March 28, 2024

ARNOLD | A Silent Auction: Pollack’s Stance on Free Speech Subject to the Highest Bid

Print More

In a Letter to the Editor released on Tuesday, President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff finally addressed the mounting backlash toward Pollack’s move to restrict free speech on campus. Arguing that a few dozen college students with a megaphone hinder Cornell’s learning environment, Pollack and Kotlikoff claim they’re merely defending the right to learn in a non-disruptive setting. It seems our president and provost have forgotten a few other rights — namely, students’ constitutionally protected ones.

To give credit where credit is due, at least Pollack is consistent: Tuesday’s letter is just as ill-conceived as the Interim Expressive Activity Policy was in the first place. For Pollack to spin a narrative in which she cares enough about Cornell’s students to take action on our behalf is questionable at best. Evidently, Pollack’s only agenda item since taking office has been to accede to whoever holds the purse strings. 

Perhaps our President simply forgot the meaning of the word “indispensable” when she declared 2023 to 2024 to be the year of Freedom of Expression. This semester, however, Pollack elaborated: Freedom of Expression, so long as that expression occurs between noon and 1 p.m., at an outdoor event registered sufficiently in advance, without any posters, sticks or candles.

Pollack and Kotlikoff’s Letter to the Editor is little more than bureaucratic waffling — an insincere overture to arbitrarily draw the boundaries of “disruption” as they see fit. Our President, a self-purported champion of free speech, is now enacting oppressive policies, complete with disciplinary consequences for those who dare disobey.

Pollack’s concern for my “right to enjoy [an] environment of respectful learning” is touching, truly, but as a student who has been in the middle of class in Goldwin Smith Hall during these “disruptive demonstrations,” I must admit it didn’t particularly feel like my rights had been infringed upon. Given Pollack’s willingness to lay waste to freedom of speech on campus, it seems there’s been a mix-up of whose rights, exactly, have been violated.

After all, in Pollack’s own words, “When you allow decision makers to determine what speech is allowed and what is suppressed… what you see is that the suppression of speech harms those who hold the least power.” Of course, this statement came before students began espousing views that conflicted with donors’ checkbooks. 

While the Interim Expressive Activity Policy is particularly egregious, it’s only another example of Pollack’s Cornell performing as a plutocracy. Undeniably, our current administration has been defined by their unprecedented disconnect from the student body.  

Perhaps the University’s callous pursuit of profit margins would be more understandable if students tangibly benefitted. From the refusal to hire an OB-GYN to a TCAT system left underfunded by Cornell’s penny-pinching, Pollack’s donor appeasement appears fruitless to those of us outside the red tape of bureaucracy. Our administration’s method of handling issues seems to revolve around the bottom line. 

It’s clear that President Pollack and Provost Kotlikoff’s interests lie not in serving the student body, but with the trustees, donors and alumni they aim to mollify. Their willingness to sacrifice student rights upon the altar of political expediency is a mercenary betrayal of the meaningful discourse that institutions like Cornell are meant to protect.

The University’s plan to “convene a group of faculty, staff and students” on this matter retroactively, as if the Interim Policy was not created behind the backs of the Student Assembly and Faculty Senate to begin with, is absurd. By unilaterally imposing authoritarian-style censorship, Pollack has stifled the very discourse she claims to support. 

Pollack and Kotlikoff’s refusal to acknowledge the harmful impact of the Interim Expressive Activity Policy on students and faculty alike by hiding behind the guise of protecting students is not just cowardly; It’s a blatant abdication of responsibility, and an unconvincing one at that. 

There is nothing noble about administrators measuring students’ rights with a fine-toothed comb to parse out where, when and how we may dissent. To treat student protests as little more than an inconvenience to their ivory tower is something Pollack and Kotlikoff ought to be ashamed of — not defending in a half-baked letter to The Sun.

It is not just the Interim Expressive Activity Policy that our administration needs to reconsider, but their position on free speech on campus as a whole. Freedom of speech isn’t some privilege to be graciously bestowed upon students by their University, it’s a constitutionally enshrined right, and according to Pollack herself, the bedrock of democracy and academic freedom as well. Administrators are supposed to encourage political participation, not stifle it. 

As posed by our esteemed president and provost in their letter, how much infringement on the rights of others is acceptable?

Well President Pollack, Provost Kotlikoff, to answer your question: Certainly not this much.

Sophia Arnold is a second year student in the Brooks School of Public Policy. Her fortnightly column Under Scrutiny focuses broadly on politics, culture and campus issues. She can be reached at [email protected].

The Cornell Daily Sun is interested in publishing a broad and diverse set of content from the Cornell and greater Ithaca community. We want to hear what you have to say about this topic or any of our pieces. Here are some guidelines on how to submit. And here’s our email: [email protected].