The 2023-2024 academic year’s freedom of expression theme and the recent announcement that the University will terminate its partnership with Starbucks by June 2025 have sparked heated dialogue among the Cornell community. The Sun spoke with Ryan Lombardi, vice president of Student and Campus Life, and Dean of Students Marla Love to gain insight into their views on these topics.
Freedom of Expression Theme
President Martha Pollack announced in April that the 2023-2024 academic year would follow the theme of freedom of expression, reinforcing the University’s commitment to free expression and open inquiry.
The announcement closely followed Pollack’s rejection of Student Assembly Resolution 31, passed by the Assembly in March to urge the University to require professors to provide content warnings in advance of classes that would discuss potentially sensitive material. This resolution faced national backlash for its potential to limit academic freedom and free expression.
Lombardi and Love both emphasized the importance of balancing freedom of expression with diversity and inclusion, noting both as crucial aspects of the undergraduate experience.
“There’s… this tension between being a place committed to free expression and being a place committed to belonging and inclusion,” Lombardi said. “What we hear a lot, and where we see ourselves finding space, is in that tension… between these two commitments that Cornell has made as an institution, and [we are] trying to help students navigate that space.”
This viewpoint is consistent with Pollack’s perspective on free speech, telling The Sun in May that she will defend diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives as strongly as free speech.
Love also described the wide variety of ideas and beliefs with which students are presented upon arriving to college, and that college facilitates an environment for students to consider which ideas they identify with most.
“College is about this opportunity for students to think, ‘What is it that I believe? What is it that I believe outside of my family, outside of the K-12 system that I was involved in, outside of the community or neighborhood?’” Love said. “You’re also confronted with lots of thoughts that might differ from what you believed, or thought of, or felt very passionately. And so this freedom of expression theme year is also representative of this change that’s happening for students.”
Love added that she sees her role as helping students to navigate potentially challenging ideas and, beyond simply accepting ideas at face value, to consider which ideas are most equitable and just. She also noted that students should consider how their identities inform the ideas they believe.
“How do we help students [think about] that — not just on topics of race, but [on] topics of religious ideology, on topics of social status and social class, on economics, on politics,” Love said. “All of these ideas are what I think this [year] is about.”
Cornell faced intense pressure from members of the student body and the surrounding area to end its partnership with Starbucks due to allegations of union-busting tactics on behalf of the company in local Starbucks locations. Tensions rose between members of the Starbucks Workers United union and the Cornell administration last semester, when organizers occupied Day Hall on May 11 and May 12.
Among the administrators present at Day Hall those days were Lombardi and Love, who met with students and engaged in extensive back-and-forth conversation over the possibility of Cornell ending its contract with Starbucks, as Cornell is a current participant in the “We Proudly Serve Starbucks” program, serving Starbucks products in several on-campus dining halls and cafés.
Asked about their thoughts on the occupation, Lombardi and Love said they both support student advocacy, but also had to balance campus safety and productive dialogues.
“It was the day after Slope Day, so I think we were both in a little bit of a different mindset,” Lombardi said. “I always appreciate student activism and advocacy for things that are passionate to students. It’s not always the most pleasant thing to have a camera stuffed in your face when you’re otherwise just trying to help students have a good experience here. So sometimes, some of those elements might not have felt the best in the moment, but certainly we appreciate student advocacy.”
“Activism is a part of the college experience,” Love said. “But I think also, you all of a sudden have a building where you usually don’t have as many bodies. My thought also is about safety, and how we can keep folks safe, and what safety looks like in those situations. And to navigate the right to protest with also our need to make sure that folks stay safe.”
On July 31, the University decided against renewing its contract with Starbucks when the current contract expires in June 2025. This came after a National Labor Relations Board ruling found Starbucks guilty of violating U.S. labor laws in its treatment of employees across unionized locations in Ithaca and in the permanent closure of the Collegetown Starbucks location on July 6.
“The institution has decided to move on and select a new vendor, we are going to do that at the end of our contract. And we wanted to take this process on thoughtfully — you can imagine the University goes through a lot of coffee. So this isn’t just a flip the switch kind of thing,” Lombardi said. “Even though we are under a relationship until ’25, we still do also need time to make some transitions not only to find a vendor or vendors, frankly, who can support us at the volume of coffee that is consumed on this campus, but also that we’re going to feel good about going forward.”
Lombardi told The Sun that the University is working on a timeline of full transition by 2025, and that the effort to find and implement a new vendor is starting this fall. He said that initial conversations have occurred between Cornell Dining and the Student Assembly Dining Committee.
Reflecting on the student effort to rid Starbucks from campus, Lombardi said it all circles back to the academic year theme of freedom of expression.
“We’re not always going to agree about things. We’re not always going to see things the same way… It’s not a very rich place if that’s the case,” Lombardi said. But I think what I would hope that we could do is when we do find those moments of tension or disagreement, that we also at the same time don’t dehumanize each other.”
Love added: “We have to embrace everything and do so in a way that’s thoughtful, that lends to conversation and dialogue.”