GUEST ROOM | Pollack and Kotlikoff, You’re Missing the Point

On March 26, President Pollack and Provost Kotlikoff wrote a letter to the Cornell Daily Sun regarding the Coalition for Mutual Liberation’s recent protests of the new Interim Expressive Activity Policy.  I am a tenured faculty member, and while I am not a particularly active part of CML (many others have given much more time and effort), I have signed several of its letters and statements.  My purpose here is to address two claims in the March 26 letter from the president and provost.

First, the president and provost claim that the faculty who support CML’s activities are “calling for the administration of Cornell to ignore disruptive protests and disregard enforcement of rules.” That is not accurate. In fact, the opposite is the case. Disruptive protests are asking to be noticed and engaged, not ignored. Arresting protesters is certainly one way in which authorities may pay attention to disruptive protests, but is that really the kind of attention that an institution of higher learning should be paying to peaceful demonstrators? On the enforcement of rules, the issue continues to be not a disregard for rules but the lack of a clear enforcement mechanism or a sense of what the disciplinary consequences for violating the policy will be. The policy was applied, in other words, before procedures for enforcement were created. This is a hasty administrative failure that creates a climate of fear and mistrust.

Second, the president and provost pose what they clearly see as a provocative question: “…who makes the decision about which causes are sufficient to accept disruption of the rights of others? And in all cases, how much infringement on the rights of others is acceptable?”  The premise of this question is flawed. The protest by the CML does not infringe upon the rights of others; it helps ensure them. If teaching and learning are “rights,” as the president and provost assert, surely those rights cannot be separated from the right to free expression. After all, freedom and rights are not abstract concepts, but active practices. The premise of the president and provost’s question, in other words, is that the right to apply knowledge in a world beset by war, ethnic and racial discrimination, climate change and many other things is somehow entirely separate from the right to produce and share knowledge in the ivory tower. If that is the case, then we do not deserve to call ourselves a university.