Local News: February 8, 2024

Pollack says high education is facing “gale-force” political winds in speech to Ithaca Rotary Club

Cornell University President Martha Pollack was the guest speaker at Ithaca’s Rotary Club on Thursday. She spoke about Cornell’s six core values. University theme this year is "freedom of expression."

Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war last October Cornell has experienced a series of student-led rallies and protests, an administrative building was occupied for several days, and there have been criticisms from supporters on both sides that they don't feel safe expressing their opinions. One student is facing disciplinary action for a social media post, another is in custody and facing federal charges for allegedly making violent anti-semitic threats against Cornell's Jewish community.

Here is some of what she said about freedom of expression.

"The title of our theme year comes from the words of the late Supreme Court Judge Associate Justice Benjamin Cardozo, who call freedom of speech, the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom. Because freedom of expression is indeed the indispensable condition, not only of our academic enterprise but of our democracy. 

And as a university, we believe it's our responsibility to ensure that our students are exposed even to ideas that challenge them, even to ideas they find offensive or wrong. Because being exposed to ideas that one disagrees with is a poor part of university education. It's key to learning how to evaluate information and develop considered beliefs. It's key to developing the ability to engage respectfully and productively in civil discourse. And it's key to learning how to advocate for one's own deeply held values. And all of that is not just something we must maintain at Cornell, but it leads to our next value, being a community of belonging… 

Now, before I end, I want to note that over the last few weeks, and actually few months, we've seen higher education in the news for reasons that reflect much larger tensions both nationally and globally. 

And as we grapple with these tensions, especially those that arise between our Cornell values of free expression, and being a community of belonging, it is tremendously important that we not lose sight of the vital role that higher education not just at Cornell, but higher education broadly in this country, the vital role it plays in ensuring that we are a society able to openly engage, able to engage thoughtfully with what challenges us. 

Higher education today is facing gale-force political winds in a sped-up political culture that moves from outrage to outrage with little space for reasoned discourse, consideration, or debate. The very things we value most and universities and yet universities like our own, must push back against that with clarity and resolve with intellectual humility, and with an openness always to improve it."

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