Consistency is Key: A Letter to the Stanford GSC

Richard Dawkins is very clear on his opinion of creationism and its supporters. In an article published by The Guardian, he stated, “Any science teacher who denies that the world is billions … of years old is teaching children a preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood.” He continues, “Ignorant, closed-minded, false teachers who stand in their way come as close as I can reckon to committing true sacrilege.”

Student group Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!) invited Dawkins to speak at Stanford during the fall quarter about his autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder. The event was sponsored by the Graduate Student Council (GSC) as well as the ASSU Undergraduate Senate, Stanford Speakers Bureau, and the Secular Student Alliance.

Towards the end of winter quarter, the Stanford Anscombe Society (SAS) requested similar funding from the GSC for an April 5th event titled “Communicating Values”. The aim of the conference was to “help university students and young adults promote the values of marriage, family, and sexual integrity to the broader popular culture”.

The event’s speaker list, which included several prominent opponents of same-sex marriage, was condemned on the grounds that it was discriminatory and “unwelcoming” by several members of GradQ, Stanford’s umbrella group for LGBT and allied students in the graduate and professional schools. “The [SAS] website says that the conference is to train participants how to make secular arguments on why not to have gay marriage in the US. This event will hurt LGBT members at Stanford and provide an unsafe space for them,“ said GradQ member Brianne Huntsman in a March GSC meeting.

In light of GradQ’s concerns, GSC rejected SAS’s request for $600 in honoraria funds for event speakers in a 10-2 vote. GSC officer Eduardo González-Maldonado stated that the student council’s funding guidelines explicitly prohibited provision of funds to “any event that makes anyone feel unwelcome and uncomfortable”.

Excerpt from 2013-14 GSC Funding Guidelines

— Excerpt from 2013-14 GSC Funding Guidelines

Unfortunately, the GSC has been inconsistent in upholding this guideline. While the Anscombe event was ineligible for funds due to hosting speakers who are discriminatory towards the LGBT community, AHA! was able to receive support from the GSC to host Dawkins, who is famous for saying that those who do not believe in evolution are “ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked”. The ideas he represents are similarly negative towards the religious community.

While I agree with Dawkins and personally find the views of the SAS conference speakers detestable, I am very disappointed in the GSC’s inconsistency in its dealing of these two situations. If the GSC were truly committed to its official guideline to not fund events that “create an environment where a given segment of the graduate student population are made to feel unwelcome at the event due to religious, political, or other conviction”, it would have rejected AHA!’s request in the fall.

As an educational institution, Stanford has an obligation to foster and protect intellectual discussion. It is inexcusable that certain more popular opinions that are derogatory towards a group may be freely voiced while individuals with less favored views are silenced.

I urge the GSC to remove this guideline entirely. Even if the organization were devoted to consistently upholding its policy of not funding any events where students are “made to feel unwelcome”, it would have an extremely stifling effect on intellectual discussion at Stanford. It is nearly impossible to express and develop an innovative idea without offending someone along the way. Challengers to the status quo, including those who hold ridiculous or even offensive ideas, push us to consider issues from different perspectives and reflect upon our ideas more deeply. Their inclusion is crucial to maintaining a vigorous intellectual environment, and I hope the GSC takes that into account in the future as it works to build a better campus for the Stanford community.

Graphic by Devon Zuegel

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