May 2, 2024

GUEST ROOM | The Ann Coulter Event Demonstrates Poor Judgment

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We write to express our dismay at the poor judgment demonstrated in the hosting and funding of Ann Coulter’s visit to campus.  We do not deny Ann Coulter’s right to express her opinions, nor a student organization’s right to invite whomever they choose, but we are very puzzled by why the event warranted the presence of the University’s chief academic officer.

We find it odd that while Provost Kotlikoff has repeatedly asked that the faculty help lower the temperature of the campus climate, he chose to support Ann Coulter, a known provocateur, in an action which has in fact helped to create a tenser, less safe and more discriminatory climate on campus.  Hosting a speaker whose presence purportedly warranted such heavy policing illustrates questionable judgment and indicates a lack of true commitment to creating a community of belonging.  In The Cornell Daily Sun, Provost Kotlikoff said he supported Coulter’s visit because “there could be few more powerful demonstrations of Cornell’s commitment to free expression than to have Ms. Coulter return to campus and present her views.”  In this same statement he demurs from outright support of Coulter’s many controversial opinions and denies that Coulter’s opinions are of import to students but suggests instead that her appearance on campus is of symbolic value. Symbolic of what?  Such symbolic value comes at no small price:  Coulter’s bureau says that her fee ranges from $20,000 to $50,000 per event.  To this price we would also add the additional cost of policing and travel and housing. Does this statement indicate that the Office of the Provost ceded decision making power to outside groups in the selection of the speaker?  Or would the provost, a scientist, have sponsored a speaker that peddles conspiracy theories about his colleagues and profession or who is adamantly opposed to vaccinations?  Would police have arrested the scientists who verbally challenged such absurdities?

At a moment when students, faculty and staff are deeply divided about US foreign policy, why did the chief academic officer of the University, Provost Kotlikoff, think it appropriate to bring a speaker who has publicly stated that “We just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.  That is what Christianity is.  We believe the Old Testament, but ours is more like Federal Express.”  At a moment when many people are struggling with the ramifications of pervasive violence, why would Provost Kotlikoff think it useful to bring a speaker who famously said that “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.”  At a university that proudly draws its students, staff and faculty from around the world, why would President Kotlikoff think it appropriate to offer a platform to a speaker who complains regularly that immigrants to the US are from “the most backward, dysfunctional cultures,” who suggests that migrants should be shot, and at the recent Cornell event asked, “Why does every sad sack in the world have to come to this country?” At a moment when we are encouraging civic engagement in the 2024 elections, why would Provost Kotlikoff host someone who thinks women should be denied the right to vote and that “overweight girls” should be barred entry into the country? Coulter’s views are so offensive that many conservative groups have condemned her. 

The event was intended to be provocative, but some administrators surely worried about optics. How else does one explain that, upon entering the lecture hall, attendees (including journalists for The Sun) were told not to record the event? It should be noted that even with this restriction in place Provost Kotlikoff nevertheless stood idly by as attendees (and at least one event host) recorded the arrest of a faculty member.  Has the University investigated and sanctioned those who doxed this professor on social media in violation of University policy?

How does Provost Kotlikoff not understand that to offer such an extraordinarily expensive (and for him symbolic) platform to Coulter undermines the “culture of belonging” that President Pollack has repeatedly asked all of the Cornell community to create and maintain? The arrest of our faculty colleague, Prof. Monica Cornejo, communication, at the event and in the presence of the Provost, has sent a chilling message of non-belonging and a contradictory message that debate and challenges to some speech are not welcome here. Have we become so mean-spirited as a university that we are willing to give any bigot a platform in the name of freedom of expression?  We do not deny Ann Coulter’s right to say whatever she wants, no matter how offensive or ill-informed, but we do object to paying her considerable speaker fee (not once, but twice) to share those offensive and ill-informed beliefs here, in a campus community already so divided.  That is a slap in the face to our many hard-working students who are trying to find a way to cover their ever-increasing tuition and fees.  It’s a slap in the face to those of us who try to be conscientious and responsible stewards of minimally funded academic programs where real debate and study take place. As Provost Kotlikoff completes his second term and likely moves on to another appointment, is this what he wants us to remember him for? 

We call for a complete and transparent explanation of the funding and decision-making process for this event.  We ask that the Dean of Faculty pursue this explanation on behalf of the faculty.  We wish to know if campus experts were consulted, as they have been for so many other Provost-sponsored events, or did he cede responsibility to outside interests? Who funded this event? We believe that this scholarly community, one which is dedicated to careful study, debate and thoughtful analysis, deserves at least this much respect. 

Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.

Mary Pat Brady is a Professor in the Department of Literatures in English and Latina/o Studies.

Derek Chang is an Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies. 

Raymond B. Craib is the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History.

María Cristina García is the Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies.

Shannon Gleeson is the Edmund Ezra Day Professor in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Jane Juffer is a Professor in the Department of Literatures in English and Program of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Caroline Levine is the Davide and Kathleen Ryan Chair of the Humanities and a member of the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity Advisory Committee

Sofia A. Villenas is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Latina/o Studies.

Helena María Viramontes is a Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in English.

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