When will Cornell stand up for free speech and free inquiry?

Date: April 2017


Dear Dean,

It is becoming well-known among conservative and libertarian leaning graduate students that the bias reporting implemented by the administration is being used to suppress conservative thought on campus, as some conservative views are deemed offensive by some more liberal peers. Many conservative and moderate students do not feel comfortable expressing their opinion on sensitive topics due to fears of social ostracism and especially from fear of punishment from the administration. When will Cornell University and the administration have the courage to stand up for free speech and free inquiry along the lines of what the University of Chicago has done?

Free-speech Graduate Student


Dear Free-speech Graduate Student,

Thank you for your Ask a Dean question and for sharing your concerns around free speech and free inquiry. 

The University of Chicago initiative to which you refer appears to be their Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, an effort produced by faculty and commissioned by their President and Provost. While it is too early to predict the specific initiatives our new President Pollack may undertake, her first-day-on-the-job interview signaled that she is “an adamant supporter of freedom of speech and academic expression” which she has indicated in other comments includes diversity of political thought.

At its April ‘17 meeting, Cornell’s Faculty Senate discussed a resolution that would affirm Cornell’s commitment to free speech, and issues similar to yours were raised in the discussion of that resolution i.e., that free speech includes views from all political perspectives. I encourage you to follow the deliberations of the Faculty Senate on this matter. Additionally, you may wish to raise your concerns to appropriate leadership within the GPSA to generate discussion among this peer leadership group.

More historically at Cornell, in 1998, an ad hoc group of faculty, staff, and students formed the Campus Climate Committee to institutionalize a respectful, inclusive, diverse community, resulting in the university’s vision statement on diversity, “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds.” The Open Minds portion of the statement states: “Free expression is essential to this mission, and provocative ideas lawfully presented are an expected result. An enlightened academic community, however, connects freedom with responsibility. Cornell stands for civil discourse, reasoned thought, sustained discussion, and constructive engagement without degrading, abusing, harassing, or silencing others. Cornell is committed to act responsibly and forthrightly to maintain an environment that opens doors, opens hearts, and opens minds.”

There are several efforts at Cornell that center on advancing the concepts that fall under the Open Minds piece of this vision statement, such as freedom of expression, civil discourse, and constructive engagement. Examples of these efforts include the Intergroup Dialogue Project (IDP) and the Campus-wide Breaking Bread Dinners initiative initiated at the Center for Intercultural Dialogue. In February ‘17, the University Diversity Officers hosted a Campus-wide Breaking Bread Dinner with a theme of Freedom of Speech and Civility on Campus, where many of the concerns you raised were focal points in the conversations that took place. Previous dinner topics this year included Police and Community Relations and Post-Election America.

You asked specifically about the bias reporting system. Through Cornell’s Bias Assessment and Review Team (BART), it is critical to recognize what defines a bias incident at Cornell to better understand the role of BART and the intention of the bias reporting system. Under the university’s specific definition, a bias incident is an act of bigotry, harassment, or intimidation that occurs on the Cornell campus or within an area that impacts the Cornell community and that one could reasonably conclude is directed at a member or a group of the Cornell community because of that individual’s or group’s actual or perceived age, color, creed, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity or expression, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status, or any combination of these or related factors. Additionally, under federal, state, and local laws, a bias/hate crime is defined as any criminal offense or attempted criminal offense that one could reasonably and prudently conclude is motivated, in whole or in part, by the alleged offender’s bias against an individual’s actual or perceived age, ancestry or ethnicity, color, creed, disability, gender, gender identity or expression, height, immigration or citizenship status, marital status, national origin, race, religion, religious practice, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or weight.

When one submits a confidential bias report, it will result in the following:

  • Appropriate involvement/communication from the Reporting Bias System staff in the Department of Inclusion and Workforce Diversity (DIWD)
  • Intervention with the agent, target, and witness(es) of the bias activity with assistance from the Bias Assessment & Review Team (BART), which includes the Office of the Judicial Administrator, Office of Workforce Policy and Labor Relations, and Cornell University Police
  • Follow up with the reporting person if desired

BART does not have the authority to and is not involved in issuing any punishments or sanctions for reported incidents. Rather the primary responsibility of BART is to provide support to the reporter of such incidents and share reports with appropriate offices for additional action if required.

It is important to note that completing a bias report is not the same as filing a complaint of discrimination or harassment. The following are the lead points of contact for filing complaints of discrimination or harassment involving different members of the Cornell community. 

  • Regarding Staff, Faculty or Student-Employees: Contact the Office of Workforce Policy and Labor Relations at (607) 254-7232 or equalopportunity@cornell.edu for complaints regarding staff, faculty, or student-employees.
  • Regarding Students: Contact the Judicial Administrator at (607) 255-4680 or judadmin@cornell.edu.
  • Regarding Sexual Violence or Assault, contact Cornell University Police at (607) 255-1111 and/or email the Title IX Coordinator atnosexualmisconduct@cornell.edu.

I hope this information is helpful to you and look forward to your engagement in initiatives such as the Campus-wide Breaking Bread Dinners.

Warm Regards,


Barbara A. Knuth
Senior Vice Provost and Dean, Graduate School