s life, and that happens.” 

The Student Assembly and Cornell community members listen as President Pollack and Vice President Lombardi speak at the Student Assembly meeting on April 13. (Anthony Corrales / Sun Contributor)

Pollack also addressed her reasoning behind rejecting Resolution 15: Requesting That the University Provide Funds for an M.D. Gynecologist at Cornell Health, which has generated controversy on campus for some time.

Pollack defended her lack of support for hiring a gynecologist at Cornell Health by claiming that because the facility is a primary care clinic, it cannot provide specialty care. Since the Cornell community requires minimal specialty care, it would be difficult to recruit a gynecologist since there wouldn’t be enough patients in need of service, Pollack said.

“Many specialties — and this includes OBGYN — require regular opportunities for surgical engagement for a physician to maintain their skills and licensure,” Pollack said. “We can’t provide that because we’re a non-surgical center.”

Cornell Health’s primary care physicians can address many gynecology matters — including pregnancy screenings, some minimally invasive clinical procedures such as IUD insertion and pelvic pain conditions, Pollack said. 

Hearing the concerns this resolution raised, Cornell is implementing and expanding its partnership with Weill Cornell Medicine to provide students the opportunity to have telehealth appointments with gynecologists at no additional cost for students, according to Pollack. 

Cornell will also be growing its psychiatric support this fall by adding more services available to students through medication management services. 

Pollack also addressed some of the resolutions the S.A. passed that she has supported, including Resolution 20: Dependable and Inclusive Supply of Pharmaceutical and Essential Nonprescription Supplies and Resolution 22: Supporting Cooperative Housing at Cornell. 

Resolution 20 proposed to gain improved access to nonprescription health care supplies, specifically contraceptives, through a vending machine. 

“The team at Cornell Health is continuing to work through the logistics of making this happen,” Pollack said. “They are fully committed to doing so. They’re [trying] to determine if we can use existing machines on campus or whether we’ll have to have dedicated machines that are owned and operated by Cornell Health.”

Cornell is slated to implement the vending machines this summer. 

Resolution 22 proposed for the Cornell Housing Office to better promote cooperative housing options as an alternative to on- or off-campus housing. 

“Such housing has a special and important community for our students, and it can be an economical option,” Pollack said. “The Housing and Residential Office will gladly advertise any properties that have enough requirements for community housing.”

The Student Assembly also passed Resolution 38: Supporting LGBTQ+ Students Through Promoting Identity-Based Resources on Campus, which proposes for the University to increasingly promote the resources available for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Correction, April 16, 12:07 p.m.: A previous version of this article misquoted a few words from President Martha Pollack’s speech. The Sun regrets this error, and the article has been corrected to accurately reflect Pollack’s words.