PHILADELPHIA, in an incident that uncomfortably recalled details of the Andrew Pessin case at ConnColl, students at Cornell University Law School have demanded the censuring of Professor William Jacobson, specifically in regard to two of his articles carried at his website, Legal Insurrection. One criticizes the origins and agenda of the official movement Black Lives Matter, pointing out that their founding symbolic gesture “Hands up, don’t shoot” is a fabricated narrative from the Michael Brown case.” The second, piece is a sweeping analysis of the deeds and goals of those “wilding” in the wake of the George Floyd video.
Students at the Law School complained that these essays were “hurtful and divisive,” and wondered why he was still teaching at Cornell. Twenty one professors at Cornell – without naming him – published a letter denouncing those who “smear Black Lives Matter,” and use the “racially loaded term wilding” (i.e. Jacobson’s title: “The Bloodletting and Wilding Is Part of An Agenda To Tear Down The Country). “These commentators,” the faculty letter continues, speaking generally,
express rage [sic] over the sporadic [sic] looting that has taken place amidst the largely peaceful [sic] protests, calling for organized manhunts to track down those responsible. Theirs is a form of racism that gives cover to those police who use their batons and tear gas and rubber bullets and fists to silence and maim their critics.
Among the 21 of his colleagues who signed this, some close to Jacobson,
None [of whom] had the common decency to approach me with any concerns. Instead they ran to the Cornell Sun while virtue signaling to students behind the scenes that this was a denunciation of me. Such is the political environment we live in now at CLS.
Some of these colleagues coordinated with the BLSA (Black Law Students Association) to strategize about the best way to deal with this problematic presence on campus. Their plan was not to ask the Law School to fire him, but rather to “unequivocally denounce his rhetoric, acknowledge the harm caused by subjecting students to his racist pedagogy, and critically examine the views of the people they employ as professors of the law.”
This statement is disturbing on many levels:
It is not, should not be, the place of an administration to weigh in on such matters. Wrote First Amendment Scholar Harry Kalven Jr. in a report to University of Chicago in 1967:
To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry, and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community…
The demand, therefore, for “unequivocal denunciation” of Prof. Jacobson for his words and opinions, is a demand that they engage in the political fashions and passions that they give into pressure.
The criterion of “harm to students by subjecting them to his racist pedagogy” elevates victim status to a causus belli and “racist” to an objective term designating that which must be eliminated. As in the case of Pessin, it is a misreading of Jacobson that has “harmed” the students who deliberately misread it (and it’s the job of the faculty to teach them to read). In Pessin’s case it was eliminating the Palestinian people instead of Hamas, in Jacobson’s case, smearing “anti-racist protesters” instead of criticizing the Black Lives Matter Movement. When “racism,” gets weaponized as a term of exclusion with no (or counter-evidence of Jacobson’s record in dealing fairly with all students), it is an intellectually dishonest use of words (again, just what the university is there to help prevent). In the Pessin case, anyone who challenged the use of the term was, you guessed it, “racist.”
Consequently of the above, the Dean of the Law School weighed in on the matter. On the one hand, he echoed Kalven by making clear that any disciplinary action against Jacobson “for the views he has expressed would fatally pit our values against one another in ways that would corrode our ability to operate as an academic institution.” On the other hand, before even establishing his commitment to not punishing Jacobson, he did just that, and precisely as the protesters demanded: “unequivocally denounce.”
Thus did Dean Peñalver begin his discussion of Jacobson:
…in no uncertain terms, recent blog posts of Professor William Jacobson, casting broad and categorical aspersions on the goals of those protesting for justice for Black Americans [sic], do not reflect the values of Cornell Law School as I have articulated them. I found his recent posts to be both offensive and poorly reasoned.
Here the dean complies with the student agenda (in no uncertain terms sounds like a fine synonym for “unequivocally”); accepts their misreading (Jacobson is criticizing the militant movement BLM, not “the goals of those protesting for justice for Black Americans”), and, finally, adopt their sensibilities, “offensive.”
Does the Dean not realize that such a categorical misrepresentation and dismissal of Jacobson’s opinions as “offensive” and “poorly reasoned,” is a form of punishment, another voice in the chorus of ostracizers who make life for their colleague deeply hostile?
What is happening at Cornell is part of a much larger pattern. On campuses in particular we see ongoing pressure for conformity in the name of outrage which plays a decisive role. We saw another recent example of this with Gordon Klein of UCLA Business School who got suspended for denying a request that he change the final exam following the homicide of George Floyd.
Given all of the above SPME urges:
- the BLSA to show respect for the aims, means, and goals of academia, and not petition to comply with their activist will;
- Cornell students read Professor Jacobson’s work and take his classes
- the Dean hold a debate between Professor Jacobson and those who attack him indirectly, as the accused has requested: a way for a Law School to “walk the walk.”
- the Cornell faculty, and more broadly Jacobson’s academic colleagues everywhere, to rally to his side, not because you agree with him or not, but because he represents a precious and fading link in your community to an intellectual integrity and real diversity… back before it became prey to the kinds of forces that have in the past two decades, become increasingly powerful, and historically, have given us not universities, but inquisitions.