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President Pollack spoke to the Faculty Senate on Nov. 8, where she doubled down on the 2023-24 school year's free speech academic theme.

November 8, 2023

Pollack Doubles Down on Commitment to Free Speech Following Rickford Controversy

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President Martha Pollack said that the University “doesn’t need [to] and shouldn’t ban deeply offensive or hateful speech” at the Faculty Senate’s meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 8.

Instead, Pollack said: “As individuals and as an institution, we can respond to [offensive and hateful speech], supporting those who are affected by it. And importantly, when appropriate, offering counter statements at the institutional level.”

Pollack’s speech to the Faculty Senate came in response to how Prof. Russell Rickford, history, said that he was “exhilarated” by Hamas’s initial attack on Israel at a pro-Palestinian rally on Sunday, Oct. 15, prompting mixed responses on campus.

On Tuesday, Oct. 17, Pollack and Kraig Kayser MBA ’84, chairman of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, called Rickford’s remarks a “reprehensible comment that demonstrates no regard whatsoever for humanity” in a public statement.

“Any members of our community who have made such statements [like Rickford’s comments] do not speak for Cornell; in fact, they speak in direct opposition to all we stand for at Cornell,” the statement said. “The University is taking this incident seriously and is currently reviewing it consistent with our procedures.”

Pollack emphasized that counterstatements at the institutional level should be utilized “only rarely, in cases where the speech is truly egregious” at the Faculty Senate meeting. To Pollack, Rickford’s comments fit this definition.

“In my time as an administrator, only twice have I provided a counter statement to something that a faculty member had said. My response to Professor Rickford is the second such time,” Pollack said. “In my judgment, his comment was egregious. And it demanded a counter statement given its inconsistency with our core values.”

Pollack reaffirmed that the standard University procedures to respond to complaints would apply to Rickford.

Pollack emphasized that the University was not involved in Rickford’s decision to issue an apology for his comments, and Rickford decided to take a leave of absence, which was approved by the University.

This incident comes in the middle of the academic theme year of freedom of expression, which was initially established to counter book and classroom bans and efforts to shut down campus speakers. Pollack previously cited protecting academic freedom as the reason for rejecting a Student Assembly resolution in March 2023 which asked the University to provide “trigger warnings” when introducing sensitive classroom content.

To address concerns faculty have expressed about perceived attacks on academic freedom, Pollack read comments she made last week to the Board of Trustees.

“I’ve been very concerned with a growing chorus of voices calling for universities to step back from their fundamental commitment to free speech in light of recent events,” Pollack said. “This manifests itself in calls to ban hate speech. There is, of course, no such legal category.”

Pollack said that suppressing speech — beyond disallowing direct threats — is dangerous and ineffective since it brings up concerns regarding who should decide what counts as hate speech.

Pollack brought up the historical example of how Nazis were able to rise to power in the Weimar Republic despite laws suppressing speech. The Nazis were then able to utilize the same speech-suppressing laws to fit their aims once in power, Pollack said.

“Again, I recognize how painful hateful expression can be, especially like moments in the one we are in now. I recognize the desire to stop that speech,” Pollack said. “And again, I want to be clear that there is a difference between hate speech and hate crimes.” 

Pollack noted that hate crimes, including the recent antisemitic threats against Jewish students posted on a message forum at Cornell, are “never tolerated.” In response to instances of hatred on campus, including these threats, the University needs to redouble its commitment to belonging and inclusion, Pollack said.

According to Pollack, the University will continue to respond effectively to all threats, provide support to impacted students, faculty and staff and develop educational material and conduct research regarding the prevention and response to hate speech and discrimination.

Pollack also noted that there are very rare cases in which speech is so offensive and hateful that the speaker can no longer fulfill their role at the University, but the bar for that is extremely high.

During the question and answer portion, Prof. Yuval Grossman, physics, who is Israeli, said that there is an extreme issue of anti-Israeli hate at the faculty level.

“Unfortunately, Professor Rickford is not the only one [expressing anti-Israel sentiments],” Grossman said. “We see it every day, in many classes. A huge amount of things that I would say [are] not true are actually taught to us [in an] extremely one-sided [manner]… What are your plans at the faculty level?”

Michael Kotlikoff, provost of the University, responded to Grossman’s concerns by acknowledging Cornell’s need for greater political diversity.

“I also think we have a challenge around political diversity on the campus, which is what I think you were highlighting. I would love to see a way in which we would expand the breadth of voices that we hear in our community,” Kotlikoff said. “I think the answer is more speech. Not indifferent speech, not less speech.”

Prof. Richard Bensel, government, said that he had a different viewpoint on Rickford than Pollack. Bensel underscored that regardless of sentiments regarding Russel’s comments on Oct. 15, Rickford spoke off-campus as a private citizen.

“No one who read that statement [made by Pollack and Kayser in response to Rickford’s comments on Oct. 17] could not fail to see that the central administration was warning Professor Rickford that he might be formally punished for his remarks,” Bensel said. “[My first concern] is the central administration’s intervention was a flagrant violation of academic freedom. The second [concern] is that formal condemnation by the central administration, figuratively, and perhaps unintentionally, put a target on Professor Rickford’s back, turning him into a potential object of verbal and social abuse.”

Pollack responded to Bensel’s concerns by plainly stating, “I think you and I just disagree on this.”

“My view is very much that the only way a university can honor both free expression and a commitment to being a community of belonging is in those rare cases where the speech is so at odds with being a community of belonging that the University has to speak up to counter that speech,” Pollack said.

Pollack continued: “The fact of the matter is that when we have complaints, and there were many complaints made about [Rickford’s] speech, we have to respond to those complaints… I thought it was horrific [regarding] what happened to Professor Rickford after his comments. [But] I’m not convinced at all that it was my response that, as you say, put a target on his back so much as the comment itself.”