Unlike many universities in recent years, Cornell University's administration is refusing to give in to the demands of its student government that a "traumatic content" warning should be included in class syllabi.
On March 23, the student government voted to pass Resolution 31, which would "require instructors who present graphic traumatic content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to provide advance notice to students and refrain from penalizing students who opt out of exposure to such content."
Cornell, however, has stated that the resolution violates the school's commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry.
"Academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle in higher education, establishes the right of faculty members to determine what they teach in their classrooms and how they teach it, provided that they behave in a manner consistent with professional ethics and competence, and do not introduce controversial matters unrelated to the subject of their course," a statement from Cornell reads. "And freedom of inquiry establishes the right of students, researchers, and scholars to select a course of study and research without censure or undue interference."
The trigger warnings would warn students that course content may include reference to "sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment [and] xenophobia]" according to the resolution. Should a student choose to opt out of the discussion, they would not be penalized.
While professors are allowed to notify students of content that is to be discussed in class or to explain why they have decided to discuss a topic, they cannot be forced to preface the material in the syllabus. Being forced to disclose topics that could be upsetting to students could potentially interfere with faculty members' "fundamental right to determine what and how to teach," which could prevent them from adding certain topics to their curriculum throughout the semester.
Cornell has also expressed concern that the resolution would "have a chilling effect on faculty, who would naturally fear censure lest they bring a discussion spontaneously into new and challenging territory, or fail to accurately anticipate students' reaction to a topic or idea," while also potentially affecting a student's ability to discuss the topic or openly ask questions during class.
The university also noted that permitting students to opt out of learning about certain subjects they might find upsetting would "have a deleterious impact both on the education of the individual student, and on the academic distinction of a Cornell degree."
President of the Cornell Student Assembly, Valeria Valencia, told the DCNF, "Although I embrace the shared governance system of Cornell University, I was disappointed to hear that President Pollack rejected Student Assembly Resolution 31: Mandating Content Warnings for Traumatic Content in the Classroom," and added, "I disagree with the idea that by implementing content warnings in the classroom, we would be infringing on the principle of academic freedom and freedom of speech. This resolution was created with the intention of supporting students, not anything else. In the future, I hope to see administration, faculty, and students working together to explore this idea and come up with an amicable solution."
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