From the Community | A note on academic freedom and institutional orthodoxy

June 15, 2023, 8:09 a.m.

There has been a great deal of conversation in our community recently over a motion introduced in the Faculty Senate. Several articles have appeared in The Stanford Daily, and tensions were high at the Faculty Senate meeting on May 11. Moving anecdotes have been shared in response to the suggestion that voting in favor of the motion could be likened to Nazi ideology. Notwithstanding the difference between academic freedom and freedom of speech that has already been discussed, questions of academic freedom and institutional reputation are undoubtedly within the purview of the Faculty Senate. As an early career academic researcher, there are a few observations I’d like to make that I hope my senior colleagues will consider in their deliberations.

First, let’s clarify the stakes. A few months ago, nearly a hundred professors publicly asked for an accounting from University leadership about the position of honor and power bestowed upon Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Mercer as members of the Board of Overseers for the Hoover Institute. After hearing radio silence from the named individuals for several months, two professors introduced a resolution for consideration at the Faculty Senate, the self-organized body where faculty can exercise their governance power over aspects of University operations. It is important to note that the resolution introduced is purely symbolic. The Faculty Senate does not have the authority to sever ties with individuals, nor does the resolution attempt that. It is an opportunity for faculty to discuss the merits of the resolution in their self-organized body. If the resolution were to pass, it asks that senior University leadership take action that only they have authority to do so.

Another clarification: there is a very clear difference between someone holding a position of honor, privilege and power like being on the Board of Overseers and someone being invited to give an academic talk. With academic freedom comes academic responsibility to pursue truth with integrity. The greater the position of power, the greater the responsibility. It feels disingenuous to conflate asking University leadership to publicly explain the position of power and honor bestowed upon Murdoch and Mercer with attempts to suppress academic scholarship. Passing a purely symbolic motion in no way sets up the Faculty Senate as “thought police.”

In the discussion at the Faculty Senate, there was a warning about a slippery slope if the Faculty Senate motion were to pass. In the words of the President: “To be consistent, the senate could not cherry-pick which appointments to evaluate. Every appointment would need to be scrutinized, on the left as much as on the right. And it is hard to see why only advisory board appointments would be scrutinized. What about the hundreds of guest speakers who are invited to teach in classes or give special lectures?” Notwithstanding the difference between invited talks and positions of privilege, power and prestige outlined above, I fail to see how Stanford being considerate and intentional in building and maintaining relationships is a problem. We should hold the Board of Trustees, Board of Overseers and similar bodies to a higher standard and sever ties with anyone that does not align with our shared values as a community. There is currently ongoing discussion about the new advisory council for the Doerr School of Sustainability. Even with the scrutiny, there does not seem to be a “precipitous drop in interest to serve on boards” as the President forewarned.

Director of the Hoover Institute and former Provost Condoleezza Rice quoted the Faculty Senate’s foundational statement on academic freedom, saying that “expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal and or external coercion.” The President of the University, who has used his position of power to call into question the integrity of an award-winning freshman investigative reporter, said that passing a symbolic resolution would have a “chilling effect.” Director Rice passionately argued that it was not the place of the Faculty Senate to even consider the resolution, pushing past the two-minute limit allotted to each speaker by Senate rules. In addition to characterizing the resolution as “an attack on Hoover,” Director Rice also attacked a professor and said “you have been a problem this entire time.” Would an Assistant Professor without tenure have been afforded the opportunity to speak past the two minute limit? What about a recognized representative from the undergraduate, graduate or postdoctoral scholar community?

When senior University administrators tell the Faculty Senate that they cannot even consider a resolution, the only internal coercion and institutional orthodoxy I see is an attempt to silence faculty by the administration. I can’t help but draw the connection to the gag order on faculty that administrators issued with regard to the graduate student unionization efforts. The passionate defenders of academic freedom and freedom of speech didn’t have much to say on that topic.

Faculty members can reasonably disagree on the prudence of voting for or against the introduced resolution. Although my views on how I would vote if I had the opportunity are probably clear, it is not my place to discuss the merits of the idea. No matter where you stand on the content of the resolution, however, all faculty members should band together to claim the right and responsibility of the Faculty Senate to speak to matters of academic freedom and integrity. Especially when senior University leadership tries to deny them that ability.

Tim MacKenzie, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral scholar in the Genetics Department at Stanford University.

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