Re: “To President Pollack: We Must Not be Punished for Our Words in A Time of War” (Editorial, Oct. 22)
On Oct. 20, 2023, the Cornell University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) adopted the following Statement on Cornell University’s Obligation to Protect Academic Freedom in Extramural Speech:
Cornell faces a test of its resolve to protect faculty academic freedom in the current moment of heightened tension and emotions concerning the Israel-Hamas War. At this point, the Cornell administration has fallen short of its obligations. On Oct. 17, President Pollack and Board of Trustees Chair Kraig Kayser issued a joint statement condemning Professor Russell Rickford’s extramural speech at an Oct. 15 rally for Palestinian rights. The Pollack/Kayser joint statement made implicit threats against Professor Rickford’s employment by stating that the University is currently “reviewing [the incident] consistent with [Cornell] procedures.”
Professor Rickford’s extramural speech at the Oct. 15 rally falls squarely within the protections of academic freedom to comment on political matters. That his speech offended or shocked does not lessen its protection, as academic freedom is most needed for speech that others find offensive. Professor Rickford has issued an apology concerning his choice of language in one part of his speech. With or without this apology, Professor Rickford’s speech is protected by academic freedom.
The Cornell Policy Statement on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech and Expression, as adopted by the Cornell Board of Trustees, states:
In this Policy Statement, Cornell recognizes the broad scope of academic freedom. Not only does academic freedom protect faculty in their teaching and research, but the University “recognizes employees’ right to communicate freely outside of the scope of their Cornell employment in their capacity as private citizens.” Protecting academic freedom in its full scope requires that we value ideas and speech that are controversial and even disturbing. As the Cornell Policy states, “We value free and open inquiry and expression—tenets that underlie academic freedom—even of ideas some may consider wrong or offensive.”
In difficult, tense and volatile times — like those we are currently living in — it is essential to remember these fundamental tenets of academic freedom that Cornell has adopted as University policy. Indeed, Cornell is highlighting these principles through its current academic year theme of “Freedom of Expression,” which includes events focusing on academic freedom. As one member of the UCLA Board of Regents in 1970 described the broad scope of academic freedom in extramural speech, “In this day and age when the decibel level of political debate . . . has reached the heights it has, it is unrealistic and disingenuous to demand as a condition of employment that the professor address political rallies in the muted cadences of scholarly exchanges. Professors are products of their times even as the rest of us.” It is not enough to profess commitment to a policy of academic freedom. What is needed is full and deep adherence to the values, principles and tenets of academic freedom. This means the University’s full protection of all faculty members’ academic freedom in their teaching, research, university governance activities and in their extramural speech. What does it mean for the University to fully protect faculty academic freedom? At a minimum the University may not discriminate or retaliate against a faculty member for exercising academic freedom. And further, the University administration should stand up for faculty who exercise their academic freedom, even in the face of pressure from legislators, trustees, donors, students or alumni to sanction faculty for their speech.
There are many areas of social, economic and political controversies that faculty may address in exercising their academic freedom, but perhaps none so controversial as those dealing with Israel and Palestine. At this moment, ongoing tensions and violence have reached their highest level. On U.S. university campuses, these events have hit hard, personally and politically, including rallies, protests and demonstrations in which faculty, students, staff and community members have been active participants.
These are the types of conditions that test the level of the University’s resolve to protect academic freedom. The University is obligated to protect faculty academic freedom to address controversial issues, whether in their teaching, research, university governance activities or extramural speech. The Cornell Policy Statement explicitly and strongly protects academic freedom for extramural speech addressing social, political or other issues. We expect Cornell to adhere to its stated policies and values.
Academic freedom applies regardless of viewpoint. Faculty from across the political spectrum can express strong views in their teaching, research, extramural speech, and university governance activities. The University administration must fully carry out its obligation to respect and protect faculty academic freedom at all times, and perhaps especially when faculty face backlash and threats.
Risa L. Lieberwitz is a Professor of Labor and Employment Law in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She researches academic freedom in the university, freedom of speech, due process and the “corporatization” of the university. She is the President of the Cornell University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors. She can be reached at [email protected].
David A. Bateman is an Associate Professor of Government in the College of Arts & Sciences. His research focuses on democratic institutions, legislatures and political rights, democracy, race and racism. He is the Vice President of the Cornell University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors. He can be reached at [email protected].
Ian Greer ’05 is the Director of the ILR-Ithaca Co-Lab. He is a Research Professor and is the Secretary-Treasurer of the Cornell University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors. He can be reached at [email protected].
Darlene Evans is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Writing Outreach with the John S. Knight Institute. She is an Executive committee member of the Cornell University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors. She can be reached at [email protected].
Suman Seth is the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and Marie Underhill Noll Professor of the History of Science in the College of Arts & Sciences. His research interests include the history of medicine, race and colonialism, quantum theory and gender and science. He is an Executive committee member of the Cornell University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors. He can be reached at [email protected].
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