Welcome message from President Pollack

Dear Cornellians,

Welcome to the 2023-24 academic year! It’s a pleasure to see the campus again full of students and activity. While the start of every academic year at Cornell is marked by great anticipation, this autumn is especially exciting as we embark together on our university-wide theme year, “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell.”

It was former Supreme Court Associate Justice Benjamin Cardozo who declared that freedom of expression is “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” For us at Cornell, Cardozo’s words will serve not only as the title of our themed year, but as the beacon for what I hope we can achieve together over the coming months.

Throughout this academic year, students, faculty, and staff from all our campuses will be invited to engage in activities designed to build understanding and foster discussion around the freedoms on which higher education, and democracy, depend. They will take place in both Ithaca and New York City, and will span disciplines and media, including—among a wide range of scholarly and creative events—an exhibit on fashion and free expression, a performance of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, conversation among invited speakers modeling civil discourse, and music, poetry, film, and lectures that explore different perspectives on free expression. And, because this is Cornell: we’re also planning a new Cornell Dairy ice cream flavor celebrating freedom of expression.

This will be the first themed year ever held at Cornell, and our reasons for engaging in it could not be more important. Free speech is under attack, and the assaults upon it have ranged in recent years from attempts to shut down campus speakers, all the way to laws that ban books from libraries and ideas from classrooms.

The impact of these assaults is profound, as is the danger they pose. Free expression and academic freedom are essential to our academic mission of discovering and disseminating new knowledge and educating the next generation of global citizens. They are key to our ability to equip our students with the skills needed for effective participation in democracy: from active listening and engaging across difference, to leading controversial discussions and pursuing effective advocacy. Ultimately, free expression and academic freedom are essential to our democracy: to the ability of each citizen to freely speak and learn, and to make informed decisions about their own life and future.

We are not the only university giving increased attention to the importance of free expression. Many universities are also deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) both because they, and we, believe that it is our responsibility to ensure that everyone has an equitable chance to benefit from the transformative opportunity our education provides; and because research demonstrates the educational benefits of learning in a diverse environment. Indeed, a commitment to diversity and inclusion is core to who we are at Cornell, and to why our university was founded: as an institution “where any person can find instruction in any study.”

Do these two values, of diversity and free expression, sometimes come into tension with one another? Of course they do. It is the job of universities to manage that tension and to uphold both values: if not perfectly, then in a manner that does them both justice.

Yet today, universities are castigated from both ends of the political spectrum for their work to do just that. From the left, the criticism is that we cannot uphold a commitment to DEI if we do not curb some forms of expression. From the right, the criticism is reversed: that an institutional commitment to DEI is inherently a violation of free expression, and we fail in upholding free expression to the extent we uphold DEI.

Let’s consider each argument in turn. The first critique is based on the accurate perception that when you allow a broad range of expression, it is almost inevitably the case that certain groups of people—those who are underrepresented and those who hold less power—will be disproportionately subjected to hateful messages targeting them. The suggested remedy to this is to implement restrictions that ban such speech. But this proposed solution leaves us with more problems: what counts as hate speech, and, critically, who gets to decide? History has repeatedly shown that these decisions are often made in ways that end up harming the very people the speech restrictions were intended to protect.

What about the second critique—that an institutional commitment to DEI automatically renders its commitment to free expression spurious? If an institution were to place restrictions on speech to protect certain groups, the critique could carry some weight. Most often, however, the claim is made that a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is in principle at odds with free expression, because (it is argued) this public commitment constitutes indoctrination: it forces community members to suppress the expression of beliefs that might be at odds with the institutional value of DEI. But strong, thoughtful organizations can and must adopt core values, and Cornell, since its founding, has valued inclusion—just as it values public engagement, and respect for the natural environment, and free expression itself. Indeed, even the University of Chicago, rightly lauded as a model of a university that upholds free expression, has a set of core values that include diversity.

As a community of scholars, we need not shy away from the challenges of holding values that are sometimes in tension with one another: such tensions will exist in any sufficiently rich and mature value set. Our response should be to seek solutions. For example, rather than banning offensive or hateful speech, we can respond to it: supporting those who are affected by it and offering individual and institutional counter-statements (but speaking out on behalf of the institution only rarely, and only in cases where the offense is truly egregious—lest the power of the university itself chill speech in the same problematic ways we seek to avoid). And to honor our commitment to free expression, we must ensure that members of our community do not feel the need to self-censor when their beliefs and perspectives are not aligned with the university’s core commitments, or with the opinions of the majority of the community (but we need to do so in ways that avoid creating a hostile learning environment, which would be both antithetical to our values, and a violation of federal law).

These are complex issues, and we must address them by doing what we do best as a university: engaging in discussion and debate, openly and with respect for each other. It is my hope that our theme year will foster exactly that kind of exploration and reflection; and that, through our efforts, Cornell will demonstrate leadership as a university, and become a role model of how a diverse society that prizes free expression can thrive.

There is a lot for us to explore, and I look forward to your active participation. Please visit The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell for information about the many activities we have planned, and check back often, as updates are being made regularly.

Welcome to the start of what I’m sure will be another wonderful academic year at Cornell.


Martha E. Pollack