By Jonathan M. Brand, President
I want to take a moment, a few moments together for us as a college community, and I would not have asked you here -for all of us to be here together this morning, had I and others not thought that the events and acts of last week rose to a level that required this all-campus meeting. I have to tell you, I join others in being incredibly disturbed by what happened last week.
Now, as one example of wrongful behavior, we may not ever determine who vandalized the bathroom last week with a statement of harassment or who might have committed other wrongful acts in the past. But, I’m guessing that in this gymnasium, we have someone who may have done that or someone in here who knows who may have done that, who committed that act. I don’t think we actually have to know who the person is to send a message. If you are that person, if you are in a group that would think that’s okay to do, if your primary goal is to threaten somebody, to intimidate somebody, you think it’s funny to scare others? I’m asking you to figure out how to curb that behavior right now or leave this college and not return until you have that disruptive behavior in check.
We are without a doubt a selective, national, liberal arts college. We choose people who wish to be here, who wish to benefit from a positive and supportive learning environment. That’s what we care about here, and if that’s not what you are looking for, then maybe this just isn’t the school for you. Those who choose to commit acts that are intended to threaten or destroy other people are not welcome on this campus. It’s not debatable. This just has to stop. Period. Grow up.
Now, I want to talk for a second about free speech. Many of you know that I am a strong supporter of free speech, I really am. You do not want us telling you what speech is legitimate vs illegitimate. You just have to trust me on this one. If we don’t have the ability to speak our minds, then we can never engage each other in discussions and debates about those ideas. It’s also true- in an environment in which we encourage this speech, we also encourage responses to speech. In so stating, I want to be very explicit in validating the rights of those who are offended by speech, which runs in all directions, to speak against speech that they find offensive. In my view, that is equally valid and is equally protected.
But, just because you can say something doesn’t mean that you should say it. We work very hard not to tell you what to do at this college. You’re adults, this is how you prepare for life beyond the boundaries of this college, but it’s also vital to our community and to the academic enterprise that we have a real, real shared sense of community - a community of students, scholars from all over the world. What we do together would not be possible if we didn’t have powerful differences and also some powerful shared connections that are common. So, while we do our best to not limit speech, we also have very high expectations that you will act in a manner, everywhere - all the time - that recognizes that everyone on this campus has a place here, everyone is of equal value, everyone is of equal worth, and everyone has equal potential. Let your ideas fight with each other, but not in a manner that degrades or destroys or breaks other people down. There’s a crucial, crucial difference in distinction there.
Now, don’t get me wrong. As an educational institution, as an institution of higher education, we must protect all forms of legitimate political speech. What I’m really saying, though, in saying that - politically charged speech on either side, on any side of the political spectrum need not immediately be perceived or intended as hateful or demeaning; in fact, the foundations of our country's government centers on the ability of people to engage in that debate. But, what I’m asking you today - reaffirming - prior to expressing yourself in any debate, in that debate, is really for you to consider, from a position of kindness, from a position of respect, if your true intent is to demean, threaten or intimidate.
I wish to be very clear, though I do support a relatively expansive notion of speech, the events of last week, as an emblem, go much deeper and are fundamentally quite different from those issues related to speech and civility. It can’t be that we have an obligation to protect speech under the guise of the First Amendment, when the real goal of that speech is to attack, threaten or tear down other individuals or groups on campus, or through intimidation to actually shut other people down from expressing themselves. And, while we did leave speech up on the kiosks last week, because it was arguably protected political speech, I think there's also another possible interpretation. From my perspective that interpretation is that someone (or some group) painted those words on the kiosks to goad, to antagonize, and to attack a group of students on this campus. If that was the goal of that speech, then that is nowhere, not even remotely close, to the universal expression that we need to, or should protect, on this campus.
It’s also true, as I noted earlier, that anonymous statements on bathroom walls are not even remotely acceptable. We are not talking about free speech when something like that happens. What a cowardly act. Most importantly, besides being vandalism, it only demeaned and frightened, really frightened, a group of people on this campus that we care about.
In response to these events, our faculty and our staff have been incredible in organizing themselves to support you, our students. For example, having faculty and staff on standby all weekend to make sure that everything is okay, is exactly the sort of commitment that distinguishes this school, and I hope it’s the reason why you came here in the first place.
Yesterday, at the house, I met with a group of students who spoke very genuinely, very honestly, very earnestly, about how they feel on this campus. They expressed anger, they expressed frustration, they expressed how the events on this campus have taken a real psychological - real toll on them. I’m sure we have students in this room, let’s just be honest about this, who don’t like what I’m saying, perhaps, who don’t like hearing about these complaints, who think somehow all of this is overblown, but I’m here to tell you - that’s not accurate. In the spirit of community, I’m telling you we have students in this gym right now who report being scared on this campus. Scared. I don’t think they are overreacting. I can’t even imagine what that must feel like - to be on this beautiful campus that holds itself out to be a closely-knit and welcoming academic community and to feel physically threatened. And yes, these students, in my view, and in the view of many have shown incredible courage and strength in confronting these challenges, but there is no minimizing their reaction. I really think that reaction, how they feel, deserves our respect. And really - even if you don’t understand what it feels like to be threatened on campus, why wouldn’t you still want to support them? Why wouldn’t you still want to make sure that everybody on this campus feel this way? [Interrupted by audience applause] Is it really too much to ask of ourselves? Let’s try to see each other on a little bit more of a human level.
I want to repeat what I said at the beginning, given the importance that I attach to this, if you are someone who is inclined to speak or act with the primary goal of threatening or attacking others, if you think this behavior is funny - then this probably isn’t the right school for you and we should just admit that and own it.
Now you can see right now, from the actions and the activities of this week that we are really dealing with the immediate. But, I think it’s also clear that we have systemic issues that we still need to resolve to make Cornell a more welcoming community. There are a lot of steps that we have taken - we are strengthening the role of diversity in faculty searches, we are pursuing training for all faculty and staff, so that they understand difference and what it means in the classroom and out of classroom, on campus. We are working, as many of you know, on our statements of diversity, freedom of expression and civil discourse. Some of you have already shared some additional creative ideas that I think are worth implementing, for example, enhancements to NSO (New Student Orientation) or our First-Year Seminar and the use of faculty with particular skills in mediation. We are also, as you may know or maybe you don’t, we are relaunching our Sustained Dialogue Program, which will provide the opportunity for 50 of you to be trained over our first block break as facilitators, which will help you acquire lifelong skills that you would need in conflict resolution. But even though these are the steps that we are taking, we have to take further steps and we are working to do that over the remainder of this academic year and into next year and into the future. But, I still want to come back to something again and again and again. We can take all of these steps but I am convinced in my heart, that the single greatest step we can take, right now, is by simply expecting people to show respect to others. Just show some kindness. [Interrupted by audience applause] Just show some generosity of spirit, be thoughtful, respect other people. It really shouldn’t be that hard.
And, while our challenges are specific to Cornell, they are, no doubt, also a disturbing reflection of a larger phenomenon connected with our national political environment. I don’t know how to explain it other than to say there seems to be a strange destructive divisiveness and lack of civility in our culture right now. It’s hard to understand, it’s hard to explain, but we have to expect that we can do better here. We have to learn from this. We have got to be better than this.
So, I’m going to end. I want to thank everyone for coming, including our faculty for making the time to come listen. I know you all need to get back to classes. I want you all to know that I welcome further conversations with any one of you in person and I’m explicitly asking for suggestions and ideas for ways you think we could improve our campus environment, things you think we should be considering. Talk with me, share ideas with your faculty, with those in student affairs, we will consider them all.
Now, my final point, my final thing I would just like to say - I want to remind everyone that we are in the middle of a Block. We have our classes to finish. We are coming up on the end of an academic year - we have musical events, theatre, athletic contests, another senior art show, celebrations of academic and athletic achievements, and of course, commencement. Let’s not forget how hard people have worked for these moments, while we also engage in these important discussions of campus climate regarding how we can become a much more welcoming academic community of thoughtful and generous individuals.