Cornell rejects student group’s call for ‘trigger warnings’

cornell Cornell University in Ithaca, New York | Dantes De MonteCristo|Wikipedia|CC BY-SA 4.0

Citing the need for the free exchange of ideas, the leaders of Cornell University have rejected a student resolution advocating that the university mandate “content warnings for traumatic content in the classroom.”

“We cannot accept this resolution, as the actions it recommends would infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and are at odds with the goals of a Cornell education,” university president Martha Pollack and university provost Michael I. Kotlikoff said in an April 3 response.

The Cornell University Student Assembly resolution recommended warnings for content including but not limited to “sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment, xenophobia.” It contended that “exposure to triggering content” can negatively affect students with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the content warnings would respect and acknowledge this.

The addition of content warnings “makes the discussion of sensitive academic topics more predictable, therefore balancing the academic freedom of instructors to teach with the needs of the student body.”

The resolution also recommended that students who “opt out of exposure to triggering content will not be penalized” provided they can make up any missed content.

Pollack and Kotlikoff’s response to the resolution said faculty members have the right to determine what and how they teach in their classrooms, provided they teach competently and follow professional ethics. The recommended content warning policy would have “a chilling effect” on faculty and faculty would avoid spontaneous, challenging discussion for fear of censure. The policy “would unacceptably limit our students’ ability to speak, question, and explore, lest a classroom conversation veer into an area determined ‘off-limits,’” the response said.

In their response, Cornell’s administration acknowledged that faculty should show “​​common courtesy” and give notice if potentially “challenging or painful” topics are anticipated. However, the university president and provost also rejected allowing an opt-out for students who say the content is traumatizing.

“Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education: essential to our students’ intellectual growth, and to their future ability to lead and thrive in a diverse society,” their statement said. “As such, permitting our students to opt out of all such encounters, across any course or topic, would have a deleterious impact both on the education of the individual student and on the academic distinction of a Cornell degree.”

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