A Letter: The atmosphere of fear at Cornell University must end

Members of Cornell University's Faculty

Dear President Martha Pollack, Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Deputy Provost Avery August, Senior Associate Vice Provost Yael Levitte, Assistant Director Gabriela Vargas, and Chairman Kraig Kayser:

This is the year of “Free Expression at Cornell”, a university that also prides itself on its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, with our president recently receiving a national diversity award. We are a university with a mission of “Any Person, Any Study”.

But here at Cornell, we do not feel equally protected by the University, and we do not feel equally able to express ourselves. Most recently, we were horrified by the threats made to our Jewish community. We applaud the president for issuing a swift and forceful statement of condemnation. It is this kind of unwavering support that we hope to see for all vulnerable members of the campus community, especially Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and other BIPOC students, staff, and faculty.

In line with the ACLU’s call, we ask that you issue a public statement that focuses on condemning all acts of harassment and intimidation on campus and declares the value of all free speech within “the limits of the law and the University’s anti-harassment policy”, so that we can return to a safe teaching, learning, and working environment. Moreover, we ask that you offer administrative protections against doxxing and implement community care alternatives instead of intensified policing, which has been a touchstone of your response. Free speech for all and a hate-free atmosphere are complementary values to the standing against anti-Semitism initiatives announced by President Pollack on November 1, 2023.

These recent threats are a part of a larger climate of alienation, racism, harassment, intimidation, and doxxing on our campus, and part of wider attempts to divide oppressed peoples. We call on the president to condemn this climate of hate and to work proactively to restore the value of free speech and create conditions for furthering understanding. The administration’s lack of an avowal of all of our experiences and rights to expression has left BIPOC and otherwise vulnerable members of our campus community feeling unseen and unsafe.

We have been appalled by anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic posters and a truck vilifying an African-American faculty member, and we feel bereft that this incident has gone unacknowledged by the administration. The president and Board of Trustees chairman’s statements to the campus on October 16 condemned the faculty member and gave cover to the subsequent doxxing.

As the Cornell Chapter of the American Association of University Professors put it in their recent statement, the university’s announcement of an investigation into our colleague’s conduct was a mistake, and it “should have instead declared forthrightly that free speech for all people, on any issue, within ‘the limits of the law and the University’s anti-harassment policy,’ is a core value that the University will defend”.

The administration bears responsibility for the risk, scrutiny, and overall danger, especially for faculty, staff, and students who are BIPOC, international, and otherwise marginalised. Collectively, related to our duties as faculty, staff, and students working on questions of domination and oppression, we have faced: international harassment campaigns, circulation of our personal addresses, unsolicited hate mail, threats to our families, calls for our firing, office vandalisation, the donning of intimidating logos in our classes, photographing and videotaping of our activities on campus, screenshotting and circulating of our classroom communications, charges of reverse racism, threats of poor course evaluations, and an unwillingness to sponsor events on Palestine.

This hostile work environment has had a chilling effect on our research, teaching, and studying. The climate thwarts our educational mission which guarantees “any person, any study”. Many of us are now afraid to speak freely and have resorted to wearing masks to hide our identities on campus.

Without adequate support, some of us have been forced to retreat from the community altogether. Doxxing, intimidation, and harassment are known to inflict mental health, economic, and social damage, often to family members and other innocent victims. Moreover, research shows that those from historically excluded and marginalised communities are more likely to be subject to racist intimidation and threats.We want to be clear that doxxing and harassment is a collective problem. When one person is targeted, it has a ripple effect. As such, these practices require collective and structural, not individualised, attention and responses. The issue is not limited to those of us who study and teach Israel/Palestine, but also applies to teachers and students of the United States, Russia and Ukraine, China, Nagorno-Karabakh, and elsewhere, as well as colonialism, racism, casteism, militarism, empire, gender/sexuality, democracy/authoritarianism, and other topics related to domination and oppression.

The actions from the university that we would like to see do not include increased policing, security and surveillance, which have been touchstones of the university’s response. University entities currently advise measures like CUPD screening of work email, installation of security cameras, and increased patrols and police presence.

Increased surveillance and securitisation restrict expression and exacerbate a climate of fear. These must not be the only responses: Such measures can be discriminatory, and not all communities are equally protected by or comfortable with law enforcement. Thus, in addition to public condemnation of all acts of intimidation, harassment, and doxxing, and a public reassurance of our equal rights to free expression, we would like to see the university invest in responses that emphasise community care and a robust defence of open and rigorous analysis. In particular, we urge the university to take measures including, but not limited to:

  • Implementing and publicising anti-harassment procedures, such as the resources compiled by library staff
  • Funding for anti-doxxing and data privacy staff, consultations, and services such as DeleteMe
  • Transparent and ethical data policies: disclosure of CUPD and security infrastructure budget and operations; non-purchase of predictive policing software with history of racial bias or investigative software that sells to ICE, building referendums on security cameras
  • Administrative protections (eg, remote teaching provisions)
  • A series of educational events on free expression to be organised by the AAUP

We need to see the university fulfil its commitments to freedom of speech, diversity, and inclusion, and to provide substantive expressions and guarantees of support and reassurance to all members of its community, as other university administrations have done. Here are helpful statements from the Administrations at Syracuse, Rutgers, and Columbia, which has also announced an anti-doxxing initiative.

Please reassure us that we are free to express ourselves without fear of retribution from the university so that we can continue researching, teaching, and making community with peace of mind, dignity, and safety.

Please also reassure us that you will ardently work to protect free speech, including critiques of the actions of any state’s human rights violations, and will counter any attempts to conflate critique of the State of Israel with anti-Semitism, just as a critique of any state’s human rights violations cannot be considered a critique of a religious, ethnic, national, or any other identity.

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