Paul L. Caron

Monday, November 7, 2022

A Stanford Conference Says Academic Freedom Is In Danger. Critics Say The Event Is Part Of The Problem.

Chronicle of Higher Education, A Conference Says Academic Freedom Is in Danger. Critics Say the Event Is Part of the Problem.:

Stanford (2016)Open inquiry is “under threat.” Scholars are being “canceled” for unorthodox views, and colleges are “ideological monocultures.” So says an academic-freedom conference that begins on Friday at Stanford University, one that bills itself as determined to “restore the open debate required for new knowledge to flourish.”

When the agenda circulated online last month, critics saw the invitation-only event as a contradiction of the free-speech principles it purports to champion. And to a swath of Stanford’s faculty, the event is yet another alarming piece of evidence that their elite institution is propping up figures who are threatening democracy and public health.

If you’ve ever read an article or tweet in which a professor declares that “wokeness” has taken over the Ivory Tower, there’s a good chance that person will be speaking at Stanford this weekend. There’s Scott W. Atlas, who lobbied former President Donald J. Trump to let the coronavirus spread unabated through most people; Amy Wax, who is facing disciplinary action at the University of Pennsylvania for her statements about racial minorities and gay people; and Jordan Peterson, whose insistence that universities are “indoctrination cults” has won him a loyal following. Oh, and Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire who has repeatedly dismissed college as a waste of time and money and is funding a cadre of hard-right congressional candidates, is giving a keynote about “the end of the future.” [Other speakers included Tyler Cowen (George Mason), Jonathan Haidt (NYU), Michael McConnell (Stanford), Ilya Shapiro (Manhattan Institute), and Eugene Volokh (UCLA).]

The event, sponsored by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, was initially closed to the media. Following public criticism, the organizers announced that it would be live-streamed. Informing attendees of the change, they wrote that “leakage would be unavoidable,” according to an email obtained by The Chronicle.

John H. Cochrane, a conference organizer and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford, told The Chronicle that the 150 expected attendees, who he described as academics and others with “concerns, writing and expertise on academic freedom,” will put the room at capacity. “That, not external pressure, is the reason for the live stream,” he said by email, adding that the tight schedule will not permit remote questions.

Under these conditions, critics say, the speakers are unlikely to be meaningfully challenged. “One cannot evoke academic freedom in order to deprive others of it,” stated a letter signed by more than 50 Stanford faculty members. “This deeply cynical instrumentalization of ‘academic freedom’ to protect racist lies and other mistruths is an offense to the very concept that forms the bedrock of the University.”

“The hypocrisy is so thick that you need a gas mask to survive,” said David Palumbo-Liu, an author of the letter and a comparative literature professor, in an interview.

But in Cochrane’s view, the letter signers — some of whom turned down invitations to speak — are the hypocrites. “We find the effort to censor a conference on free speech and academic freedom rather hilarious,” he wrote.

“Conferences on evolutionary biology do not routinely invite creationists for a debate,” he added. “Are they excluding people and stifling expression? Where is the letter of faculty protest that creationists are being stifled? No, they are getting on with a productive conference. This is a conference for people who are worried about academic freedom and want to discuss what to do about it. Extraneous debates, media, politics, are just a waste of time for our purpose.” ...

Nadine Strossen, an emeritus professor at New York Law School, said that some speakers, such as Wax, hold ideas “I completely reject,” but “I don’t believe that I’m endorsing Amy Wax’s ideas by virtue of participating in a conference with her.” “I’m completely happy to engage with people who have different perspectives,” Strossen said. “To me, this is something that regardless of your views on everything — including what academic freedom should be — we depend on academic freedom to debate and discuss that.”

Update:  Inside High Ed, Divisive Academic Freedom Conference Proceeds:

A conference on academic freedom proceeded Friday and Saturday under the auspices of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, despite faculty and student calls for Stanford to distance itself from the event platforming such divisive figures as Amy Wax and Jordan Peterson (and which was otherwise a who’s who of self-proclaimed canceled academics: asked at one point to raise their hands if they'd been canceled, a majority of participants did so).

Co-organizer John Cochrane, economist and Rose-Marie and Jack Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, in his opening remarks said that event’s critics had failed and that “Stanford’s leaders have supported us, for which we are grateful, so we are still here.” At the same time, he said, “untenured faculty figured out they should not be seen here. Several more deregistered from the conference after we decided to stream the proceedings, citing fear of repercussions.”

“One prominent Stanford professor, active in university academic freedom issues, spoke for many, telling us, ‘I can’t be seen on the program with right-wing nutjobs like …’ and named a few of our speakers,” Cochrane added. “At an academic freedom conference. There’s half the problem in a nutshell.” ...

Several panels attempted to address threats to academic freedom by broad academic field. Michael McConnell, Richard and Frances Mallery Professor of law and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford, said during a panel on legal education, for instance, “There is no way to teach the doctrine of consent and rape,” on which many sexual assault cases turn, “without making people self-righteously indignant, right, and the easiest course is, ‘Well let’s just not. Let’s avoid. Let’s talk about bank embezzlement, right?’”

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