Atlas, Ferguson, and Hanson: On Free Speech at Stanford

Atlas, Ferguson, and Hanson: On Free Speech at Stanford

What is the purpose of academic freedom?

Is it to allow all kinds of ideas to be expressed and explored, protecting even speech that people in the past considered heretical—protecting free expression that some people today would like to “cancel”? Or is it to allow co-workers in the ideological minority to be personally and selectively disparaged with impunity?

The answer for some faculty at Stanford University would appear to be the latter.

In a recent meeting of the Stanford Faculty Senate, four professors (Joshua Landy, Stephen Monismith, David Palumbo-Liu and David Spiegel) presented and then subsequently published a farrago of falsehoods directed against various fellows of the Hoover Institution. Their complaint was, first, that the Hoover fellows’ views were unapologetically conservative and, second, that they appeared antithetical to the majority of those of the Stanford community—and were therefore properly subject to some sort of institutional and personal censure.

Our faculty accusers failed to achieve both their overt and their implicit goals—creating a faculty-controlled committee to investigate Hoover and intimidating us into silence. Some respected faculty members, including the President, the Provost, and the former Provost all forcefully spoke up for academic freedom in general and defended Hoover in particular. They should be congratulated for doing so in these ideologically polarized times.

Nevertheless, our faculty accusers still succeeded in maligning us as individuals. The impression was left even by the President that we might have “behaved inappropriately” or “spoken untruths.” Unfortunately, this is not the first time such use has been made of the Senate. Indeed, it has happened repeatedly in recent years, for example in February 2019.

To make matters worse, the fact that Hoover fellows are not represented on the Faculty Senate (unless they hold a joint appointment with a Stanford department) makes it nearly impossible for us to defend ourselves in that forum. We certainly were not invited to offer a response to the allegations.

Nor was this month the first time that the Stanford Daily, a student-run newspaper independent of the university but widely perceived to be authoritative, has published attacks on Hoover fellows without contacting them and giving them a reasonable amount of time to respond, in contravention of the paper’s own “Policies and Standards.” Clearly, there is no possibility of Hoover’s receiving fair treatment in a newspaper whose Editorial Board only last November published a call for “Stanford to separate itself from Hoover.”

We are also excluded from Stanford’s Academic Council, but we remain fellow scholars at Stanford. Consequently, we have a right to protection from what has become a campaign of serial harassment that we have valid reasons to expect will continue.

The accusations against us three last week were as various as they were untrue. And all were presented regardless of clear and published evidence to the contrary.

Professors Landy, Monismith, Palumbo-Liu and Spiegel alleged that one of us, Atlas, “violated the American Medical Association’s standards for ethical medical conduct” while serving in government as a presidential adviser, and was indirectly responsible for the deaths of “tens of thousands of Americans.” Those serious charges were based on straw-man arguments and gross distortions of Atlas’s words, as pointed out by others. In misrepresenting Atlas’s statements, Stanford faculty members intended to delegitimize him and his analysis.

Landy et al. accused Hanson of having written articles that “formed the backdrop to an insurrection that cost 5 lives and threatened the lives of Representatives, Congressional staff, and the Vice President, as well as our constitutional democracy.” In reality, the articles in question discussed real problems with mail-in and early balloting, often requiring progressive efforts to change state voting laws—all problematic voting changes acknowledged by scholars at Stanford University Law School itself. Hanson has never questioned the legitimate inauguration of President Biden. The alleged connection between his written work and the events of January 6 in Washington is entirely spurious. In unequivocal terms, Hanson criticized the January 6 riot at the Capitol and called for punishment of any and all street violence during the entire 2020 election year and its aftermath.

A third, Ferguson, was alleged to have “conspired with College Republicans to conduct ‘opposition research’ on a Stanford undergraduate.” But no such “conspiracy” occurred and no such research was ever done, as was made perfectly clear at the time.

The purpose of this article is not to rebut these false and derogatory claims, however. We and others have each done this elsewhere or shall shortly do so. Our aim instead is to object to a group of professors’ deliberate misuse of the Faculty Senate and the student newspaper to act as purveyors of their defamation.

In addition to harming the reputations of eminent scholars, the ongoing, multi-year campaign by certain faculty members against the Hoover Institution at large—which is patently ideological in its motivation—risks doing considerable collateral damage to Stanford University.

At a time when universities all over the United States have become profoundly politically unrepresentative, Hoover’s status as a semi-autonomous part of the university is an asset to Stanford, not a liability. Hoover fellows make substantive and influential contributions to academic research and policy in multiple fields, notably economics, political science, education and history. To quote President Tessier-Lavigne’s own defense of the Hoover mission, “it is undisputed that without the work of many scholars at Hoover, Stanford would have less intellectual diversity and the academic life of our university would be poorer for it.”

To be sure, any academic who enters the public sphere or government service runs a considerable career risk. In the course of a year, Hoover fellows may write several hundred articles, or give an equal number of radio and television interviews. Some scholars will voice controversial views. And a few on occasion will no doubt say things that are wrong.

Yet for this university collectively to retreat into its ivory tower would hardly fulfil the ambitions of its founders. Nor did Herbert Hoover establish the Institution that bears his name so that it could study war, peace and revolution at a level of abstraction useless to policymakers and irrelevant to the public at large.

It is neither the custom nor the tradition of Hoover scholars to fault Stanford University for the excesses of a few Stanford faculty. But that forbearance does not mean we are unaware that our faculty critics are themselves politically engaged and wish to destroy the reputation of the Hoover Institution and impugn some of its scholars for ideological reasons of their own.

In August 2017, Professor Palumbo-Liu formed a new “Campus Antifascist Network,” a name not accidentally similar to the nationwide “Antifa” movement, which last year was responsible for multiple acts of violent protest, including physical attacks on opponents and law enforcement. His network’s website, until this was pointed out, referred its readers to virulently anti-Semitic literature. In January 2015, Palumbo-Liu praised Stanford students who occupied and blocked the San Mateo Bridge at peak commuting hours, endangering lives, causing minor car crashes, and getting themselves arrested.We believe his charges of abusing campus free speech better apply to his own inflammatory activities.

In November 2017 President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell published “Advancing Free Speech and Inclusion” on the “Notes from the Quad” website, setting out an admirable case for free speech at Stanford.

“In both research and education,” they wrote, “breakthroughs in understanding come not from considering a familiar, limited range of ideas, but from considering a broad range of ideas, including those we might find objectionable, and engaging in rigorous testing of them through analysis and debate.

“Universities also must help students prepare to function in a society where active citizenship and meaningful work require engaging with a broad diversity of individuals, ideas, and arguments. These values are reflected in Stanford’s motto—‘The wind of freedom blows.’

“Our strength as a university derives from our diversity—including in backgrounds, religions, nationalities, races, genders, identities, ages, physical abilities, political views, and ways of thinking. We are only successful as an intellectual community when our discussion benefits from the entire range of perspectives present on our campus. This requires a constant effort to ensure that everyone feels they are full members of our community.

“We must ensure that a diversity of views is not just a possibility but also a reality at Stanford … It is imperative that as a university, we avoid a culture in which people feel pressured to conform to particular views. One way to encourage that is to ensure that diverse perspectives are actively discussed at Stanford.”

We agree with all this. But we note that, despite the work one of us put into launching it, Cardinal Conversations—the series of events designed to model free speech at Stanford—has effectively been left to die.

Far from promoting a “diversity of views,” including political ideas and opinions, the reality of free speech at Stanford today is all too often that a minority of leftist faculty members have the freedom to smear Hoover fellows, and can count on the Stanford Daily to publish their smears.

Far from “avoid[ing] a culture in which people feel pressured to conform to particular views,” some faculty at Stanford seek to achieve the very opposite. Provost Drell warned at the Faculty Senate meeting on February 11: “Censuring or noting issues related to speech only on one side of the political spectrum seems especially at odds with our academic values.” Yet that is precisely what our antagonists, led by Palumbo-Liu, have been doing.

Regardless of the outcome of current and future deliberations about the relationship between Stanford and Hoover, as individuals we now seek meaningful reassurances that these unwarranted attacks on our reputations will no longer be legitimized by some in the Faculty Senate and disseminated by the student newspaper. If Hoover fellows continue to be targets for character assassination, it will be clear to us what the true nature of free speech at Stanford has become—and not only to us.

Last year, Stanford sadly placed 35th out of 55 in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s College Free Speech rankings. In this regard, we note the relevant warning of the prior Provost, Professor John Etchemendy, “Over the years, I have watched a steady and frightening evolution of the University—my University—into an intellectually, increasingly homogeneous place.”

We agree, and ask the greater Stanford community of which we are indeed full members to ask themselves: Does the wind of freedom still blow at Stanford? Or is it the stale breath of ideological conformism and intimidation that we detect?

Scott Atlas, MD, Robert Wesson Senior Fellow

Niall Ferguson, DPhil, Milbank Family Senior Fellow

Victor Davis Hanson, PhD, Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow

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