November 18, 2020
Dear Members of the CMU Community:
Over the past several days, and especially following the U.S. presidential election, members of the university’s senior administration have received a number of letters and emails regarding the activity of Ambassador Richard Grenell, senior fellow in the Institute for Politics and Strategy. In particular, I recently received a letter signed by 180 students and 30+ student organizations, which highlighted specific concerns related to Mr. Grenell’s activity on social and news media.
I recognize that this matter is of interest to many in our community, and that it probes complex questions at the heart of our university’s mission and the foundation of our democracy. With the permission of the students, I have decided to make both their letter and my response, below, public so that all members of the CMU community can understand their concerns and the university’s position. I invite you to review both communications.
I greatly appreciate and respect the advocacy and passion of our students, faculty, staff and alumni who have reached out to me to express their viewpoints. We will continue to monitor these issues moving forward and in the coming days, we look forward to launching the Commission on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression. It is my hope that this commission will further aid our community in discussing and understanding the nuances of these foundational principles.
Henry L. Hillman President’s Chair
November 18, 2020
Thank you for writing to me with these concerns. I do greatly respect your point of view and I appreciate that the issues you have raised in your email have only exacerbated the stress and tension that a good portion of our community is still experiencing from the recent election, especially our students. This has not been an easy time and I know these concerns weigh heavily on many. Since the underlying issues are both highly nuanced and fundamentally important, I want to take the time to thoroughly address them, and hopefully clarify the university’s position.
- Regarding Mr. Grenell’s tweets on social media in general, given that they are an expression of personal opinion outside his work at CMU, they are protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. At a time when our democratic institutions are under attack, it would set a dangerous precedent for the university to take punitive action based on the way in which a member of our community is exercising their First Amendment rights, even when we disagree with them. The very essence of the free speech principle is defending the right of others to express their views. Indeed, the times when the nature of our debate is most controversial is precisely when our defense of free speech is most needed. At the same time, members of our university community are also within their First Amendment right to engage in civil discourse with Mr. Grenell and others, to refute misinformation, and to counter ideas that are contrary to our values. I know many in our community are concerned that the way in which Mr. Grenell is expressing himself is reflecting negatively on the university and its reputation; however, I believe that the long-term reputational damage to CMU is potentially far greater if we are perceived as an institution of higher learning that is intolerant of other viewpoints. This particular situation is more complicated than simply being open to a different perspective, as a result of the tone of political discourse in our nation and the nature of Mr. Grenell’s activity as a national political figure. Nonetheless, I still maintain that, in order to protect the free and open society we all cherish, we must lean into our democratic values to respond to these tensions — as uncomfortable as that sometimes feels. Healing the divisiveness that is the root cause of these issues requires building bridges to others, not putting up barriers or excluding people.
- The post on Twitter in which Mr. Grenell shared a pre-pandemic photo of President-Elect Joe Biden not wearing a mask on an airplane and claimed it was a recent example of inconsistent mask usage, was completely inaccurate and if intentional, deserved to be called out as a baseless and dangerous misrepresentation. Indeed, in the hours and days that followed, countless citizens — including many CMU students — responded on social media to express concerns over the misleading nature of that photograph. Twitter also marked the post as containing “manipulated media,” and Mr. Grenell ultimately took it down. I believe this example illustrates the proper functioning of a free society; when we find speech objectionable or inaccurate, we utilize our own voices to engage and refute.
- Regarding use of the term “Chinese Flu”: This phrase is being read to blame the COVID-19 pandemic on an entire ethnicity and has been perceived as especially offensive to the Chinese and Chinese American members of the CMU community. My understanding from Dr. Kiron Skinner is that she shared this concern with Mr. Grenell and advised him to focus his comments on holding governments accountable, not ethnicities.
- Regarding political activities of CMU community members: While the university does not engage in political activity or endorse any political candidates, our faculty and staff can participate in political activities and partisan campaigns on their own time, if they wish. I should also note that employees who engage in political campaign activities are required to do this on their own time, and to take personal time off to do so if necessary – a policy that was communicated to and has been followed by Mr. Grenell.
- We acknowledge your concerns with Mr. Grenell not wearing a mask at large, indoor events, as shown on numerous public sites, and your questions on how CMU is applying its COVID-19 protocols. CMU requires all members of our community who participate in gatherings without masks to self-quarantine and not come to campus for 14 days, and when they eventually do come to campus, to wear a mask. If they do not do so, they lose their privilege of remaining on campus. We have applied this rule uniformly and consistently across the board, including communicating this policy with Mr. Grenell. I do wish to note that Mr. Grenell has engaged in university activities virtually and has not been present on campus at any point.
- Regarding Mr. Grenell’s comments on our election, including statements made in Nevada on behalf of President Trump’s campaign that were aired by numerous public news sources, and his subsequent posts on social media, I want to reiterate that it is Mr. Grenell’s First Amendment right to express these opinions. While the university does not comment on the political activity of our community members, let me be clear about the facts. Election officials across the country have affirmed the security and integrity of this last election. A joint statement by a group of federal, state and industry election officials was recently released by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, stating that “the November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.” (By the way, CISA has created a webpage dedicated to debunking misinformation regarding our election, which is an excellence resource.) The foundation of our democracy is the peaceful transfer of power, and I have strong faith in our political and legal systems to certify the results of the election in the coming weeks.
We have heard from other members of our community who have expressed concern that this letter, and other similar communications we have received, are an effort to silence a political conservative on our campus, and part of a broader “cancel culture” in academia. Let me take this opportunity to affirm that Carnegie Mellon University welcomes members from all points on the political spectrum. Diversity of views and civil discourse on all sides are fundamental to our educational and research missions and it is my hope and expectation that we will continue to recruit diverse viewpoints across our university, including conservative scholars on our faculty. In this case, we do not perceive that the students who signed this letter take issue with Mr. Grenell’s conservative ideology, per se, but question the bounds of certain acts he has taken as part of a political campaign.
While Mr. Grenell’s statements in Nevada, claims about our election on social media, and other behavior referenced above and in your letter may be protected by the First Amendment, members of the CMU community have recently called into question whether this behavior is, in fact, a violation of Carnegie Mellon’s Code of Business Ethics and Conduct (“Code”). University leaders, including myself and the provost, have been in regular communication with Dr. Kiron Skinner, head of the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS), about this issue. My expectation is that Dr. Skinner and the academic leadership will continue to monitor the situation and uphold the Code. If, as set forth in the Code, a member of the community (defined in the Code as “individuals who are paid by the University when they are working for the University, including faculty, staff and students when working for the University”), had potentially engaged in conduct that violated the Code, then we would proceed with an investigation that affords due process and privacy to that individual, and act accordingly.
Lastly, this letter rightly called out the inconsistency between the university’s defense of Mr. Grenell’s freedom of expression, including his social media activity, and a recent invitation issued by IPS to a program featuring him that purported to restrict participants’ ability to comment on the event on their social media. When the university administration saw this invitation, we immediately contacted IPS, and they then issued a new invitation without the restriction. Our expectation is that future invitations to events open to the CMU community will not attempt to restrain social media commentary by attendees.
I wish to conclude by acknowledging this unique moment in the story of our American democracy. The election, as well as the fraught sociopolitical climate of the past few months, has left many of us feeling exhausted, bewildered, and maybe a bit confused. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to feel heartened. Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed our democracy endure a rigorous test. More than 150 million Americans voted, and this turnout, projected to be more than 65% of the eligible voting population, will break century-old records. While not everything was perfect, election officials from across the political spectrum demonstrated their commitment to running a free and fair election. Thousands of volunteers, including many young people and CMU students, stepped up to help so that our most vulnerable citizens — their parents and grandparents — wouldn’t have to risk their health during this pandemic. Each and every ballot cast was an expression of our faith in the power of our democracy and our hope for a brighter future for generations to come. Moving forward, I believe in our national aspiration for a more perfect union and I have faith in our continued role as a beacon of moral leadership in a world that is hungry for freedom and democracy.
By strengthening our commitment to more dialogue with one another, we will not only heal the divides in our nation, we will come closer to finding solutions to the challenges that remain, including the pandemic, the economic downturn, societal inequities and many others.
Thank you again for writing to me and for demonstrating passion for CMU through your advocacy.
Henry L. Hillman President’s Chair