One of the more interesting aspects of campus life is the influence professors wield over students. Some even develop cult followings. With the political season now in full-swing, the question arises: Should professors endorse candidates?
In a speech delivered in 1902, Jane Stanford said: “I desire that the University shall forever be kept out of politics, and that no professor shall electioneer among or seek to dominate other professors or the students for the success of any political party or candidate in any political contest.” Her comment followed the controversial dismissal two years earlier of Edward Ross, a professor who had become politically active.
No professor embodies institutional memory like Norman Naimark, the director of the Overseas Studies Program. “I see nothing wrong with the public endorsement of a candidate by a Stanford professor, as long it is clear that the endorsement is one of a private citizen,” he said.
Economics Prof. Gavin Wright, who endorsed the Democratic Party in the Stanford Daily, slammed the quotation, explaining that “it has no standing, neither as a rule nor as a tradition at Stanford, and it would be most unfortunate if it did.” He described the Ross incident as “a black mark in Stanford’s history.”
Most professors contacted, including Prof. Wright, acknowledged a difference between promulgating political views in class and outside of class.
Law Prof. Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, who publicly endorsed Senator Barack Obama, noted: “It’s entirely inconsistent with a professor’s position to editorialize about candidate strengths or weaknesses during class, other academic functions, or official functions of the university.”
Morris Fiorina, a political science professor who endorsed Congressman Ron Paul in the Stanford Daily, agreed: “It is one thing to expound on your personal views in a classroom setting, which I regard as illegitimate, and a different thing to disclose those views so that students can make their own inferences.”
Dr. William Dement has endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton in his Sleep & Dreams class. When asked if he considers this endorsement to be appropriate, he replied that Clinton was the “most knowledgeable about sleep,” which he considers to be a public health policy issue. He drew a distinction between partisan speeches and brief comments.
Many professors have also advised presidential campaigns. Law Prof. Larry Marshall, an advisor of Obama, explained: “Faculty are in a uniquely well-situated position to help the public understand the realities and complexities of the decisions that are at stake in electing leaders.” A wide variety of other professors, including many Hoover fellows, have also advised candidates on policy issues.
The balance, as ever, remains delicate. On the one hand, civic participation demands that knowledgeable people involve themselves in politics, and the freedom of speech surely must apply to professors. On the other, where do we draw the line on this already quite liberal campus?
The fact that Jane Stanford’s quotation comes from 1902 suggests that this is the kind of controversy that demands eternal vigilance and perennial discussion.