President Martha Pollack provided details on the recently announced 2023-2024 academic year theme, “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell,” in a Monday email sent to the Cornell community.
“Free expression is the bedrock of democracy, just as academic freedom is the bedrock of higher education,” Pollack wrote. “These twin freedoms are at the heart of our core values, and have always been fundamental to Cornell’s excellence and its identity.”
Solidified in 2019, Cornell has a core value of “free and open inquiry and expression,” defined as pursuing knowledge even of ideas some may consider wrong or offensive and engaging in reasoned opposition to messages to which one objects.
Over the past few weeks, the University has garnered national attention following the Student Assembly’s resolution to institute mandatory “trigger warnings” in courses discussing sensitive issues. On April 3, Pollack rejected this resolution in defense of the freedom of expression.
“Today, as we witness assaults on free expression and academic freedom from both ends of the political spectrum, it is vitally important that we, as a community of scholars, engage deeply with these values and the issues that can emerge in upholding them,” Pollack wrote in her Monday email.
The theme will involve exploring the significance, history and challenges of free expression and academic freedom through a series of events and experiences designed to build knowledge and foster discussion. The initiative hopes to develop skills such as active listening, leading controversial discussions, leading effective advocacy and managing responses to controversial interactions.
In November, conservative media pundit Ann Coulter ’84 was met with student disruptions and protests that prompted an early exit from her scheduled speaking event. This sparked controversy and national attention to the state of free expression at Cornell. Following this event, there have been no other major public incidents of perceived threats to free expression until the Student Assembly’s content warning resolution.
The initiative will also include opportunities to confront tensions that can arise between the core values of freedom of expression and being a community of belonging. This value implores the University to value diversity and inclusion and be a place where students and faculty of different backgrounds can work in an environment of respect and feel empowered to engage in any community conversation.
Through scholarly and creative events and activities, students, faculty and staff will have the opportunity to engage with these topics throughout the academic year. These may include reading groups on free expression, debates among invited speakers who model civil discourse and exhibitions and performances demonstrating the values.
The theme will be developed by a steering committee composed of seven faculty members spanning different departments across the University. Cornell has set up a suggestion box email at [email protected] to collect ideas for projects and events related to the theme.
“I hope you will join me in engaging with these important themes, and look forward to a year of meaningful exploration of what is, truly, ‘the indispensable condition’ of both our institution and our nation,” Pollack wrote.