The University Record, December 21, 1998

Residential College reading room to be named for Cohen


Statement from President Lee C. Bollinger and Provost Nancy Cantor

Once again, I write to the University community, joined by Provost Nancy Cantor, on the matter of the proposed naming of a reading room in East Quad after Professor Carl Cohen. I took the opportunity in my previous statement, and we do so again today, to reaffirm the University's commitment to academic freedom.

We write today to update you on this situation. As we have previously said, the Residential College and LS&A, inadvertently and in good faith, mistakenly thought that they had the authority to name this particular space. This space was and is properly controlled by Residential Housing and the Vice President for Student Affairs, which had over a year ago announced procedures for naming residential facilities. Therefore, we felt it important to insist that the proper parties including student governments within the residence hall system be consulted with respect to the naming of the reading room, as the Housing policy required.

There were other troublesome development and fund-raising aspects to the project, which we have not discussed up to now but which, in the fullness of the explanation, we think it critical to recount (and for which we have Professor Cohen's permission). The project of naming the reading room was designed as a fund-raising opportunity for the Residential College. When donors were solicited, they were told that an "anonymous donor" had already come forward to contribute $10,000 to name the room in honor of Professor Cohen. That donor was Professor Cohen. The University alone, not Professor Cohen, bears responsibility for potentially misleading donors in these solicitations. Nevertheless, the solicitations were problematic.

Additionally, the fund-raising effort failed to meet the goal development officials had established. Although a minimum of $50,000 in gifts for naming the room was required, only $13,000 was raised, which, even with a match, amounted to only about one-half of the minimum. Nonetheless, the plan to name the room for Professor Cohen went forward.

This reading room at the Residential College will be named for philosophy Prof. Carl Cohen. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

Even though the project had proceeded quite far, including an RC newsletter announcement in August 1998 of a dedication ceremony scheduled for November 1998, it seemed on balance essential to step back and ask that the designated procedures be followed and the fundraising issues resolved. This should be and would be done in any case, whether or not a critic of the University is involved.

After considerable discussion, Residential College Director Tom Weisskopf decided that the preferable course was to pursue another means of honoring Professor Cohen's contributions to the Residential College. Since then Professor Weisskopf has proposed an annual set of lectures on a current topic or controversy be established in Professor Cohen's name, and this has been discussed by the LS&A Executive Committee, and approved by Dean Gurin. As we have stated previously, anyone could have revived the original idea of naming the reading room for Professor Cohen, in accordance with Housing and other relevant University policy. We also have stated publicly that Professor Cohen's well known opposition to the University's affirmative action policies was not and indeed must not be a factor in that or any other process.

Things might well have ended in this admittedly less-than-perfect way, but they have not. Two facts are now clear. The first is that Professor Cohen feels deeply aggrieved by what has occurred and believes that the University has made a moral commitment to him to honor him by naming the room. The second is that a significant segment of the University believes, in good faith, that the administration has acted as it has, not for the reasons we have indicated, but rather in retaliation against Professor Cohen for his views or in response to those who oppose his views. They feel strongly about this and see it as a test of the University's commitment to academic freedom. A few have even taken the step of invoking the specter of a University censure by the American Association of University Professors.

We do not agree with Professor Cohen that this rises to the level of a moral or a contractual commitment to him to honor him in this way. We certainly deplore the attacks on his personal character that have occurred and regret that the decision-making process proceeded for the length of time and in the manner it did.

Moreover, we personally have no doubts about either the legitimacy or the reasonableness of the actions we have taken here. All those involved have proceeded cautiously and with complete dedication to the University and to the principle that no one should be discriminated against because of his or her position on important public issues.

Nonetheless, the handling of this matter has been misinterpreted by some as having been affected by Professor Cohen's views. The perception, even though erroneous, has injured members of the community and threatens to undermine the community's confidence that the University shares fundamental values.

We have come to believe that the perception, however unfounded in fact, that Professor Cohen has been the victim of such discrimination is too high a price for the University to pay for the values we originally set out to uphold and in light of other values we seek to defend. We probably should have foreseen this unruly state of affairs, but the fact is we did not. We have no desire to put the University in a position where misunderstandings and uncertainties about our basic values are circulating. We are, accordingly, proceeding to name the reading room in East Quad for Professor Cohen.

December 1998

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