Classified research at Stanford has a complicated history. Though the University permitted professors to conduct classified work in the early decades of the Cold War, Vietnam protestors successfully lobbied for a ban that continues to this day. The ban also led to the divestment of Stanford Research Institute (SRI), which once conducted classified work under Stanford’s purview, but now functions as an independent nonprofit.
However, the Vietnam War is long over and America’s modern geopolitical challenges necessitate a rethinking of the University’s stance. Stanford should reinstate classified research and permit faculty to accept funding from classified sources.
Over the past decade, conducting research for national security and defense has become increasingly unpopular throughout Silicon Valley. Corporations, the traditional anchors of our nation’s vital defense industry, have chosen to capitulate to their woke employees and have shunned mission-critical work for the government. Meanwhile, the geopolitical clock keeps on ticking and our adversaries continue to exploit the openness of the American system to achieve their technological and military objectives.
Technology startups usually want to grow as quickly as possible, but Department of Defense (DoD) and government timelines for classified work are anything but quick. This leads to a structural disconnect between profit-seeking corporations and the government. Organizations such as the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) are working to improve the situation, but re-enabling classified work at Stanford would add a new dimension to incentive alignment efforts and help close the gap.
Universities have long connected government to industry, and Stanford is uniquely positioned between Silicon Valley and traditional American higher education. Classified work at Stanford can capture the best of both worlds: a combination of long term research grants and commercialization initiatives can power basic innovations in information technology and engineering while spawning more Palantirs and Andurils along the way.
The Stanford administration’s continued opposition to classified work is deeply hypocritical. Stanford seems to be okay with obfuscating sources of foreign funding, but insists on transparency for domestically-funded research. This is not a principled stand; it’s an unpatriotic double standard. By refusing to permit classified work for the DoD or DARPA while maintaining close ties to Saudi Arabia and China, Stanford is prioritizing the secrecy of foreign donors over urgent national security needs.
Classified research does have downsides. For example, reinstating classified projects could make Stanford a larger target for foreign espionage. But sequestering the most sensitive work into classified labs can counteract espionage efforts by providing an additional layer of defense against adversarial researchers attempting to steal sensitive knowledge. Technologies with national security implications, such as blockchain networks, quantum computing systems, and artificial intelligence chips, should be developed in compartmentalized units that are kept away from prying eyes.
Other critics assert that classified work compromises academic freedom: a culture of secrecy, they point out, sacrifices the free exchange of ideas and leads to a loss of control over information. To a certain extent, this is true. But the free exchange of ideas that academics cherish so dearly relies heavily on the military superiority and sense of security that classified work helps establish.
It is also important to emphasize that permitting classified work is not the same as encouraging it or mandating it. There is an individual aspect to academic freedom which critics of classified work fail to consider - what if a professor chooses to pursue classified work because he or she is a patriot? Their academic freedom must also be guaranteed.
During the second World War and the early days of the Cold War, there was little opposition to universities permitting classified research; far from being a lightning rod for academic freedom debates, classified research was seen as a national responsibility. That sentiment has largely disappeared from the academic community, but our adversaries have not. Iran, Russia, and China will continue to develop technologies with the help of their universities.
Stanford can use its knowledge and resources to do the same for America. Frederick Terman himself supported classified work and presided over a period in which Stanford and SRI collectively garnered more than $45 million in military contracts. With appropriate ethical controls that ensure abuse is minimized, a resumption of classified work at Stanford would greatly benefit the nation. The Faculty Senate should urgently reconsider its policy regarding classified research and once again permit Stanford researchers to conduct work that directly benefits our national defense.