FIRE calls on Cornell to eliminate diversity-statement mandate, reject ‘educational requirement’ for faculty

June 8, 2021

An explosion of racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 saw many universities launch anti-racism initiatives. One such initiative, at Cornell University, has generated a proposal that jeopardizes faculty members’ freedom of speech and academic freedom.

FIRE wrote to Cornell yesterday, raising concerns over a proposed “educational requirement” for faculty, and calling on the university to eliminate its existing mandate that applicants for faculty positions submit a statement of their contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI.

Today, Cornell responded to say “no decision has yet been made on the [proposal’s] recommendations,” but the university “will be sure to take [FIRE’s] viewpoints into consideration as the process moves forward.”

Divisive DEI mandate and proposal threaten faculty speech, academic freedom

Last July, Cornell President Martha Pollack asked the Faculty Senate to take action “to create a more just and equitable Cornell.” Among other directives, Pollack tasked the group with developing “a new set of programs focusing on the history of race, racism and colonialism in the United States, designed to ensure understanding of how inherited social and historical forces have shaped our society today, and how they affect interactions inside and outside of our classrooms, laboratories and studios.” Pollack suggested the programs will be mandatory: “All faculty would be expected to participate in this program.”

In response, a Faculty Senate working group issued a report in April expressing support for an “educational requirement” for faculty. The report states:

The goal of the educational program is to support faculty in creating an antiracist, just and equitable climate for our campus community. Doing this effectively requires faculty to understand that structural racism, colonialism, and injustice, and their current manifestations have a historical and relational basis, even as it requires that faculty learn to communicate effectively across the differences that they will encounter as they go about their work.

To that end, the program would 

  1. require that all faculty candidates for renewal or promotion and tenure submit a statement of contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion (extending the current requirement applicable to new applicants for faculty positions); 
  2. require faculty to participate in DEI workshops; 
  3. include a DEI-related question in course evaluations; and 
  4. require “DEI climate statements” to be part of each department chair’s annual report to the dean.

The details of these requirements were not fully fleshed out.

The existing rubric for evaluating these statements leaves little doubt that faculty candidates will be penalized for disagreeing with the university’s or their evaluators’ views on DEI-related questions.

In May, the Faculty Senate voted on three resolutions concerning the proposal. One resolution supported the mandatory, university-wide implementation of the working group’s recommendations; one supported the objectives of the proposal “without mandating a centralized, top-down approach”; and a third endorsed “voluntary participation by faculty in anti-racism and bias educational programs.” No clear mandate emerged, as a plurality of the Faculty Senate voted in favor of each of the three incompatible resolutions. The vote outcomes and resolutions were advanced to the administration for review.

As reported by Legal Insurrection yesterday, the administration sent a letter to the Faculty Senate on June 1, acknowledging disagreements about how to implement the proposal and directing the deans of each school and college to “work with their faculty to develop programs that address the aims outlined in the resolutions, with the goal of having these programs in place by the fall of 2022.”

While this may be a slight improvement over a university-wide, top-down mandate, the working group’s recommendations would still threaten academic freedom and freedom of conscience if implemented by individual colleges.

Faculty required to agree with, promote controversial views on diversity

As FIRE’s letter explains, Cornell makes strong commitments to the academic freedom and expressive rights of its faculty including freedom “from direction and restraint in scholarship, research, and creative expression” and “freedom to engage in reasoned opposition to messages to which one objects” which “preclude Cornell from requiring faculty to affirm, support, or teach beliefs they may not hold.” And yet, the proposed educational requirement has the express goal of requiring faculty to adopt certain viewpoints about structural racism, systemic bias, privilege, and related concepts whose “very existence is a matter of current and lively ideological debate.”

Especially concerning is the potential expansion of Cornell’s DEI-statement requirement. Our letter argues that the existing rubric for evaluating these statements leaves little doubt that faculty candidates will be penalized for disagreeing with the university’s or their evaluators’ views on DEI-related questions such as the “challenges underrepresented individuals in higher education face and the factors influencing underrepresentation of particular groups in academia.” Candidates will likewise suffer for not significantly dedicating their teaching, research, and service activities to a particular ideological conception of DEI.

Given its speech promises, Cornell can no more demand ideological conformity around contested issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion than it can require faculty to affirm the importance of patriotism.

The lack of precise definitions for the politically loaded terms “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” only amplifies the risk of improper viewpoint discrimination. As we explained to Cornell, “that vagueness provides space for subjective, arbitrary, and viewpoint-discriminatory decision-making,” heightening the risk that the DEI statement “functions as a litmus test to screen out candidates with minority, dissenting, or simply unpopular views.” This requirement cannot be reconciled with Cornell’s policies on free expression and academic freedom.

Given its speech promises, Cornell can no more demand ideological conformity around contested issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion than it can require faculty to affirm the importance of patriotism and prove their loyalty to that cause with evidence of their involvement in patriotic organizations or plans to promote patriotism at Cornell.

Our letter recognizes that Cornell is free to “shape and express its own aspirational values as an institution, including the promotion of diversity, equity, and inclusion, in whatever manner the university may define those concepts within the bounds of the law,” and to “ensure that its educational environment is free from unlawful discriminatory conduct.” 

However, having enshrined freedom of expression and academic freedom in its written policies, 

[Cornell] cannot require its faculty to affirm any specific political or ideological perspective. Nor can it require them to demonstrate commitment to a preferred set of beliefs with evidence of their efforts to promote or raise awareness of it. To do so amounts to compelled speech and puts a straitjacket around academic freedom and freedom of conscience.

Cornell must eliminate its universal DEI-statement mandate and ensure that any faculty education programs including those implemented at the level of individual schools or colleges are consistent with the university’s robust promises of free expression and academic freedom.

FIRE appreciates Cornell’s quick response acknowledging the concerns raised in our letter. We will continue to watch the situation to ensure the university complies with its own speech-protective policies.

Schools:  Cornell University

Cases:  Cornell University: Diversity-Statement Mandate and Proposed Faculty Educational Requirement Compel Faculty to Affirm Certain Viewpoints