Should College Come With Trigger Warnings? At Cornell, It’s a ‘Hard No.’ (2023)


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When the student assembly voted to require faculty to alert students to upsetting educational materials, administrators pushed back.

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Should College Come With Trigger Warnings? At Cornell, It’s a ‘Hard No.’ (1)

By Katherine Rosman

(Video) Cornell rejects students’ call for ‘trigger warnings’ in classrooms | Dan Abrams Live

Last month, a Cornell University sophomore, Claire Ting, was studying with friends when one of them became visibly upset and was unable to continue her work.

For a Korean American literature class, the woman was reading “The Surrendered,” a novel by Chang-rae Lee about a Korean girl orphaned by the Korean War that includes a graphic rape scene. Ms. Ting’s friend had recently testified at a campus hearing against a student who she said sexually assaulted her, the woman said in an interview. Reading the passage so soon afterward left her feeling unmoored.

Ms. Ting, a member of Cornell’s undergraduate student assembly, believed her friend deserved a heads-up about the upsetting material. That day, she drafted a resolution urging instructors to provide warnings on the syllabus about “traumatic content” that might be discussed in class, including sexual assault, self-harm and transphobic violence.

The resolution was unanimously approved by the assembly late last month. Less than a week after it was submitted to the administration for approval, Martha E. Pollack, the university president, vetoed it.

“We cannot accept this resolution as the actions it recommends would infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and are at odds with the goals of a Cornell education,” Ms. Pollack wrote in a letter with the university provost, Michael I. Kotlikoff.

To some, the conflict illustrates a stark divide in how different generations define free speech and how much value they place on its absolute protection, especially at a time of increased sensitivity toward mental health concerns.

After decades of university battles over tinderbox issues of students’ rights, speech codes and how best to grapple with unpopular speakers and ideas, proponents of free speech are lauding Ms. Pollack’s quick and unequivocal action. They characterize it as part of a larger national shift, marked by university leadership more forcefully pushing back against efforts to shut down speakers and topics that might offend.

“What was unique about the Cornell situation is they rapidly turned in a response that was a ‘hard no,’” said Alex Morey, the director of campus rights advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonpartisan organization focused on issues of free speech. “There was no level of kowtowing. It was a very firm defense of what it means to get an education.”


Ms. Morey called it the “Stanford Effect,” referring to a 10-page open letter written in March by Jenny Martinez, dean of Stanford University Law School, in which she affirmed her decision to apologize to Stuart Kyle Duncan, a Donald J. Trump-appointed federal appeals judge, after hecklers interrupted his speech.

(Video) I Demand Trigger Warnings Because Feelings

Earlier this month, Neeli Bendapudi, the president of Pennsylvania State University, released a four-minute video explaining why she believed a public university like Penn State had a legal and moral obligation to host speakers who espouse views that many may find abhorrent. “For centuries, higher education has fought against censorship and for the principle that the best way to combat speech is with more speech,” she said.

More on America’s College Campuses

  • Trigger Warnings: A dispute between Cornell University’s student assembly and its administratorsover the need to warn students about upsetting education materials illustrates how different generations define free speech.
  • U.S. News Rankings: U.S. News & World Report issued new rankings for the nation’s law and medical schools, just months after a boycott by several institutions.
  • Free-Speech Clash: After a student protest, the dean of Stanford Law School wrote a much-praised memo defending academic freedom. But the back story shows how complicated protecting free speech can be.

The current free speech issue at Cornell is one that has been debated on campuses across the country. “Content warnings” or “trigger warnings” refer to verbal or written alerts that assigned material, including academic writing or artistic expression, may involve sensitive or upsetting themes or details that may cause a student to have an emotional response tied to a personal experience.

Professors on some campuses use such warnings, though mandates are rare.

At Cornell, the students’ proposal suggested that the warnings be issued when course readings and discussions involved topics “including but not limited to: sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial hate crimes, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment, xenophobia.”

It stipulated that “students who choose to opt out of exposure to triggering content will not be penalized, contingent on their responsibility to make up any missed content.”

To Ms. Ting and other proponents of the measure, including the woman in the Korean American literature class, the administration’s swift rebuke was frustrating. “We have been characterized as triggered snowflakes,” said Shelby L. Williams, a sophomore who co-sponsored the resolution. “What we are asking for is greater context.”

The concept of trigger warnings first entered the cultural dialogue in the post-Vietnam War era, after post-traumatic stress distress disorder became a recognized health condition. PTSD episodes, which include rage and anxiety, are generally triggered by places, people, sounds or smells reminiscent of a traumatic experience, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Integrating trigger warnings into academia first took root in the 1990s but gained urgency after the #MeToo movement opened a dialogue about trauma. A study published in 2019 in the Journal of American College Health said 70 percent of college students report that they have been exposed to at least one traumatic event.

Students with diagnosed PTSD are entitled to care from universities and should be treated by trained professionals, said Amna Khalid, a professor of history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., who has been writing and speaking about campus culture since 2016.

But, Professor Khalid said, addressing students’ mental health issues through trigger warnings is ineffective. It disempowers people by reducing their identities to traumatic events and “infantilizes” students whom professors should be preparing for adult life, she said.

“Life happens to you while you are driving, while you are walking, while you are in the supermarket,” she said. “The most challenging moments in life rarely come with warning.”

Professor Khalid called trigger-warning mandates an infringement on the academic freedom of professors whose role is to help students develop critical thinking skills.

“Sometimes that requires surprising them and challenging them in ways that are uncomfortable,” she said. “It diminishes the learning experience for students if professors hedge themselves.”

Some professors support the use of trigger warnings. “When used correctly,” said Connor Strobel, a professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago, “trigger warnings can open up a conversation” with students, enabling professors to alert them to available resources.

Professor Strobel recently asked students to read “The Second Sex,” by Simone de Beauvoir, and alerted them that the book included themes of “menstruation and menopause, and things that women are shamed for,” he said.

(Video) University student request trigger warnings for alert system

One student approached him and said that because of a family issue, she was concerned about reading it. He was willing to create an alternate assignment for her but first encouraged her to start the book and see if she found it more compelling than upsetting. “She found it very salient,” he said, and completed the assignment.

“At a university, there is no topic that should be off the table, but trigger warnings are a preview of coming attractions that treat students with humanity,” he added.

When Professor Strobel was a graduate student at University of California Irvine in 2016, he wrote a proposal asking a faculty government association to endorse the use of trigger warnings on campus.

That document became an inspiration for Ms. Ting’s Cornell resolution.

The Cornell measure was publicized by The Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper, and kicked up a conversation on Twitter. Normally, Ms. Pollack, the university president, takes about a month to weigh in on student assembly proposals. But in this case, she responded in just a few days.

The resolution concerned her, she said in an interview, because it could impinge upon the freedom of faculty to select material and present it as they think is most beneficial.

She also believes a rule that codifies the avoidance of upsetting topics runs contrary to the role of a university.

“Our students are coming at this with good intentions,” Ms. Pollack said, “but I think it’s a critical part of higher education to learn how to engage with challenging and difficult ideas. It teaches you to listen, compromise and advocate.”

It was the first assembly measure of more than 30 this academic year that the president has rejected.

Lee Humphreys, chair of the communication department at Cornell, was pleased by Ms. Pollack’s response.

In the past, she has presented her classes with violent, sexual and distasteful content to push students to consider who might be drawn to the programming and who might financially benefit from it.

“If I was really concerned about making sure I was covering all of my bases in terms of trigger warnings, it would make my life easier to not show the kind of content in the class that I would otherwise show, just in case there was something that I was overlooking,” Professor Humphreys said. “I think that’s doing a disservice to the class and the students, to avoid things that are difficult.”

Professor Humphreys often previews for students what is to come in a lesson, as a part of “reinforcing pedagogical goals,” she said, and aims to be sensitive to students.

“Just because you don’t support a mandate doesn’t mean that you don’t support an inclusive learning environment,” she said.

Students had a mixed reaction to the resolution, with the conservative student newspaper, The Cornell Review, calling it “an embarrassment” in an editorial published last week. “Hiding from ideas is no less than intellectual cowardice. It’s exactly the opposite of what this country needs,” the paper said.


(Video) TRIGGER WARNING: Ben Shapiro slaps the woke Left with real facts

Cullen O’Hara, co-editor-in-chief of The Review, said that the editorial board did not believe the student assembly represented a majority of students and saw the resolution as endemic of broader free speech issues.

“We are very opposed to trigger warnings which we think would chill the discussion in classrooms, which we already believe are one-sided,” said Mr. O’Hara, a senior.

The student assembly will discuss the trigger-warning resolution with the administration on Thursday, at a previously scheduled meeting between Ms. Pollack and the assembly.

“I think the response is purposeful in focusing on the wrong part of the resolution,” said Valeria Valencia, a senior and the Cornell University Student Assembly president, “turning it into an issue of academic freedom and not one of protecting students, when both things can coexist.”


Ms. Ting, the writer of the resolution, said she is considering amending the proposal. “But first I want to do more due diligence and reach out to faculty and administration to see how we can find the right balance,” she said.


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Should trigger warnings be used in college? ›

Trigger warnings can also help students who are recovering from mental illnesses, suicidal tendencies and eating disorders. When someone has a history of any of these issues, being unexpectedly exposed to imagery or content that deals with that history can cause harm or even relapse — not just discomfort.

Which college at Cornell is the easiest to get into? ›

Cornell Acceptance Rate by College

The Hotel School in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business is the least competitive with an acceptance rate of 30% The School of Human Ecology has a 23 % acceptance rate, the second-highest acceptance rate of all the schools at Cornell.

Is Cornell really stressful? ›

47.7% of Cornell students experienced moderate or serious psychological distress. 29.6% of undergraduate students, 22.3% of graduate students, and 20.5% of professional students experienced “serious psychological distress” (which studies suggest likely reflects clinically significant distress).

Are trigger warnings actually helpful? ›

A Harvard study involving 451 trauma survivors, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science in 2020, found that trigger warnings made people feel more anxious about the material in question by encouraging them to see their trauma “as more central to their life narrative.”

What are the cons of trigger warnings in college? ›

A trigger warning might lead a student to simply not read an assignment or it might elicit a response from students they otherwise would not have had, focusing them on one aspect of a text and thus precluding other reactions.

What is the real problem with trigger warnings? ›

The researchers found that trigger warnings actually slightly increased people's self-reported anxiety—but only among people who believed that words can cause emotional damage. Overall, the warnings had no significant effect.

What is the hardest major at Cornell? ›

AEP's educational programs offer a unique combination of engineering, mathematics and physics. EP is often considered as one of the hardest undergrad programs at Cornell, with strong emphasis on basic physics and mathematics.

What is the lowest GPA Cornell has accepted? ›

Selection decisions (both on-campus and at the national level) are based on the following criteria: Academic record: Students should have a GPA of 3.5 or higher, and should have excellent analytic and communication skills.

Is Cornell harder than Princeton? ›

All Ivy League institutions maintain acceptance rates of under 10%, making them among the most competitive universities in the nation. Within that cohort, Princeton and Cornell are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Princeton is the third most competitive school in the Ivy League, while Cornell is the least competitive.

What is the least rigorous Ivy League school? ›

Cornell Admission Statistics

Cornell is considered the "easiest" Ivy League to get into because it has the highest Ivy League acceptance rate.

What is the hardest Ivy academically? ›

Harvard University

The most challenging Ivy League school to get into is Harvard, established in 1636 and based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to Harvard Admissions, only 2,008 out of 43,330 candidates were accepted to the college.

What degree is Cornell most known for? ›

Its graduate schools include the highly ranked S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management, College of Engineering, Law School and Weill Cornell Medical College. Cornell is also well known for its top-ranked College of Veterinary Medicine and the highly esteemed School of Hotel Administration.

Are classes at Cornell curved? ›

Letter Grades

This course is not intended to be a competition between students, which is why we do not curve to a letter grade.

Is it harder to get into Cornell or Harvard? ›

Based on the table above, it's clear that Cornell University consistently has the highest acceptance rate. On the other hand, Harvard University has the lowest acceptance rate without fail.

What do psychologists think about trigger warnings? ›

Some research does suggest that trigger warnings may be able to reduce distress — but only very, very marginally.

Why do people not like trigger warnings? ›

“When people see trigger warnings, they actually experience anxiety – anticipatory anxiety. It makes them feel uncomfortable,” she says. But the warnings don't seem to change the way we experience the triggering content itself. “Our data shows they don't seem to do anything.”

What are the most common trigger warnings? ›

The following types of content: sexual violence, racial violence, familial violence, racial slurs, and other examples of overt racism, eating disorders, and suicide are examples of content that may be upsetting or triggering, but is clearly not exhaustive.

Do trigger warnings do more harm than good? ›

Brigland's study confirms what research on the subject has shown for years. For instance, a recent Harvard study demonstrated that students who receive trigger warnings report greater anxiety than those who don't. Another study even suggested that trigger warnings prolong the distress of negative emotions .

Why do professors use trigger warnings? ›

Classrooms should always be a safe space for students. One way professors can ensure students feel comfortable in class is to include trigger warnings before teaching graphic material.

How bad is academic warning? ›

However, it can have serious consequences, especially for those who don't get back in good academic standing. Students on academic probation may: Lose the ability to pursue their major of choice if they don't meet the program's GPA minimum or have failed too many of the major's course requirements.

What can I say instead of trigger warning? ›

Due to the specificity of the term “trigger” and its association with certain forms of trauma, some faculty prefer to instead provide a content advisory. A content advisory makes students aware that they will be exposed to certain types of content that they may find upsetting, controversial, or offensive.

When did trigger warnings become a thing? ›

The term trigger warning originated in the late 1990s on feminist Internet message boards, where it referred to site-sponsored cautions to readers regarding the presence of graphic depictions of rape in certain posts.

Why does Harry Potter have a trigger warning? ›

'Harry Potter and the trigger warning': University says book has 'difficult' content. A university has put a trigger warning on JK Rowling's first Harry Potter book, saying the fictional tale about the boy wizard could lead to 'difficult conversations about gender and race'.

What is the least regretted College major? ›

Engineering majors have the fewest regrets: Just 24 percent wish they'd chosen something different, according to a Federal Reserve survey.
STEM majors win the earnings game.
FieldComputer engineering
Median (50th percentile)$4.55M $4.55M $4.55M
25th percentile$3.89M
75th percentile$5.44M
19 more columns
Sep 2, 2022

What are the top 3 majors in Cornell? ›

At Cornell University, the most popular majors students study are Computer Science, Biology/Biological Sciences, General, and Labor and Industrial Relations.

Is Cornell better or brown? ›

Learn more about Brown and Cornell and see your chances of acceptance.
Cornell vs. Brown: A Quick Overview.
Acceptance Rate11%6.9%
U.S. News Ranking1714
Middle 50% SAT1470-15601440-1550
Middle 50% ACT32-3433-35
5 more rows
Oct 2, 2020

Is Cornell as prestigious as Harvard? ›

Even though Harvard and Cornell are both incredibly prestigious schools where you can receive a world-class education and become part of a successful alumni network, the general consensus is that Harvard is the better school.

Is Rice or Cornell harder to get into? ›

Which school is easier to get into? If you're looking at acceptance rate alone, then Cornell University is more difficult to get into. However, each college is looking to fill its incoming class with a variety of students with different strengths, backgrounds, etc.

What is the hardest degree in the world? ›

What are the hardest degrees in the world? Ranked by Experts
  • Chartered Accountancy.
  • Astrophysics.
  • Quantum Mechanics.
  • Law.
  • Aerospace/ Aeronautical Studies, Engineering.
  • Biomedical Studies, Neurosciences, Biochemistry.
  • Nursing.
  • Dentistry, Medicine.
Dec 16, 2022

What is the lowest GPA for Harvard? ›

After being admitted with a 3.0 or higher grade-point average (GPA), you must maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0 to be considered in good academic standing. If your GPA falls below 2.0, you are in poor academic standing.

How likely am I to get into Cornell? ›

The acceptance rate at Cornell is 10.9%.

For every 100 applicants, only 11 are admitted. This means the school is extremely selective. Meeting their GPA requirements and SAT/ACT requirements is very important to getting past their first round of filters and proving your academic preparation.

What does Cornell look for in a student? ›

Access and affordability are extremely important to us, as are diversity and inclusion. Our admission process is highly individualized, and we spend lots of time evaluating whether you'll be a good fit for the culture and philosophy of our university.

Is Cornell or Vanderbilt harder? ›

Is Cornell University or Vanderbilt University Harder to get into? Which school is easier to get into? If you're looking at acceptance rate alone, then Vanderbilt University is more difficult to get into.

Which Ivy League has the prettiest campus? ›

The Ivy League with the best campus is Princeton. It's reputed as having the prettiest campus.

Is Columbia or Cornell harder to get into? ›

Both are four-years, private (not-for-profit) schools. Columbia University has more expensive tuition & fees ($66,139) than Cornell University ($63,200). It is harder to admit to Columbia University than Cornell University. Columbia University has a higher submitted SAT score (1,505) than Cornell University (1,505).

When should I include trigger warnings? ›

If most of the material in the course is going to include emotionally challenging and potentially triggering content, you can include a warning as part of your course description.

Should I put in a trigger warning book? ›

If you absolutely don't want one, that's okay. It's your decision. If you deal with the darker sides of being human for a significant chunk of your book or if you have graphicly violent scenes, you might want to include a trigger warning or in some other way indicate your book could be difficult for some people.


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