Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in her biography of Voltaire, famously coined the phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This should be a universally accepted principle at Cornell. But sadly, it is not.
On November 30, Cornell Republicans hosted former U.S. Congressman and presidential candidate Rick Santorum. As a Republican known for his unabashed support of social conservatism and of Donald Trump, Santorum was met with fervent protest outside the event, which is allowed per University policy. At the beginning of the event, the president of Cornell Republicans kindly asked that audience members do not interrupt Santorum and defer all questions until the end of the speech. This reasonable request did not stop several members of the audience from hurling insults and chants throughout the event, which prevented audience members from hearing Santorum’s speech. The situation got so out of hand that the speech had to be paused so that a University official could tell students that if they did not respect Santorum’s ability to speak, they would be dismissed from the event. This proved to be ineffective; many still continued to interrupt Santorum. The type of behavior on display that night was deeply disrespectful to Santorum, who graciously offered to present his viewpoints to members of our community. It was also disrespectful to the students who came to hear him speak.
But beyond the rudeness of the interruptions, the actions of several community members in the audience highlight a troubling trend occurring not only at Cornell but on campuses around the country. University campuses are transforming into echo-chambers of liberal thought, without any tolerance for opposing points of view. While our University proudly boasts about its ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, it has done a poor job at cultivating an environment welcoming to divergent points of view.
Diversity of thought and opinion is crucial in fostering a vibrant campus. And, not surprisingly, this is the type of diversity that Cornell profoundly lacks. According to the Sun, 96 percent of the faculty donations to political candidates between 2011-2014 went to Democratic campaigns. This indicates that many of our faculty speak from a liberal point of view. Liberal views, when countered by opposing points of view, are not problematic. However, it is deeply troubling when there is an overwhelming homogeneity of viewpoints, regardless of what the dominant viewpoint is. At Cornell, the predominance of left-wing thought creates an atmosphere in which liberal opinions are accepted as fact, and where right-wing expression is immediately dismissed.
The chickens came home to roost when Santorum came to campus. Many students were simply not accustomed to hearing conservative points of view. Moreover, many in our community felt it was incumbent on them to prevent these perspectives from being introduced to Cornell.
Many Cornellians may have disagreed with the content of Santorum’s speech. However, it was refreshing to hear his perspective on many important issues. One of the purposes of higher education is to educate young adults, not just to reinforce opinions they already have. In his speech, Santorum said that it is a privilege for conservative students to be on campuses that are mostly liberal, because these students are exposed to different points of view which allow them to hone their arguments and gain a more nuanced perspective of the world. Likewise, it is beneficial for liberals to be exposed to conservative opinions. Unpopular points of view shouldn’t be censored, but should instead be challenged and debated at the appropriate time and place. Interrupting a guest speaker accomplishes neither of these things.
Last year, many Jewish and pro-Israel students on campuses were disturbed by Rev. Graylan Hagler’s speech on March 1. Hagler opined about Israel fabricating stories of Hamas terrorist tunnels and about Israel committing a Holocaust-like genocide against the Palestinians. He also shamelessly defended Palestinian terrorism. Most Jewish and pro-Israel people find this terribly offensive. Yet those of us in the audience listened respectfully and did not interrupt. Hagler’s right to come to campus and discuss his viewpoints was respected.
Vigorous debate is the hallmark of a free and thriving society, and helps foster intellectually robust individuals who are better able to understand and face the complexities of our world. I hope that the University will appreciate the importance of these values for both the Cornell campus and our society.