Does Academic Freedom Have a Future at Stanford?

Does Academic Freedom Have a Future at Stanford?

Editor's Note: These remarks were delivered by Professor Russell A. Berman at last week's (1/26) faculty senate meeting. The remarks refer to Stanford's Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.

The EHLI has been a catastrophe for the university. It has shaken the faith of faculty and students in the university's commitment to academic freedom and free speech.

The authors of the list have an indisputable right to express their opinion, even though I disagree with their understanding of semantics. The problem results from the endorsement of the list by the universityʼs Chief Information Officer (CIO) and his Council. That makes it policy. But we have been told by the university leaders that the elimination list is not policy. There seems to be confusion as to who is in charge. The goal of EHLI, as stated, is protecting university members from allegedly harmful words. Such words are to be purged, but if we purge words, we ban ideas, and we ban books.

By this logic of avoiding harm, I will not be able to teach poems by T.S. Eliot because of their antisemitism which might cause harm. I wonʼt be able to teach Huckleberry Finn nor, for that matter, Grapes of Wrath because of racist language. We should ban Richard Wrightʼs Native Son or Toni Morrisonʼs Beloved for treatments of sexual violence, which may cause harm. This is a road we must not go down. It is not the role of a university to protect students or anyone else from difficult ideas or words. On the contrary, we need the intellectual courage to confront them, and we faculty have to regain the assurance that the university supports us when we do so. That trust in the administration has been lost.

This is bitter: we need to confront the real status of academic freedom at Stanford honestly.

People have become fearful of voicing their opinions. I have heard from students, worried about the sanctions they may face for word choices. I have heard from a junior colleague, fearful that expressing his views would jeopardize a promotion. I have heard from a senior colleague who feels like she is walking on eggshells in her lectures. And for lecturers without job security, academic freedom remains as elusive as ever.

This is not a healthy atmosphere. The way to fix it is by asserting faculty oversight in a university run solely by administrators, like the CIO-Council, where there is no faculty presence and where, evidently, there is no appreciation for academic values. Stanford can do better. In 1900 Jane Stanford had President Jordan fire a faculty member for his political views. Distinguished members of the faculty resigned. An indirect result was the founding of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors), but the fight for academic freedom began here, at Stanford. We have a historic obligation not to let it die here.

In the words of former President Donald Kennedy, there are times when "faculties can take hold of the values of their institutions, defend them successfully, and make a reality of the vision of the academy under even the most stressful challenges."

This is the time for the Senate to show its character.

Russell A. Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. At Stanford, Professor Berman is a member of the Departments of German Studies and Comparative Literature. He specializes in politics and culture in Europe and the Middle East.


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