A Letter: The atmosphere of fear at Cornell University must end

After attacks on a faculty member over comments about Israel’s war on Gaza, teachers and students call on Cornell to take action.

FILE - A woman walks by a Cornell University sign on the Ivy League school's campus in Ithaca, New York, on Jan. 14, 2022. The Cornell University student accused of making online threats against Jewish people on campus had mental health struggles and apparently showed remorse soon after, according to his mother, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.(AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File)
A woman walks by a Cornell University sign on its campus in Ithaca, New York, on January 14, 2022 [File: AP/Ted Shaffrey]

Dear President Martha Pollack, Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Deputy Provost Avery August, Senior Associate Vice Provost Yael Levitte, Assistant Director Gabriela Vargas, and Chairman Kraig Kayser:

This is the year of “Free Expression at Cornell”, a university that also prides itself on its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, with our president recently receiving a national diversity award. We are a university with a mission of “Any Person, Any Study”.

But here at Cornell, we do not feel equally protected by the University, and we do not feel equally able to express ourselves. Most recently, we were horrified by the threats made to our Jewish community. We applaud the president for issuing a swift and forceful statement of condemnation. It is this kind of unwavering support that we hope to see for all vulnerable members of the campus community, especially Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and other BIPOC students, staff, and faculty.

In line with the ACLU’s call, we ask that you issue a public statement that focuses on condemning all acts of harassment and intimidation on campus and declares the value of all free speech within “the limits of the law and the University’s anti-harassment policy”, so that we can return to a safe teaching, learning, and working environment. Moreover, we ask that you offer administrative protections against doxxing and implement community care alternatives instead of intensified policing, which has been a touchstone of your response. Free speech for all and a hate-free atmosphere are complementary values to the standing against anti-Semitism initiatives announced by President Pollack on November 1, 2023.

These recent threats are a part of a larger climate of alienation, racism, harassment, intimidation, and doxxing on our campus, and part of wider attempts to divide oppressed peoples. We call on the president to condemn this climate of hate and to work proactively to restore the value of free speech and create conditions for furthering understanding. The administration’s lack of an avowal of all of our experiences and rights to expression has left BIPOC and otherwise vulnerable members of our campus community feeling unseen and unsafe.

We have been appalled by anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic posters and a truck vilifying an African-American faculty member, and we feel bereft that this incident has gone unacknowledged by the administration. The president and Board of Trustees chairman’s statements to the campus on October 16 condemned the faculty member and gave cover to the subsequent doxxing.

As the Cornell Chapter of the American Association of University Professors put it in their recent statement, the university’s announcement of an investigation into our colleague’s conduct was a mistake, and it “should have instead declared forthrightly that free speech for all people, on any issue, within ‘the limits of the law and the University’s anti-harassment policy,’ is a core value that the University will defend”.

The administration bears responsibility for the risk, scrutiny, and overall danger, especially for faculty, staff, and students who are BIPOC, international, and otherwise marginalised. Collectively, related to our duties as faculty, staff, and students working on questions of domination and oppression, we have faced: international harassment campaigns, circulation of our personal addresses, unsolicited hate mail, threats to our families, calls for our firing, office vandalisation, the donning of intimidating logos in our classes, photographing and videotaping of our activities on campus, screenshotting and circulating of our classroom communications, charges of reverse racism, threats of poor course evaluations, and an unwillingness to sponsor events on Palestine.

This hostile work environment has had a chilling effect on our research, teaching, and studying. The climate thwarts our educational mission which guarantees “any person, any study”. Many of us are now afraid to speak freely and have resorted to wearing masks to hide our identities on campus.

Without adequate support, some of us have been forced to retreat from the community altogether. Doxxing, intimidation, and harassment are known to inflict mental health, economic, and social damage, often to family members and other innocent victims. Moreover, research shows that those from historically excluded and marginalised communities are more likely to be subject to racist intimidation and threats.

We want to be clear that doxxing and harassment is a collective problem. When one person is targeted, it has a ripple effect. As such, these practices require collective and structural, not individualised, attention and responses. The issue is not limited to those of us who study and teach Israel/Palestine, but also applies to teachers and students of the United States, Russia and Ukraine, China, Nagorno-Karabakh, and elsewhere, as well as colonialism, racism, casteism, militarism, empire, gender/sexuality, democracy/authoritarianism, and other topics related to domination and oppression.

The actions from the university that we would like to see do not include increased policing, security and surveillance, which have been touchstones of the university’s response. University entities currently advise measures like CUPD screening of work email, installation of security cameras, and increased patrols and police presence.

Increased surveillance and securitisation restrict expression and exacerbate a climate of fear. These must not be the only responses: Such measures can be discriminatory, and not all communities are equally protected by or comfortable with law enforcement. Thus, in addition to public condemnation of all acts of intimidation, harassment, and doxxing, and a public reassurance of our equal rights to free expression, we would like to see the university invest in responses that emphasise community care and a robust defence of open and rigorous analysis. In particular, we urge the university to take measures including, but not limited to:

  • Implementing and publicising anti-harassment procedures, such as the resources compiled by library staff
  • Funding for anti-doxxing and data privacy staff, consultations, and services such as DeleteMe
  • Transparent and ethical data policies: disclosure of CUPD and security infrastructure budget and operations; non-purchase of predictive policing software with history of racial bias or investigative software that sells to ICE, building referendums on security cameras
  • Administrative protections (eg, remote teaching provisions)
  • A series of educational events on free expression to be organised by the AAUP

We need to see the university fulfil its commitments to freedom of speech, diversity, and inclusion, and to provide substantive expressions and guarantees of support and reassurance to all members of its community, as other university administrations have done. Here are helpful statements from the Administrations at SyracuseRutgers, and Columbia, which has also announced an anti-doxxing initiative.

Please reassure us that we are free to express ourselves without fear of retribution from the university so that we can continue researching, teaching, and making community with peace of mind, dignity, and safety.

Please also reassure us that you will ardently work to protect free speech, including critiques of the actions of any state’s human rights violations, and will counter any attempts to conflate critique of the State of Israel with anti-Semitism, just as a critique of any state’s human rights violations cannot be considered a critique of a religious, ethnic, national, or any other identity.

List of signatories:

Adam A Holmes, Alumni

Adam Chandler, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Alaa R. Farghli, Student

Alec McGail, Alumni

Alejandra Quintero, Alumni

Alex Nading, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Alex van Biema, Student

Alexander Hoepker, Alumni

Alexander Wallace, General Public

Alexis Boyce, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Alican Taylan, Student

Alicia Swords, Alumni and Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Alison Bliss, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Allison Weiner Heinemann, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Alyiah Gonzales, Student/Instructor

Amiel Bize, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Andra Sonia Petrutiu, Student

Andre Nascimento, Student

Andrew Moisey, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Andrew Musser, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Ani Chen, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Arlan Huang, Artist

Arnav Gupta, Student

Ashwin Kumar, Student

Anton Moore, Student

Ashley Stockstill, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Aslihan Gunhan, Student

Asya Ece Uzmay, Student

Ava White, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Bahar Mirhosseni, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Barbara Regenspan, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Begum Adalet, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Ben Wrubel, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Benjamin Barson, Postdoctoral Fellow

Benjamin S. Yost, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Bianca Waked, Student

Brandon Granby, General Public

Brian V Sengdala, Student

Caitlin Blanchfield, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Camille Suarez, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Carole E. Boyce-Davis, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Carrie Chalmers, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Catherine Wilmes, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Cathy Timmermann, Alumni

Cecelia Lawless, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Chiara Formichi, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Chloe Ahmann, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Chloe Wray, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Christine B Balance, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Christine Wen, Alumni

Claire Cororaton, Student

Claudia Verhoeven, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Courtney Ricketts, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Daniel Hirschman, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Daniella Pagan, General Public

Daphne Blakey, Student

Darine Yusuf, Student

Darlene Evans, Cornell Faculty/Staff

David Bateman, Cornell Faculty/Staff

David Levitsky, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Denise Green, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Derek Chang, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Derrick R. Spires, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Durba Ghosh, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Ecem Saricayir, Student

Edmundo Paz-Soldan, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Edvard Avilés Meza, Student

Edward E. Baptist, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Ekin Erar, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Eli Friedman, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Elisabeth Rattenborg, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Elise Finielz, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Eliza Bettinger, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Elizabeth H. Sarfaty, General Public

Ella Street, Postdoctoral Fellow

Elizabeth Radman, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Emma Campbell, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Emma Park, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Emily Parsons, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Emily Van Dyne, Alumni

Emily Vo, Student

Emmy Lewis, Student

Eng-Beng Lim, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Enzo Traverso, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Eric Cheyfitz, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Eric Tagliacozzo, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Erica Augenstein, Alumni

Ernesto Bassi, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Esra Akcan, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Ewa Nizalowska, Student

Wayles Browne, Emeritus faculty

Farah Bakaari, Student

Florian Idenburg, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Fouad Makki, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Gaby Castro, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Georgia Koumantaros, Student

Gina Goico, Student

Gracelynn Osei-Bosompem, Student

Hannah Miller, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Hannah Toombs, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Helena Maria Viramontes, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Ian Greer, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Iman Ali, Student

Iftikhar Dadi, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Iliana Burgos, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jaleesa Reed, Cornell Faculty/Staff

James A. Gross, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jamie F Block, Alumni

Jamila Michener, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jamie Johnson, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jane Glaubman, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jane-Marie Law, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Jeff Sabol, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Jeffery Hermanson, General Public

Jennifer Colt, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jeremy Braddock, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jim DelRosso, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jodi Dean, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Jolene Rickard, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jonathan B Monroe, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Jorge DeFendini, Alumni

Jose Beduya, Cornell Faculty/Staff

José Luis Cano Jr., Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Joseph Berra, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Juhwan Seo, Student

Judith Byfield, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Judith Tauber, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Julia Chang, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Juliana Garcia, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Juliana Hu Pegues, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Julie McLean, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Juliet Lu, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Juno Salazar Parreñas, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Kaitlin Emmanuel, Student

Kalie Pierce, Student

Karin and Uwe Tauber, General Public

Karina Edouard, Student

Kate McCullough, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Katherine Ally Zaslavsky, Student

Kathryn Russell, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Katie Wang, Student

Katy Rendinaro Kimple, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Ken Roberts, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Kerri Sakamoto, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Kevin Duong, Alumni

Kieran adams, Student

Kim Haines-Eitzen, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Kimberly Knight, Former Faculty at another Institution

Kimiyo Bremer, Student

Kina Viola, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Kristin Roebuck, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Kun Huang, Alumni

Kurt Jordan, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Laila Abd Elmagid, Alumni

Lana Aldos, Alumni

Laraib Chaudhry, Student

Laura Caicedo, Student

Laura Schoenle, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Lauren Oertel, Student

lawrence maminta, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Lee Simpfendoerfer, Alumni

Leila Tayeb, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Leon Miller-Out, Alumni

Leslie Alexander, Alumni

Leslie Schultz, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Liliana Colanzi, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Lisa D. Camp, Student

Lisa Quainoo, Student

Lynn Thitchener, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Maboula Soumahoro, General Public

Macarena Tejada López, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Maddie Reynolds, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Madison Albano, Alumni

Majd Aldaye, Student

Maki Inada, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Margaret E Foster, Student

Margaret Washington, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Maria Cristina Garcia, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Maria González Pendas, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Marialuisa Palumbo, Student

Marcos S. Ramos Valdes, Student

Marina Welker, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Marcelo Aguiar, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Mario Hernandez, Alumni

Marty Cain, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Mary Albanese, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Mary Pat Brady, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Matthew Evangelista, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Maureen North, General Public

Mayleen Cortez-Rodriguez, Student

Maz Do, Student

Mee-Ju Ro, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Megan Jeffreys, Student

Meghan McGowan, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Mejdulene Shomali, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Melanie Duru, Student

Meredith A Palmer, Alumni

michael margolin, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Michael Matsuda, Alumni

Michael Moynihan, Student
Michael Pickard, Alumni

Michell Chresfield, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Migdalia Arcila-Valenzuela, Student

Mikayla Gutierrez, Student

Mingwei Huang, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Minh Huynh Vu, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Molinie, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Momodou Taal, Student

Mona Sulzman, General Public

Monica Cornejo, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Montse C. Li, Student

Nancy Gallagher, professor emerita, UCSB

Natalie Kelsey, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Natalie Melas, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Natasha Bishop, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Natasha Raheja, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Nathan Carlos Norris, Student

Nathan Sitaraman, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Naveen Sharma, Student

Nayomi Asghedom, Student

Neil Hertz, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Nic Vigilante, Student

Nick Brattoli, Student

Nicholas Mulder, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Noah Tamarkin, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Noor Jehan Ahmad, Student

NoViolet Buluwayo, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Olivia Ochoa, Student

Olivia Tai, Alumni

Oumar Ba, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Paraska Tolan-Szkilnik, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Parisa Vaziri, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Pascal Schwaighofer, Student

Paul Fleming, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Paul Nadasdy, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Paul Sawyer, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Pearl Ngai, Alumni

Pinar Kemerli, Alumni

Priyamvada Gopal, Alumni

Quinn Stickley, Student

Rachel Vogel, Alumni

Rachel Weil, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Rachel Fomalhaut, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Raymond Craib, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Reanna Esmail, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Richard Franklin Bensel, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Risa Lieberwitz, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Rob Kotaska, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Roberto Ibáñez, Student

Robin Gee, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Robert Travers, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Romy Opperman, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Ruari Paterson-Achenbach, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Ruth Yarrow, Alumni

Ani Mukherji, Alumni

Saida Hodzic, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Samantha Sheppard, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Samia Henni, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Sandra Babcock, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Sandra E. Greene, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Sarah Grunberg, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Sarah R Meiners, Student

Satya P Mohanty, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Seema Golestaneh, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Shaila Musharoff, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Shang Yasuda, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Shannon Gleeson, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Sharif Ewais-Orozco, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Shio Lim, Student

Simon Gillhooley, Alumni

Sofia Leung, General Public

Sofia Villenas, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Sophia Taborski, Student

Sophie Pinkham, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Suman Seth, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Susette Min, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Suyoung Son, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Tamika Nunley, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Tej Nagaraja, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Thari Zweers, Student

Thomas Hentschel, Alumni

Thomas Dolan, Alumni

Tim Murray, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Tim W. Shenk, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Timo Isreb, Student

TJ Hinrichs, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Todd Ayoung, Cornell Community

Todd Saddler, General Public

Tomie Arai, General Public

Tracy McNulty, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Tristan Ivory, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Vanessa Gubbins, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Verity Platt, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Viranjini Munasinghe, Faculty/Staff at another Institution

Vilma Santiago-Irizarry, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Virginia Doellgast, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Vishal Nyayapathi, Student

Woo Kim, General Public

Yui Sasajima, Student

Ziad Fahmy, Cornell Faculty/Staff

Anonymous, Cornell Faculty/Staff
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Anonymous, Alumni
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