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Poliakoff and McGuire: Will this elite university truly commit to free expression?


Daily Caller News Foundation

Does Cornell University President Martha Pollack really have the “cojones” to end university policies that conflict with free expression and stifle intellectual diversity?

Comedian and Cornell alumnus Bill Maher seems to think so, since he recently gave President Pollack the first ever “Cojones Award” for turning down a student request to mandate trigger warnings. She has also won recent praise for promising to make free expression a major campus-wide theme in the next academic year.

These are welcome actions, but they will do little to improve the conditions for free expression and intellectual diversity at Cornell if the university does not change some of its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies that push the campus community toward a monoculture.

Of course, everyone should be welcome at Cornell. The problem is that DEI is often practiced in ways that violate free expression. President Pollack acknowledged the problem when she announced that the year devoted to free expression will “include opportunities to confront the tensions that can arise between our core values of free and open inquiry and expression, and being a community of belonging.”

These tensions are created by Cornell’s bias reporting system, which provides an online form where Cornellians can report on one another anonymously for any offense “against an actual or perceived aspect of diversity.” The school uses this system to “track and address” bias incidents, of which 142 were reported in 2022, including 97 involving only speech or expression.

Judge Edith Jones, writing for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, rightly called a similar program at the University of Texas–Austin, “the clenched fist in the velvet glove of student speech regulation.”

Cornell also uses diversity statements to screen faculty applicants for their political beliefs and commitments. The applications portal used to require applicants to submit a diversity statement; now it says they are “invited” or “asked” to do so, but in practice, it is not clear that anything has changed. Virtually every faculty job advertisement currently on Cornell’s website instructs applicants to submit a “statement of contribution to diversity, equity, and inclusion” without indicating that the statement is optional. Even if it was optional, who would omit it and reasonably expect to be competitive for a position?

Recognizing that requesting such statements amounts to an illegitimate political litmus test, several institutions have stopped using them, including, most recently, the Idaho State Board of Education. The University of Missouri System, the University of North Carolina System, the Texas State University System, and the Texas A&M University System have also banned them, and bills in Florida, Texas, Ohio, and elsewhere aim to do the same.

Cornell seems to be moving in the opposite direction. For example, the School of Integrated Plant Science (SIPS) is currently accepting applications for three postdoctoral fellows, all of whom are instructed to submit a diversity statement.

It is also planning to maintain an associate director of faculty development, equity, and inclusion who will be responsible for the “development and implementation of practices and policies that center equity and inclusion as reflected in our shared vision of inclusive excellence.” Should not teaching and research be the centerpieces of university hiring?

This person will also “support all SIPS faculty search committees in building a strong and inclusive applicant pool and in reducing the impact of implicit biases during the search and recruitment processes.” In short, every search will be guided by DEI considerations.

This is just one recent example of an all-out effort to promote DEI at the school. Cornell has a Department of Inclusion and Belonging. It has an Office of Faculty Development and Diversity. Every college within the university has a diversity office, a diversity council, a diversity website, and a wealth of diversity initiatives. There is a required diversity training course for staff, and a requirement for students and resources for faculty are in the works.

The university provides a rubric to evaluate the effectiveness of diversity initiatives. To receive full marks for faculty development, a college or unit must have “formally and purposefully established the expectation that all its members will engage in ongoing professional development around diversity inclusion.”

In short, Cornell is awash in diversity initiatives that reach every individual on campus.

President Pollack’s recent actions offer a few drops of relief in the desert for intellectual freedom and diversity that American higher education has become. But we should resist declaring Cornell an oasis of freedom and open inquiry until we see energy and resources committed to these values that rival those committed to DEI.

Poliakoff is President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. McGuire is the Paul & Karen Levy Fellow in Campus Freedom at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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