Editorial Board | MTL is abusing the concept of Academic Freedom

Opinion by Editorial Board
May 29, 2023, 5:10 p.m.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne expressed unusual fervor about the Hoover Institution when several members of the Faculty Senate proposed a resolution earlier this month to remove Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Mercer’s positions on Stanford’s Hoover Board of Overseers. The move would be purely symbolic, since the Faculty Senate does not have the power to remove Hoover Board members.

Tessier-Lavigne said that, “For the senate to adopt this resolution would be to set itself up as a thought police.” Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State and Director of the Hoover Institution, cited academic freedom as a reason to keep Murdoch and Mercer on the Board: “The senate’s foundational statement of academic freedom holds that expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal and or external coercion,” Rice said.

However, the resolution was not a frivolous measure to be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Over 90 faculty members wrote an open letter to University leadership in March, urging it to denounce Murdoch’s membership on Hoover’s Board. By implying that these faculty members are acting as “thought police,” MTL has made a very strong accusation against his colleagues.

It is therefore worth revisiting Stanford’s own official statement on academic freedom, and evaluating whether Murdoch and Mercer’s tenures on Hoover’s Board of Overseers are protected by that statement.

The Statement on Academic Freedom from the Stanford Faculty Handbook states:

“Decisions concerning:
(1) the search for, and appointment and promotion of faculty;
(2) the assignment of teaching and other primarily academic responsibilities;
(3) the support and sponsorship of scholarly research; and
(4) any other granting or withholding of benefits or imposition of burdens

shall be made without regard to a person’s political, social, or other views not directly related to academic values or to the assumption of academic responsibilities; without regard to the conduct of a person holding an appointment at Stanford unless such conduct is directly related to academic values or to the assumption of academic responsibilities… and without regard to an individual’s race, ethnic origin, sex or religion.”

According to the Hoover Institution’s website, the Board of Overseers is responsible for “overseeing the strategic direction and financial health of the Hoover Institution and the preservation of its institutional independence within the framework of Stanford University.” It is an advisory board whose members are not considered Stanford faculty; according to their self-description, these members do not have teaching or academic responsibilities assigned by Stanford University. They do not conduct research. The only section of the University’s pledge to Academic Freedom that may apply to the Board of Overseers is the granting of “benefits:” in this case, the prestige of being a member of the Board.

Still, let’s consider that Murdoch’s membership of the Board comes under this commitment to academic freedom. The Statement on Academic Freedom clearly says that decisions should be made “without regard to a person’s political, social, or other views… unless such conduct is directly related to academic values” (emphasis added).

In his Op-Ed on the Faculty Senate motion, Professor Jonathan Berk frames the calls for Murdoch’s removal as solely about his news outlets’ publication of racist and sexist views. He argues that “tak[ing] the position that there are subjects and views that are not acceptable under academic freedom” is antithetical to academic freedom, and we agree.

But this is a mischaracterization of what Murdoch is truly responsible for: not just racism and sexism, but knowingly allowing the publication of falsehoods about the 2020 election. This is not only our opinion, but also the opinion of Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis, who stated that we can infer Rupert Murdoch “either knew Dominion had not manipulated the election or at least recklessly disregarded the truth when they allegedly caused Fox News to propagate its claims about Dominion.” Murdoch had reportedly told Trump that he had lost the election a few days after the fact, in direct contradiction to the claims being made by Fox News at the time. Needless to say, actual malice — the knowing or reckless publication of false information — would violate the core purpose of Academic Freedom: the pursuit and dissemination of truth.

If the lawsuit had not been settled, a jury would have determined whether Murdoch had committed actual malice, which experts believe to have been likely. Regardless of the trial outcome, we are concerned that, given the body of evidence revealed by Dominion, Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Condoleezza Rice among others did not engage with faculty members’ very real concerns about platforming and elevating Murdoch’s position through his appointment on the Hoover Board of Overseers. Murdoch’s position on the Board is not a question of freedom of speech. Murdoch is allowed to speak freely — his ownership of multiple mass media has in fact elevated his ability to speak. Rather, it is a question of who should represent Stanford.

MTL said that a resolution that simply disapproves of Murdoch’s appointment would impose “institutional orthodoxy” and a “chilling effect.” We agree that there is no such thing as an untrue opinion, and that University policies should not restrict the expression of opinions. But even constitutional law does not protect the willful propagation of untrue facts. Why should Stanford choose to give prestige to someone who is all but proven to have done so?

The concepts of academic freedom and freedom of speech, which we all prize at Stanford, should not be mishandled in this way. The protection of academic freedom, if it even protects Murdoch, is certainly in question after the revelations of the Dominion lawsuit. At the very least, we believe that University leadership should have engaged in a good faith dialogue with faculty members, rather than Condoleezza Rice telling a professor, “You have been a problem this whole time,” and throwing around weighty accusations to invalidate dissent. If the leaders of the University, who claim to have such a strong commitment to the free interchange of ideas, cannot even demonstrate a willingness to respond to the concerns of their colleagues, what example does that set for the student body? What does that say about Stanford?

We strongly believe that University leadership — namely President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell, Jerry Yang (Chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees) and Condoleezza Rice (Director of the Hoover Institution) — should have responded to the original letter from faculty members. Those leaders should now defend their position in harboring Murdoch and Mercer specifically, rather than making illusory claims about academic freedom and free speech. If they refuse to do so, they demonstrate disdain not only towards our faculty, but the very values that they claim to protect.

The Editorial Board consists of Opinion columnists, editors and members of the Stanford community. Its views represent the collective views of members of the Editorial Board. It is separate from News.

The Stanford Daily Editorial Board comprises Opinions Editors, Columnists, and at least one member of the Stanford Community. The Board's views are reached through research, debate and individual expertise. The Board does not represent the views of the newsroom nor The Stanford Daily as a whole. Current voting members include Chair Nadia Jo '24, Joyce Chen '25, YuQing Jian '25, Jackson Kinsella '27, Alondra Martinez '26 and Sebastian Strawser '26.

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