Cornell Rejects Push for Trigger Warnings in Classrooms

Cornell University / Source: Robert Barker/University Photography
April 5, 2023

Cornell University rejected a push by its student government to require professors to issue trigger warnings before potentially offensive class content and allow students to "opt out" without consequence. 

The student assembly passed the measure, titled "Mandating Content Warnings for Traumatic Content in the Classroom" on March 23. Cornell president Martha Pollack and provost Michael Kotlikoff said Monday they "cannot accept this resolution," saying it would "infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry."

Students said triggering topics include "sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial violence, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment" and others, according to the Hill. Students should be able to "opt out of exposure to triggering content" and face no academic consequences, the student resolution also said. 

The students' push for trigger warnings comes as students at elite universities across the country have called for suppressing speech. After Stanford Law students disrupted and shouted down remarks by Fifth Circuit judge Kyle Duncan last month, two federal judges said they would no longer accept clerks from the school. Students at Columbia Law berated the school for promoting its Federalist Society chapter's meeting with Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

Students at George Mason University have demanded the school cancel its planned commencement speaker, Republican governor Glenn Youngkin (Va).

The efficacy of trigger warnings has been questioned by academic studies. A 2020 Harvard study that had 451 trauma survivors participate found that trigger warnings increased anxiety about the material and encouraged them to view trauma "as more central to their life narrative," according to the Wall Street Journal

At Cornell, the administration said forcing professors to issue warnings "would unacceptably restrict the academic freedom of our community, interfering in significant ways with Cornell’s mission."

Valeria Valencia, president for the Cornell Student Assembly, said she "was disappointed" at the rejection.

"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," Valencia said

The school’s statement noted, however, that "learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas" is essential to an education. 

Published under: Cornell , Free Speech