The significance, history and challenges of free expression and academic freedom will be explored as a featured theme throughout the 2023-24 academic year, building knowledge and inspiring discussion around these topics across the university, President Martha E. Pollack will announce April 17.
Students, faculty and staff will be encouraged to engage with these ideas, and in civil discourse about them, through a wide range of scholarly and creative events and activities, from lectures to community book reads to artistic exhibitions and performances.
“It is critical to our mission as a university to think deeply about freedom of expression and the challenges that result from assaults on it, which today come from both ends of the political spectrum,” Pollack said. “Learning from difference, learning to engage with difference and learning to communicate across difference are key parts of a Cornell education. Free expression and academic freedom are the bedrock not just of the university, but of democracy.”
Before the start of the fall 2023 semester, the university will launch a website devoted to the theme’s goals and events, with community members invited to share ideas. The Ithaca campus plans to host a series of “cornerstone” events over the course of the year, but academic units and departments and student organizations will organize many others across campuses, including at Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell Tech in New York City.
Early planning anticipates reading groups on free expression, debates with invited speakers modeling respectful dialogue, and exhibitions that may span art, film and fashion.
Collectively, the programming aims to offer students, faculty and staff opportunities to further develop the fluency and skills necessary for democratic participation, such as active listening, leading controversial discussions, leading effective advocacy and managing responses to controversial interactions.
Free expression and academic freedom have always been core parts of Cornell’s institutional identity and essential to its founding. The initiative focuses attention on issues Pollack has championed since her inauguration, when she identified protecting freedom of speech as one of the university’s civic responsibilities, a sentiment she reiterated in her welcome to new students last August. Cornell in 2019 adopted core values that include free and open inquiry and expression – even of ideas some may consider wrong or offensive. In 2021, the Faculty Senate endorsed a policy statement, adopted by the Cornell Board of Trustees, that affirmed a commitment to academic freedom and rights of free speech and expression as fundamental to the university’s mission.
The deans of each college and school are partners in planning the themed year and related programming and resources. A steering committee includes Kavita Bala, dean of the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science; Colleen Barry, dean of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy; Kelly E. Cunningham, chief of staff and special counsel to the president; Rachel Dunifon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology; Eve De Rosa, the Mibs Martin Follett Professor in Human Ecology and dean of faculty; G.S. Hans, associate clinical professor of law and associate director of the First Amendment Clinic at Cornell Law School; and Joel M. Malina, vice president for university relations.
More details will be shared as plans take shape in the coming months.