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New President Spells Hope for Cornell

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education today announces that David J. Skorton will become the new president of Cornell University. Skorton, currently the president of the University of Iowa, has made a name for himself as a defender of free speech and academic freedom. The Chronicle article says:

At Iowa, Dr. Skorton has actively promoted the arts and humanities as well as scientific research, and he has defended a controversial speaker’s right to appear at his university. A few months after the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for vandalizing research laboratories and offices at the University of Iowa in November 2004, Dr. Skorton allowed a supporter of the extremist group to speak on campus. The supporter, Steven Best, an associate professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, had been invited by a law-student organization.

Later, when Dr. Skorton testified before a Senate committee investigating domestic-terrorism threats about how the vandalism at Iowa had slowed the progress of research, the committee’s chairman questioned his decision to allow Best’s appearance. Dr. Skorton said that he had followed institutional policies in permitting the talk and that campuses should serve as a marketplace of ideas.

Skorton certainly has his work cut out for him at Cornell, which FIRE’s Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource rates as a red-light school for having policies such as the one prohibiting “bias-related incidents,” which have “the effect of demeaning or degrading an individual or a group and is motivated in whole or in part by the perpetrator’s bias [based on race, religion, ethnicity/national origin, or sexual orientation].” FIRE most recently highlighted Cornell’s vague and overbroad policies in our letter to Phi Beta Kappa (PBK), in which we asked the honor society to hold Cornell and other member institutions accountable for having policies that pose an imminent threat to academic freedom.

While we wait for PBK to act on its promise of ensuring academic freedom and free speech at its member institutions, we look forward to Skorton’s presidency, and hope that he will make a reality of Cornell’s stated commitments to freedom of speech.

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