Cornell Professor Warns ‘Anti-Racism’ Training Mandate Will Exacerbate ‘Toxic’ Campus Environment

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A building on the campus of Cornell University in Ithica, N.Y. (Natalie Ter/Getty Images)

Cornell University’s Faculty Senate will vote this week on a slate of “anti-racism” proposals, including whether to mandate an educational requirement on “racism, bias and equity” for students and faculty.

The group will vote on a set of six resolutions, which come after university president Martha Pollack tasked the Faculty Senate with developing plans for the creation and implementation of such a requirement in July 2020.

Three resolutions focus on anti-racism teachings for students. One is an endorses a proposal that lays out plans for a for-credit educational requirement as “worthy of consideration” by the administration and says that faculty must be consulted before any decision is made to implement the group’s recommendation.

Another would be an endorsement from faculty for requiring that all students complete at least one for-credit course that addresses race and bias. A third proposes one or more courses on “racism, colonialism, antiracism, and decolonization” to fulfill the requirement be co-taught by faculty members representing each of six departments/programs: Africana Studies, American Studies, American Indian and Indigenous Studies, Asian American Studies, Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Latinx Studies. 

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Meanwhile, a faculty working group has proposed creating educational programs for faculty to learn about “structural racism, colonialism and injustice,” claiming that such an understanding is “an essential part of the job.” It recommends that a core educational requirement be implemented for faculty for 1.5 to 2 hours per semester along with additional training that could be delivered during regular departmental meetings. 

One resolution would say that recommendations in the working group’s report are worthy of consideration by the administration and that faculty must be consulted before any decision is made to implement the group’s recommendation. Another encourages such programming to be developed by each department, rather than by the administration. A third endorses voluntary participation by faculty in “anti-racism and bias” educational programs. 

Voting on the proposals comes one week after the Faculty Senate voted to approve the creation of an anti-racism center on campus. 

William A. Jacobson, a clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School, has stood in vocal opposition to the proposals. 

“I am unequivocally against mandates. I do not accept what the university and much of academia, I believe, misleadingly calls anti-racism,” he said in a recent interview with National Review. 

He added that anti-racism, as prescribed by Ibram Kendi in his book How to be an Anti-Racist, calls for discrimination against people in power to remedy past discrimination.

Under Kendi’s guidance, only those who are actively participating in dismantling systems of oppression are anti-racist. Those who remain silent or “have the traditional American civil rights notion that we treat people based upon the content of their character, not the color of their skin” are racist, Jacobson explained.

He doesn’t believe the university should be adopting an “offshoot of critical race theory” as an official ideology, he said.

“If you read these proposals, it says that this is what it is on campus, that this is what students and faculty must accept and learn about and I think that’s anti-educational,” Jacobson said. “That’s an ideological mandate that a lot of people disagree with. It’s not in the tradition of the American civil rights movement and they are adopting it as a semi-official or official University ideology.”

He added: “There is so much critical race theory and anti-racism, activism, programs, administrative personnel. The campus is awash in this stuff. If students want to go and participate in that voluntarily, fine. But I don’t think that should be forced on people. I think when you are forcing it on people, you’re now engaging in coercion, not education.” 

Jacobson, who also serves as president of the Legal Insurrection Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to free expression and academic freedom on campuses, argues that the proposals, if implemented, would have “a terribly chilling effect on free expression on campus.”

“Anybody who is on campus knows that it’s already a toxic environment for anybody who disagrees with critical race theory,” he said. “With the prevailing leftist ideology on campus, it’s absolutely toxic. People are demonized.”

For years, studies by the campus newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun, have revealed that upwards of 95 percent of employee and professor political donations go to Democrats and left-leaning political action committees. In 2020, 98 percent of some $900,000 political donations by faculty went to Democrats.

He noted that people who stray from the accepted left-leaning viewpoints are “shouted down,” including former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican, who was heckled when he spoke at the university in 2016. Michael Johns, Sr., the national co-founder of the U.S. Tea Party movement, was met with similar treatment when he spoke at the school one year later.

“You take an ideology, which is not in the best interest — I believe — of the university or the country, and you force it on people through mandates and the result is going to be a stifling of what is already a free expression problem on campus,” he said.

However, what the Faculty Senate passes is purely advisory, Charles Van Loan, the Dean of Faculty at the university told National Review in a recent interview. 

“In general, there’s a lot of discussion now on campus on these resolutions, partly because it’s important and also it’s a topic that people are passionate about,” said Van Loan, who is a professor of computer science at Cornell.

“It’s not as if the Senate recommends something, hands it over to the administration and they do with it as they please,” he said, “That’s not the way it works.”

Instead, through the Senate vote, Cornell faculty are simply expressing how they feel about a number of different recommendations found in the reports, he said. If the faculty senate passes a recommendation “it’s not as if it’s done,” it only underscores the importance of the topic for further consideration. 

He considers this vote just “step one” in a long process. Whichever resolutions ultimately pass would need to go through an implementation process, which would include budgeting and feedback from various offices and committees. 

“It’s a real mistake and a gross simplification to think that once this stuff exits the Senate, it’s now out of our hands,” he said.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out there across the spectrum,” he added. “People think that now we’re going to be indoctrinated — if I don’t play ball, I’m going to lose my job.”

He argues that is not the case because nothing will be implemented without cooperation between the administration and faculty. 

The faculty training requirement is about “accountability,” he claimed, though some faculty have seen such a mandate as “coercion and punishment.”

“I will be the first to say that if you mismanage accountability it does turn into coercion and punishment,” he added.

He said advocates are pushing for educational development that would see, for example, civil engineering students learning about the Flint, Mich. water crisis or public health students learning about the intersection of race and health care access in the 1918 pandemic while learning about vaccination programs.

“So, this idea that it’s all about some small group of humanities professors who are [proponents of] critical race theory” is not the whole story, he said, before adding that it’s “part of the piece, but not the whole thing.”

“This idea that there’s some party line that’s being pushed out there is totally false,” he said.

He also disagreed with the view that the anti-racism center will exist to advance critical race theory, saying that while “that’ll be in there, I’m sure, it might be one of 20 different research activities that are going on in the center if that plays out properly.”

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