Update on campus events

Dear Cornellians:

Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen turmoil at campuses across the country. Universities are grappling with the inherent tension that I have often mentioned between free expression, which includes the right to peaceful protest, and ensuring that protests do not encroach upon the rights of our students, faculty, and staff to teach, learn, work, and go about their daily activities – to be a community of belonging.

It is important that everyone knows the details about what has been happening here at Cornell. Last Thursday, a group of individuals formed an encampment on the Arts Quad. A student group had previously requested permission for an art installation there, consistent with our policies; however, they were dishonest in their request, stating that there would not be tents and that the art installation would be removed by 8 p.m. on Thursday.

Upon learning of the encampment very early Thursday morning, my leadership team immediately offered an alternative location between Day Hall and Sage Chapel, which would have been significantly less disruptive. With an approved permit in hand, the protesters could have remained in the alternative location, per our policies, thereby avoiding disciplinary sanctions. The individuals requested and received multiple opportunities, over a five-hour span, to consider their options, but ultimately decided not to move. They were then reminded several additional times that afternoon and evening that if the tents were not taken down, they would be subject to disciplinary action for violating the university’s time, place, and manner rules. With full knowledge of the sanctions to come, they again refused to comply, and we moved forward with a first set of immediate temporary suspensions.

We met with a group of the student participants on Saturday and again on Sunday, discussing the encampment and again offering them the opportunity to move to the alternate location. They declined. Therefore, more temporary suspensions, along with HR referrals for employees engaged with the encampment, are forthcoming.

Our content-neutral time, place, and manner rules exist for a purpose. They guide expressive activity on our campus so that one’s speech does not suppress or otherwise limit another’s. And it’s important to understand that the current encampment doesn’t only violate the rules per se, but it also causes the very kind of disruption that the rules are intended to protect against: the noise from the associated rallies can be heard in classrooms on the Arts Quad and the encampment has displaced other previously registered events on the Arts Quad. Finally, as this encampment continues over multiple days, it is diverting substantial public safety and student life staff and resources from other important matters.

We must enforce our policies in a consistent manner. Our policies are content-neutral for a reason, and we need to apply them in the same way in all cases, both today and into the future.

Since last Thursday, we have tried to engage thoughtfully with the participants, and will try to continue to do so. But we need to soon get to a resolution that respects our policies, promotes the public health and safety of the community, and preserves the rights of all to do their work.


Martha E. Pollack