The resolution would have required the university’s professors to warn students about materials or lectures with topics “including but not limited to” sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment and xenophobia.
While trigger warnings might be well-intentioned attempts to protect sensitive students, many researchers are finding they aren’t all that effective.
They also run the risk of chilling speech and causing professors — who can’t possibly anticipate what might trigger each student — to self-censor.
As I asked, “Is the implication that college students are too weak and feeble to hear the truth?”
In an email to the student assembly, the pair said the trigger warning policy “violates our faculty’s fundamental right to determine what and how to teach” and could even tarnish the “academic distinction of a Cornell degree.”
They affirmed the policy “would unacceptably limit our students’ ability to speak, questio, and explore, lest a classroom conversation veer into an area determined ‘off-limits.’”
It was — and still is — shocking that students at one of the country’s most elite schools unanimously voted to undermine academic freedom and free speech.
But Cornell’s leadership deserves credit for standing firm in the face of student pressure.
“Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education,” Pollack and Kotlikoff wrote. “[It is] essential to our students’ intellectual growth, and to their future ability to lead and thrive in a diverse society.”
They’re absolutely right. And Cornell is not alone among elite universities, which have so often been bastions of illiberalism, in reaffirming a commitment to free speech.
Last month, Stanford Law School’s name was dragged through the mud by student protesters who taunted and heckled Trump-appointed Judge Kyle Duncan, a US circuit judge United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
A dean even co-opted his speech with her own hyperbolic ramblings about how the conservative judge “has caused harm with [his] work.”
But, to Stanford’s credit, that dean was put on leave, and Duncan received an apology letter from the university’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who personally promised that the school is ”taking steps to ensure that something like this does not happen again.”
Tessier-Lavigne doubled down this week in a letter to the Stanford community that decried the event as “deeply disappointing” and declared that “a commitment to academic freedom and free expression is paramount.”
“As members of a university community, we are called on to extend our empathy beyond our close personal relationships — to see one another as people with complexity, not as partisan types,” he wrote.
His parting words to the Stanford community at the commencement of their spring semester: “Let us aspire to open, curious, and reasoned engagement with one another. Let us maximize our potential — as a learning community, and as individuals seeking to make contributions to our world.”
The state of free speech in academia is abysmal, but, taken together, Cornell and Stanford offer a much-needed glimmer of hope.
The fact that such brazen disregard for free speech happened on their campuses in the first place is inexcusable. It’s a professor’s job to introduce students to difficult ideas, not to protect students from them.
But it seems some administrators are starting to stand up to the student mob.
While talk of academia today is usually doom and gloom, we should celebrate when free speech prevails — and appreciate the administrators who actually have enough guts to stand by the principles that make higher education free.