From the Community | Why I voted against a Committee on Academic Freedom

Feb. 14, 2023, 5:52 p.m.

Who is against a committee on academic freedom? Probably no one. But after we get past the platitudes, it’s time to get real. The question that I wanted addressed in last Thursday’s discussion at the Faculty Senate — whose academic freedom seems to come first? — never got a hearing. Instead, I was told that this committee would be fair and impartial and that I should “trust the process.” These words are nearly always uttered by people who are the most protected by “the process,” and they are uttered to those most poorly served by the process. This essay explains the three reasons why I could not “trust the process” and thus why I voted against the motion to establish this committee.

First, at the start of the Senate meeting I asked President Tessier-Lavigne about a document that has been circulating for months in the media and on the Internet. It’s called the “Stanford Academic Freedom Declaration.” I asked him if he had authorized the use of the Stanford name. He said he had not, and that when he pointed this out to the people who had circulated the “Declaration” for signatures using the Stanford name, they removed the word “Stanford.” I replied, “So they violated Administrative Guide 1.5.4, Ownership and Use of Stanford Trademarks and Images; they let their fraudulent document misrepresenting Stanford circulate for months on national media; and it was only after I contacted you that they stopped doing so? And that’s it?”

This is in stark contrast to the reaction of the Senate when the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative sparked concern because of its supposed harm to the Stanford name, and its creators were called to the floor of the Senate to atone for their sins in what can only be described as an inquisitorial tribunal — these people had been found guilty in advance of unspecified charges. The fact that two professors from the Graduate School of Business and a fellow of the Hoover Institute (the same three individuals who created the closed conference on Academic Freedom in November) had perpetrated this fraud in the name of “academic freedom,” duplicitously using Stanford’s name, raised not a single eyebrow at the Senate. No concerns were expressed, no suggestion the miscreants appear before the Senate, not even a demand for an apology, despite the fact the actual authors of the document were in clear violation of University policy. That’s why I don’t trust the process. It is biased. 

The second reason I distrust the process—four of the people who introduced the original motion had signed and circulated the “Stanford Academic Freedom Declaration.” As I dug into its prose, I found some things that concerned me. Much of the content of the “Declaration” derives from the Manhattan Institute, one of the main sources Gov. Ron DeSantis is drawing on in his massive attack on the academic freedom of all public educators in the state of Florida. The Declaration asserts: “employment, promotion, and funding are … subject to … political litmus tests …  seeking to impose a social agenda such as specific views of social justice or DEI principles;” and that “university leaders … oversee and expand politicized bureaucracies that … enforce ideological conformity in hiring and promotion [my emphasis].”

I told the Senate — “I am concerned that once this committee is formed, it might be asked to investigate a very specific set of issues, programs and individuals. That would presumably include the new Race Institute, since the founding proposal for the RI is to do ‘racial justice’ work; the IDEAL program, which will likely be seen as giving preference in hiring based on racial identity and ‘ideological conformity’; and perhaps the School of Sustainability, given that John Cochrane — whose signature is the very first on the Declaration — has claimed in print that this School is engaged in ‘woke’ social justice work.”

I went on to say: “It would help address these concerns if we could add this amendment: ‘Whereas the Senate supports and applauds programs to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the exchange of ideas at Stanford…’”  This amendment was promptly shot down — I should trust the process.  

But then Professor Larry Diamond actually spoke the truth that I had been trying to flush out all day, “I think there are many people that have some concerns about some specific [DEI] programs, one of which is what triggered this entire conversation [emphasis added].” That is to say, the entire convening of this Academic Freedom Committee is predicated on the hoopla over the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, and a fear of diversity initiatives which might force people to use different language (which the EHLI emphatically does not).

The fact that the Senate effectively erased that history is the second reason I don’t trust the process. It is biased. The presenters of the original motion were and are using “Academic Freedom” as a Trojan horse to “investigate” diversity initiatives.

No other supposed violation of academic freedom has triggered a Faculty Senate discussion, and that includes the violation of my own academic freedom, which brings me to my final reason for not trusting the process.

In 2017, I was the subject of a national campaign of harassment. I received so many violent and credible death threats from across the country that Stanford offered me police protection. During that whole ugly process, no one who originally proposed the committee on academic freedom said anything, even though a bipartisan group of Stanford law professors wrote an opinion piece saying: “We are concerned that the article [that sparked the attacks] advocates for the resignation of a professor based on his constitutionally protected speech regarding issues of public concern.”

Indeed, several years later, the Policy and Planning Board Subcommittee on Campus Climate reported the existence on campus of a chapter of Turning Point USA, home of the infamous “Professor Watchlist.” The Watchlist asks students and professors to “report” liberal professors and instructors, whose names and pictures are then placed on a national database. While it mostly targets liberal and progressive professors, in the past several years it has started to target climate scientists, epidemiologists and those who argue that the 2020 elections were fair. When we raised concerns about Turning Point USA at Stanford, one of the sponsors of the Academic Freedom Committee questioned the need for the Senate action we proposed: “Free speech protects minorities. Speech [sic] protects a minority opinion. It protects people of color. It protects diversity.”

But let one faint possibility that some in-house diversity initiative might affect the academic freedom of this particular set of people, and this “triggers” action to create this committee — because apparently the existing protections are good enough for women and minorities, but they are not good enough for any other groups.

In fact, “free speech” did not protect Hakeem Jefferson, a Black untenured professor, when he was placed on the Professor Watchlist — hate mail and harassment did not cease; “free speech” did not protect Emily Wilder, a Jewish Stanford undergraduate, who was fired from her job for exercising her free speech rights; and it did not protect me when I was subject to that virulent hate campaign.

So, again, whose academic freedom actually counts?

I don’t trust a process that ignores these real harms when they fall upon one group of people and then with alacrity and near unanimity creates a Senate committee solely on the basis of hypothetical harms which might possibly fall upon another group of people — people that the members of the Senate apparently identify and empathize with.

After the Senate meeting, which left most everyone feeling very warm and content, I went to have dinner at a nearby restaurant.  Two colleagues passed by and one of them said to me, “Hey man, I saw you at the meeting. At the end you seemed to go into deep Zen meditation.” I didn’t know it was so apparent. Yes, it’s true. I tuned out because once the liberal feel-good train starts rolling, the destination is pretty clear.

I doubt I will go to any of the meetings which will discuss academic freedom at Stanford — it’s clear that my opinion is in the extreme minority and unlikely to have any effect whatsoever, besides just ruffling feathers and using up important time. So during those meetings, I will do my research and teaching and be with people I trust, because they have proven themselves to be trustworthy.

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