A Triumphant Day in the Senate

A Triumphant Day in the Senate

Yesterday evening, the Stanford Faculty Senate met and debated a resolution which sought to create a faculty committee to study the University’s relationship with the Hoover Institution. The faculty who proposed the resolution, led by Professor of Comparative Literature David Palumbo-Liu, gave a detailed presentation expressing their concerns, and delivered a litany of charges against current and former Hoover fellows for making what they call “a travesty of honest intellectual debate”.

The resolution called for an ad hoc “impartial committee.” As Professor Palumbo-Liu explained, the committee would have a “blank check” to study and critique the Hoover Institution and its relationship to Stanford, and to propose reforms. To be clear, the Faculty Senate has absolutely no jurisdiction over Hoover; that authority lies with the President and Trustees. But ignoring the jurisdictional question, we are very skeptical (and that’s putting it mildly) that any committee assembled or promoted by David Palumbo-Liu — who has called for the Hoover Institution to be abolished — could be “impartial” or in any way constructive. Many faculty had similar questions.

Provost Drell was, in our view, incredibly charitable in her reaction: “I listened to this presentation and I really have to say I am left quite confused what the goal of this presentation and the motion is…” We all are, Persis!

The Review commends Stanford’s leadership, particularly the President and Provost, for responding to the resolution with a principled defense of academic freedom, and for refusing to single out Hoover for actions which obviously occur across the University. Partisanship and ideology have, for better or worse, become a part of academia, and anybody claiming that Hoover fellows are unique in this regard is either lying or clueless. Former Provost John Etchemendy pointed out that several of the resolution’s supporters had themselves been subject to calls for censure or punishment, efforts which were rightly rejected by the University.

Provost Drell said: “...as Provost, [this] is not just a Hoover issue. I get many demands to censure Stanford faculty for all sorts of things: for behaving inappropriately, for voicing unpopular opinions or views, for speaking untruths, and for speaking publicly when outside of their expertise. It is the essence of academic freedom that we are not going to institutionally pass judgements of that sort.”

None of this is evidence that Stanford administrators are biased toward the right wing, or “complicit” in some vast conspiracy with the Hoover Institution. Actually, it’s quite simple: they support academic freedom and apply the principle neutrally (one might even say equitably).

In response to the initial resolution, Professor Etchemendy proposed an amendment which sought to scale back the demands for a blank check committee and instead called for discussion of the Hoover relationship to take place between Hoover Director Condoleezza Rice, and Provost Drell.

Professor Etchemendy also commented about the changing political landscape at Stanford: “Over the years, I have watched a steady and frightening evolution of the University — my University — into an intellectually, increasingly homogeneous place.” This assessment reflects a common trend across American higher education over the past few decades. Protecting viewpoint diversity has never been more important, and the University benefits from the perspective that Hoover brings to campus.

So, after amending the resolution in a manner that nullified its original purpose, the Senate voted to adopt it by a substantial margin. Of course, the resolution’s original authors had to vote against it, which made for a beautiful finale to the marathon meeting. After the vote, Professor Palumbo-Liu took to Twitter and admitted the obvious: this was never a serious effort.

“We actually had no expectation we would win. The point was to present an overwhelming case and then expose how terribly complicit so many of our colleagues are. Basically, the Faculty Senate put the foxes in charge of the hen house. But we made our case, and it, and the inaction of the Faculty Senate, is now in the public record.”

The Review appreciates the candor of his admission, but the only person Professor Palumbo-Liu has exposed here is himself. This was a show, designed to bully colleagues into joining a juvenile effort to punish political differences, and to take down the names of anyone who disagrees.

At the end of his Tweet thread, Palumbo-Liu added, “I have only one finger to lift on this, or other matters. And yes, quote me.” Consider yourself quoted, Professor!

Below are President Tessier-Lavigne’s full remarks from the meeting. The Review believes they are worth publishing in their entirety. It is not often that we find ourselves praising Stanford leadership, but the President made a compelling case for the same values the Review promotes: against echo chambers and academic crackdowns, and in defense of heterodox views:

“Just to say first, I believe that Professor Etchemendy's amendment is appropriate. I believe that the presentation raised important issues, how the university should deal with scholars, as Provost Drell said, who have behaved inappropriately, voiced unpopular opinions or views, spoken untruths, or spoken publicly outside of their expertise. We've heard suggestions, for example, should there be tags for what is deemed misinformation? But I do want to reiterate a point already made, but it's an important one, which is that if we are to tackle issues like this, they should be addressed across the university. And the original motion, focusing just on Hoover, would not have that effect, which is why I believe it's actually missed its mark.

I also want to make a few points about academic freedom. I think it's important to remember that our current statement of academic freedom was created by the faculty, after social and working movements, starting in the 1960s, reached their peak on our campus in the early 1970s. The statement was approved and ratified in 1974. I think we have to remain aware that the protections the policy seeks to provide for all of our faculty across the political spectrum are extremely important. And we have to be very careful about unintended consequences of eroding a policy, whatever the intention, even well intentioned desires to evaluate things.

So if there is a decision to reevaluate aspects of this type, we must go with very great caution, and also be even-handed in exploring the issue across all academic units of the university, including Hoover. Of course, with our current statement of academic freedom, nothing prevents faculty from challenging the views of others. To the contrary, that debate is appropriate and remains at the heart of academic life. We would miss it here today. And also the statement, I think everybody here knows the statement. Well, we all know that the statement emphasizes not just the need to resist institutional orthodoxy and internal and external coercion, a phrase that we often refer to, but you'll recall it It also emphasizes that “expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged.” And this is to avoid the University becoming an echo chamber for a small set of views. So whatever your thoughts on the presentation today, 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.

I believe that the amended resolution by Mr. Etchemendy is a very constructive step towards addressing the relationship of the Hoover to the rest of the university. I also believe that if there are other issues, we should tackle them in an even-handed way across the university, and proceed with great caution.”

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