Four days into classes, President Martha Pollack welcomed Cornellians back to campus and underscored the Freedom of Expression 2023-2024 academic theme in an email statement issued to Cornellians on Thursday, Aug. 24.
This year’s theme is officially named “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell,” Pollack wrote.
Pollack referenced recent book and classroom bans, as well as attempts to shut down campus speakers, as reasons behind the necessity of freedom of expression.
“Free expression and academic freedom are essential to our academic mission of discovering and disseminating new knowledge and educating the next generation of global citizens,” Pollack said. “They are key to our ability to equip our students with the skills needed for effective participation in democracy: from active listening and engaging across difference, to leading controversial discussions and pursuing effective advocacy.”
Pollack said that to usher in this theme, the University will be hosting a variety of music and art events centered around freedom of expression, including the Scalia/Ginsburg Opera. She noted that Cornell Dairy will also be developing a new ice cream flavor that celebrates freedom of expression.
“Ultimately, free expression and academic freedom are essential to our democracy: to the ability of each citizen to freely speak and learn, and to make informed decisions about their own life and future,” Pollack wrote.
Pollack cited her involvement in the Campus Call for Free Expression, alongside the presidents of 12 other universities — Benedict College, Claremont McKenna College, DePauw University, Duke University, James Madison University, Rollins College, Rutgers University, University of Notre Dame, University of Pittsburgh, University of Richmond, Wellesley College and Wesleyan University.
Pollack acknowledged the political debate surrounding tensions between diversity, equity and inclusion and freedom of expression.
“From the left, the criticism is that we cannot uphold a commitment to DEI if we do not curb some forms of expression,” Pollack wrote. “From the right, the criticism is reversed: that an institutional commitment to DEI is inherently a violation of free expression, and we fail in upholding free expression to the extent we uphold DEI.”
Pollack said that the response to these conflicting ideas, as scholars, is not to avoid differences in opinion, but rather to develop solutions through respectful, open dialogue.
“Rather than banning offensive or hateful speech, we can respond to it: supporting those who are affected by it and offering individual and institutional counter-statements,” Pollack said.
Pollack added that speaking out on behalf of the University should only be done in cases where the offense is “truly egregious,” in order to avoid the University’s counteracting its own mission through speech censorship.