Henry Schechter / The Cornell Daily Sun

Pauli Murray (left), Martha Pollack (right)

May 21, 2024

BATEMAN | Cornell Folding to Congress Is Nothing New

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In 1952, Pauli Murray, the pioneering scholar and civil rights activist, applied for a position at Cornell’s School of Industrial Labor Relations. It was the height of the Red Scare, when members of Congress — most infamously Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee — targeted individuals for their political beliefs and associations.

Despite recommendations from Thurgood Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Cornell administration decided that there was insufficient proof that Murray was not a communist, and pointed to her “past associations” as cause for concern. They were likely referring to Murray’s involvement in civil rights and popular front organizations targeted by HUAC, but perhaps also Murray’s romantic relationships with women. These “associations” threatened to “place the University in a difficult situation.”

In denying her application, Cornell did not act at the direct behest of Congress. Its leadership acted instead out of worry, anticipating that by hiring Murray they might expose themselves to the scrutiny of the congressional witch-hunters. They hoped that by rejecting her application they might give “one hundred percent protection” to the University. Cornell was diminished by Murray’s absence.

Has seventy-two years been enough time for leadership at Cornell to learn that acquiescence to authoritarianism is no protection at all?

In March 2024, the House Ways and Means Committee, acting in the worst of Congress’s traditions, intervened in the internal community affairs of Cornell to explicitly attack the Coalition for Mutual Liberation (CML) and to demand Cornell “punish” these students. The House Education Committee had made similar demands of other universities, and would do so again as student encampments went up around the country.

Congressional committees are not toothless. But demands of its members do not gain force of law with their mere utterance. In this case, grandstanding by members of Congress serves their electoral interests while also coordinating a broader assault on universities. (As early as October 9, 2023, the House Republican leadership expressed its desire to use congressional resources to investigate college campuses.) Members of Congress are crafting a public narrative about what is happening on college campuses that aligns with far-right priorities to diminish universities’ significance as sites of free inquiry and public engagement.

Universities are not without legal or political resources of their own. The Cornell leadership could inform the Ways and Means Committee that intervention in code of conduct cases is inappropriate; or that under no circumstances will they discuss specific individuals or groups; they could even go on the offensive, and make the affirmative case that universities’ public mission requires protection against external interference, whether from donors or Congress.

Instead, administrations across the country seem to have bowed to pressure, resulting in the spectacle of university presidents throwing their students and employees under the media steamroller and a nationally synchronized assault on peacefully protesting students. No doubt, administrators at these universities were also hoping to provide their institutions “one hundred percent protection.”

What has the crackdown looked like at Cornell? Since October, but especially since the interim policy on expressive activity, events that touch on Palestine have been subjected to a level of scrutiny and administrative demands that borders on harassment. In contrast, in a misguided effort to showcase “viewpoint diversity,” the leadership invited the anti-Semitic and Islamophobic Ann Coulter to speak on how immigrants were a “conspiracy to end America” (and effectively enabled Cornell Police to remove and arrest a faculty member). On the day of the Ways and Means intervention, Cornell leadership ordered the arrest of students peaceful protesting in Day Hall. It later threatened students in the minimally-disruptive encampment with the same. (I suspect the discipline and good sense of the students, and opposition from faculty and persons within the administration, averted an escalation of police violence; so far as leadership self-restraint mattered, they deserve credit, though they could have committed to this from the outset.)

The leadership had already promised that protestors would be punished, and that repeat protestors would face escalating sanctions. This despite having no role in the normal process through which student code of conduct violations are determined and sanctioned. When it did issue suspensions, it circumvented the established process on spurious grounds, and the sanctions imposed carried consequences disproportionate to the alleged offense: the loss of a semester of work and tuition, and for international students the threat of losing their visa sponsorship.

Authoritarianism relies on vulnerability. Because of this, it targets the most vulnerable and inevitably undermines those institutions that reduce vulnerability, such as job security grounded in tenure or collective bargaining agreements or institutions of shared governance or due process rights. In its efforts to protect itself from Congress, the administration risks making congressional priorities its own and corroding those of our institutions and commitments that stand in the way.

The provost, now president, Mike Kotlikoff, warns faculty against speaking collectively, effectively telling them they should speak as isolated and vulnerable individuals before an administration that never doubts its own collective authority. Departments are told they should not post statements on matters of shared governance on their websites. The Faculty Senate is told that suspensions were not based on the interim policy even as the suspended students are told otherwise. Staff have been fired for private political speech, though transparently pretextual reasons are given. Tenured faculty are under threat of disciplinary action, including discharge. Untenured faculty are rightly worried that if they speak on controversial issues, they might be denied promotion and tenure or renewal. Not only might the leadership not defend them, it might denounce them and refuse to publicly oppose threats and harassment against them and their families.

What will happen next year? Will the administration attempt to subordinate independent voices such as the Cornell Daily Sun to administrative supervision? Will it try to enforce “viewpoint diversity” in academic programming or in classrooms? (Since what is relevant diversity is inherently a question of subject matter expertise, how could such policy not be an assault of academic freedom and integrity?) Will the committee tasked with revising the expressive activity policy be expanded to represent the expertise of the humanities and social sciences on issues of academic freedom, civil disobedience, and protest? Will it be independent from administration influence and its recommendations proceed through our shared governing bodies? What happens if a new US president comes to power, who has telegraphed his willingness to use the power of the federal government to punish students for their political positions?

Will the leadership of the University protect us, the University community? Or will it again conflate protection with compliance, facilitating authoritarian attacks on universities?

Because if Congress can demand the suppression of CML, it can demand the suppression of any group or individual on campus. So far as the University acquiesced to demands in this instance, for example by targeting CML members for suspension and promising punishment regardless of process, no one should feel secure that they would not do so in any other. If the administration was willing to undermine the perceived integrity of our disciplinary processes and circumvent shared governance to avert federal scrutiny, why should we trust them to adhere to any of our rules against any future authoritarian political leadership? And if the administration misled us about one policy, can it be trusted on any other?

If only Murray had been here to teach us.

Reflecting on Cornell’s explanation for rejecting her, Murray recalled that her most important “past association” was her family, who had “instilled in me a pride in my American heritage and a rebellion against injustice.”

As she wrote a beloved friend, “it took something like this to shock me out of my fear – the fear that has beset all liberals of late … [When I] decided to take on Cornell, I knew that I had taken a step forward. Would prefer not to fight—but the issues are so entertwined — race, sex, liberal academic tradition — each of us must hold his ground wherever he is.”

It is well-past time for Cornell – if not the leadership, then the rest of us — to hold its ground. Because the fight for higher education is just getting started.  

David A. Bateman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government. His research focuses broadly on democratic institutions; he is an expert in the American legislative branch. He can be reached at [email protected].

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