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Cornell affirms commitment to academic freedom, free speech

A newly adopted policy statement affirms Cornell’s commitment to academic freedom and rights of free speech and expression – for faculty, students and staff – as fundamental to the university’s mission.

The Cornell Board of Trustees approved the Policy Statement on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech and Expression on March 19, following its endorsement in January by the Faculty Senate.

Vice President and General Counsel Madelyn Wessel said the December adoption of a new Student Code of Conduct created an opportunity – and a need – to develop a statement that applied to the entire campus community, particularly at a time when news reports have pointed to emerging threats to academic freedom in some places. The statement distills and modernizes elements from several sources that had never been recognized in a combined policy statement, including the original Campus Code of Conduct, a faculty statement on academic freedom adopted in 1960, and the Cornell University Core Values adopted in 2019.

Dean of Faculty Charles Van Loan said the new policy sets an important tone and would be placed prominently at the front of the Faculty Handbook.

“It really is at the heart of everything,” he said of academic freedom. “It’s a strong statement, and that counts.”

Added Wessel: “This statement represents a focused commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech that is highly protective of rights in the community, and specifically protective of faculty academic freedom interests. It’s a strong and comprehensive statement that brings a lot of different things together in one place for the first time for Cornell.”

The policy statement early on cites the university’s core values, which affirm the fundamental nature of free and open inquiry and expression.

“We are a community whose very purpose is the pursuit of knowledge,” one core value states. “We value free and open inquiry and expression – tenets that underlie academic freedom – even of ideas some may consider wrong or offensive. Inherent in this commitment is the corollary freedom to engage in reasoned opposition to messages to which one objects.”

As noted, the new policy also endorses – for the first time by the administration or trustees – the 1960 Faculty Statement on Academic Freedom and Responsibility, in which the faculty outlined the meaning of academic freedom and called it a concept to defend tenaciously, but not abuse.

In addition, Wessel said, the new policy statement makes more explicit certain protections, including: that the freedoms referenced extend to all students and employees; that academic freedom encompasses freedom to address institutional policies or actions within or outside of governance bodies; and that the university recognizes employees’ right to communicate freely as private citizens outside Cornell. Faculty members cannot be dismissed for “extramural utterances,” according to the policy, unless they clearly demonstrate “unfitness to serve.”

The policy statement also details responsibilities to protect those rights across the campus community and its governance bodies, and the university president’s responsibility to maintain public order “where imminent threats to health and safety require it.”

The policy statement addresses concepts of free speech versus harassment also covered in relevant university policies, and concludes with the university’s recognition of outdoor picketing, marches and other demonstrations as legitimate forms of self-expression and dissent on campus.

Wessel first provided a draft policy statement to the University Assembly a year ago, then worked with the Faculty Senate and others to produce the final document. Van Loan and Risa Lieberwitz, professor of labor and employment law in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, who led the senate’s collaboration with Wessel, praised the drafting and deliberation process as a model of shared governance.

Lieberwitz also serves as president of the Cornell chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which endorsed the policy language.

“A robust protection of academic freedom is essential to putting into practice the reason we have higher education, the reason we have a university,” she said. “It’s something Cornell has recognized for many years, and which this statement affirms and puts into very explicit, strong words.”

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Abby Butler