By calling for the resignation of a tenured professor, the writers of last week’s piece on David Palumbo-Liu set a dangerous precedent for campus discourse.
The institution of tenure has long been a bulwark for intellectual freedom on college campuses. University professors, having labored for decades as graduate students and junior faculty, are honored with a special status that prevents them from being removed without an arduous process and very good reason – for example, direct incitement to violence. The only tenured Stanford professor ever to have been fired was H. Bruce Franklin, who was found guilty of calling for violent riot on campus during the 1970s. Tenure has broader consequences for the culture of the university: professors who receive it are respected by the community and accorded wide latitude to express views and align themselves with whatever causes they choose.
The authors of last week’s article, to be clear, wisely refrained from calling for the university to fire Professor Palumbo-Liu for his association with an organization he founded, the Campus Antifascist Network (CAN). But they took the liberty of imposing on the professor a choice: disavow the organization, or resign. This was not in direct violation of the institution of tenure, but it was a rhetorical move that seems poised (intentionally or otherwise) to undermine the spirit of tenure on college campuses. The idea that students may take it upon themselves to judge for themselves whether a professor should maintain employment at a university, or whether additional terms should be imposed on his or her continued employment, is a remarkably corrosive one to the culture of intellectual tolerance that we at the Review justly hold dear.
This step is an especially surprising one to have been taken by conservative-leaning students since, given the current state of student politics on university campuses, the first victims of a loss of respect for tenured faculty would certainly be conservatives. If calling for the resignation of a professor is normalized, what would prevent left-wing student activists from demanding the dismissal of any professor who is known to affiliate with right-wing groups – or whose syllabi are insufficiently decolonized? This particular call for resignation was not made with the desire or ability to enforce it, but it opens the door for ones that do have such intent. Whether the professor in question is actually coerced into resigning is, in a sense, immaterial: either way, the state of campus discourse suffers from an erosion of the spirit of tolerance.
We must be even-handed on this issue. The Review board, in our response to Palumbo-Liu’s Daily editorial, points out that our opponents would surely demand the resignation of any professor who associated with the “alt-right” – but if such an unfortunate event were to happen, it would likely be the Review that would justly leap to the hypothetical professor’s defense, making similar arguments about the importance of freedom of association.
To maintain a culture that respects the free expression of ideas, college professors must be free to associate with whatever political causes they wish, so long as they do not directly incite violence on Stanford’s campus or elsewhere. Debating the level of connection between Palumbo-Liu’s organization and the black-masked rioters at Berkeley and elsewhere overlooks the vital essence of the matter: If we do not encourage the full freedom of association to be exercised by the most respected members of our intellectual community, we cannot convincingly claim to be the true defenders of this right on our campus.
Let us adopt a position that one of the authors of the original Review piece recently outlined at a Stanford Political Union debate: total free speech, subject only to the restrictions of the First Amendment, must be defended on the college campus, because any restrictive code written to protect against hurtful, insubstantial speech would inevitably be exploited by one political faction and used against another. Under this guideline, we may certainly make public appeals for professors to desist from or repent of their political actions, but we would be wise to refrain from making calls for resignation that might be interpreted as attempts to enforce a restrictive speech code of our own.
I am, to be clear, no defender of the ideas of Professor Palumbo-Liu. I happen to find his particular brand of identity politics dogmatic and tiresome. Many of his political acts seem calibrated to bait the campus right – from his support of a left-wing student protest that shut down the San Mateo Bridge in 2015, to his vocal partisanship on behalf of the Palestinian side of Middle East politics. The Review has taken each of these opportunities to criticize Palumbo-Liu, but has wisely kept its response within the bounds of respect for the office of professor. Calling for his resignation on this occasion was, I believe, an action that overstepped these bounds, and allowed for Palumbo-Liu to paint himself as occupying a moral high ground in his Daily article.
Neither is this to claim that Professor Palumbo-Liu is blameless. His CAN promotes a rhetoric that itself seems aimed to corrode the spirit of intellectual tolerance at the university: see its call to root out campus fascism “disguised as ‘free speech.’” Who determines what is free speech and what is “free speech”? His criticism of the Review for demonstrating “contempt for real free speech,” and his own claim of support for the principle, is likewise undermined by the caption with which he tweeted out his editorial: “why free speech should not apply to the alt-R [sic].” Palumbo-Liu’s designation of the Review as “alt-right” was a rhetorical move so cynical that even a Daily columnist saw fit to decry it as “dishonest.”
Still, the questionable commitment to free speech embodied by our interlocutor does not justify lapses in our own commitment to this ideal. In criticizing a Stanford professor for his dubious political associations, the Review could have gained broader support by formulating our criticism through the language of free speech, and by stopping short of asking for his departure. The current controversy has reaffirmed that regardless of political persuasion, we must resist the temptation to let slip our dedication to the principles of free expression and association, when we engage with those whose deeds we deplore.