Cornell’s Compelling State Interest

As a freshman at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, I was required to take Labor History. My professor, Roger Keeran (who was also my advisor) was a bit of an anarcho-syndicalist and a huge fan of the Wobblies.  It cost him tenure.

I liked Prof. Keeran a lot, though I disagreed with him about pretty much everything. Except the music. The IWW had the best music of any labor movement. I still have a cassette tape of Wobbly songs he made for the class.  But his politics was off the charts, and served to turn many of my fellow frosh into passionate pro-union advocates.

When I was there, the only source of news was the Cornell Daily Sun. A few years after I graduated, the Cornell Review was founded, with some undergrad named Ann Coulter as its editor. Despite this, it offered an alternate voice, and still does. It’s introduction to Cornell’s new president, Elizabeth Garrett, made me think that Roger might want to reapply for his old job.

“We must heed the call to be radical and progressive.”

Must we?  Cornell is a peculiar school, comprised of seven undergraduate colleges, a few of which are land-grant colleges from the state. Was it really created to promote the requirement of progressive politics?

“I think one of the things we have to do is change the way we think about corruption in the legal sense, which is the governmental interest that allows us to regulate speech. Speech can be regulated. Speech has to be regulated in the narrowest possible way to serve a compelling state interest.”

Much as I may try my best to avoid the distorted connection between theory and practice, this makes it very hard indeed.  Is it radical, progressive, to argue that a fundamental freedom, speech, “has to be regulated . . . to serve a compelling state interest”?  Nobody ever stood on the stump when I went there and said such a thing. If they had, it wouldn’t have gone well.

Apparently, Cornell is putting its money where its mouth is when seeking new academics to flesh out its diversity numbers.

“The College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University is seeking to hire a tenure-track assistant professor in some area of the humanities or qualitative social sciences,” the listing reads. No mention of a specific department or discipline. No indication of how much teaching or research the position involves.

The description continues: “We are especially interested in considering applications from members of underrepresented groups, those who have faced economic hardship, are first-generation college graduates, or work on topics related to these issues.” And that’s about it.

French lit? Cool. Gender studies? Perfect. Sociology?  Oh baby, that would be a grand slam.  But whatever the discipline, whatever field you’re into, Cornell wants you.  Provided you have one over-arching attribute: be a member of an underrepresented group.

It’s not that I begrudge President Garrett her politics.  She’s entitled to take whatever positions she believes to be correct.  But so is everyone else.  What I fail to grasp is why she thinks that she’s entitled to use her position to turn Cornell into a political experiment.  After all, it’s not Harrad Harvard.

Does she suggest that students at Cornell be indoctrinated into progressive politics?  Is that really what Ezra meant when he said “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” as long as they adhere to progressive  ideology?

As a grad, I get about three emails a day from Cornell University and from my college explaining to me how happy they will be to take my donations and put them to a good cause. They are too kind.  Does that good cause include silencing speech when, from a progressive perspective, it serves a compelling state interest?

Who would ever have believed that a progressive perspective would defer to the interests of the state?  But apparently, that’s where it is these days, because of the need to silence speech that is unpleasant, uncomfortable and brings tears to progressive eyes.

I can’t help but wonder what Roger Keeran would have thought of this. He was definitely radical. He was very progressive. But there were few things he thought more highly of than Eugene V. Debs seditious runs for president, the last time from prison.  The last thing Debs would have done is accept the notion that he should be silenced for challenging a compelling state interest.

Then again, Roger was a white, male. Even though his discipline was in the humanities, it’s not like he otherwise met the criteria for Cornell’s new job posting.  Even with President Garrett’s call to arms for radical progressivism, his chances of getting his classroom back would be doomed.

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