Cornell Engineering Dean Digs Deeper Hole over Confiscation of Pro-Life Display

By October 24, 2008

Ivy League folklore has it that Cornell’s alma mater actually begins like this:

Far above Cayuga’s waters
There’s an awful smell;
Some say it’s Cayuga’s waters,
Some say it’s Cornell.

Folklore has a way of encoding a certain amount of truth, and I finally have figured out what this verse refers to: the stench of disdain for expressive rights on the Cornell campus.

Already there have been three troubling developments this year. First, Cornell has been criticized for monitoring and recording all Internet usage by students, which surely makes students think twice about what they research on the Internet. This policy was lampooned on October 11 in front of 11,263 football fans by the Harvard University Band (video), which spelled "1984" on the field and referred to "Big Red Brother" (Cornell’s teams are the "Big Red").

Second, as we reported less than a month ago, Cornell’s Student Assembly passed a resolution officially encouraging Cornell’s "Office of the Dean of Students to work with the S.A. to revise the Campus Code of Conduct to prevent further ‘hateful terminology’" by the Cornell Review after it published material (recently, "an article about campus ‘ghettos,’ ‘bitter minorities’ and affirmative action") that offended some students on campus apparently. FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley reported that in a letter to the Sun, some Review alumni detailed some of the profound abuses of free speech their publication has suffered over the past dozen years:

In 1995, students repeatedly stole and dumped hundreds of Cornell Reviews to prevent students from reading them. In 1997, residents from Cornell’s racially segregated dormitory, Ujamaa Residential College, burned hundreds of copies of The Cornell Review at a Nuremberg-style rally. In 1999, there was a student movement to defund the newspaper because of an "insensitive" political cartoon. In 2001, the administration admonished The Cornell Review for bringing Ann Coulter ’85 to campus to speak about the Confederate Flag. (At her speech, Coulter was pelted with oranges by members of the Hispanic separatist group MEChA.) In 2004-2005, the administration attempted to shut down The Cornell American, a cousin conservative paper, for opposing racial preferences.

To complete Cornell’s hat trick of transgressions against individual rights, the College of Engineering confiscated a student group’s pre-approved pro-life display on the Engineering Quad this week. Amazingly, the Cornell administration at large is defending this indefensible action, pretending that it was only a misunderstanding that caused the display to be confiscated and removed for 90 minutes until Cornell’s police arrived to resolve the issue. According to Tommy Bruce, Vice President for University Communications, in a Sun article, the whole thing was "an innocent mistake."

Dean of Engineering W. Kent Fuchs sent an e-mail yesterday afternoon to "All Engineering Faculty, Staff and Students" to this effect, apparently thinking that it was appropriate for administrators to wait until the police came to enforce the rights of the Cornell Coalition for Life (CCFL) student group. Fuchs wrote:

An ensuing discussion involving members of the CCFL, the Cornell Police, and the college administration, revealed that the organization had gone through proper channels to obtain university permission for the posting. The college administration apologized to CCFL for the inconvenience, and their signs were immediately returned and re-posted.

Well, the signs were confiscated and not replaced in the ground for about two hours. It took over an hour to resolve the conflict. And according to CCFL spokeswoman Tristen Cramer, club president Katherine Weible

had taped a laminated copy of the approval to the back of the first sign AND she was the one who ran after Ms. [Dawn] Warren [the administrator who confiscated the signs] and quickly explained that we had approval, showing her the proper forms. Ms. Warren continued to take the signs (our property, without our permission) into her office and told Katie quite firmly that "this content" could not have been approved because it is inappropriate.

So did Associate Dean Cathy Dove and Dawn Warren think the approval form was forged? Or did they just refuse to believe that this "inappropriate" content could possibly be approved for display on the Engineering Quad?

Indeed, Fuchs admits that this was a content issue after all, noting in his letter that Warren "was concerned that proper approvals had not been received because we typically only have signage related to Engineering activities on the quad."

And according to Cramer, Dove told her that there was an "unwritten policy" that permitted only engineering-related signs on the Engineering Quad. Dove even told her, Cramer says, that she was going to try to get the written policy changed to that effect. Ominously, the conclusion of Fuchs’ e-mail promises that "[w]e will work with our colleagues at the university level to examine our guidelines, both formal and informal, and we will clarify our official policy and how it will be enforced."

For the record, here is Cramer’s account of what happened yesterday:

  • 9AM (approximately): Dawn Warren removes the signs from the engineering quad. Katherine Weible (president of CCFL) follows her and explains that CCFL has full approval and shows the proper forms. Warren asks if the content was approved. Katie explains that is not how the process works. Warren says the content is inappropriate and should not have been approved. Warren puts the signs in her office and says she will investigate and call Katie later.
  • 9:10AM: Tristen Cramer talks to Roxanne Edsall, administrative assistant in the Office of Student Activities. Roxanne recommends that CCFL call the police.
  • 9:15AM: Tristen Cramer calls the Cornell Police and explains that our signs have been taken without our permission.
  • 9:20AM: Tristen and Katie inform Dawn Warren that the CUPolice have been called. Tristen also takes pictures of the signs in Warren’s office for evidence that they were there.
  • 9:30AM; Dawn Warren removes the signs from her office to an undisclosed location. Unknown staff from engineering offices informs Katie and Tristen that Warren is in the Associate Dean’s office, presumably with the signs.
  • 9:35AM: Cornell Police Officer arrives; hears CCFL’s side, and asks to talk to Dawn Warren privately.
  • 9:45AM: Police officer informs us that this will take a little while to sort out, says he is going to evaluate the signs, and goes back into the offices in the direction of Associate Dean Cathy Dove’s office.
  • 10:15AM: Tristen is called back to Warren’s office to talk with Warren, Dove, and the police officer. At this point, Dove says that the club has gone through the appropriate avenues of approval and can have the signs back. Then, Dove requests that the club not resume the display for the entire day, or at least not return to do the display the following day (since CCFL reserved the space for two days). Tristen explains the time and money that has gone into the project and that the club will proceed with the display as planned. Dove again requests that CCFL limit their display, citing an "unwritten policy" in the College of Engineering, meant to preserve green space, prevent clutter, and focus only on engineering related activities rather than political or opinionated displays. The police officer also explains the process of Cornell’s expansion and the high value the school places on the open spaces. Tristen expresses concern about this unwritten policy and the apparent idea that Cornell is planning to limit free speech in the future. She again emphasizes her disappointment in the way the situation was handled and says that the display will go on as planned.
  • 10:30AM: Cathy Dove leaves for another meeting. Police officer takes down everyone’s information for the report. The signs are returned to Tristen Cramer.
  • 10:45AM: Tristen, Katie, and two other CCFL members struggle to resume the display, since they do not have the tools necessary to put the signs back in the ground. Cornell mainten[a]nce truck drives by, a member chases it down and borrows a hammer. The display is back in the ground shortly before 11.

The gorges at Cornell run pretty deep. I would suggest that Cornell officials stop digging themselves a new one.

Schools: Cornell University Cases: Cornell University: Student Group’s Sign Display Removed from Engineering Quad