Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Academic Freedom at Stanford -- commentary

This is a follow up to a post on the Stanford faculty petition on free speech. I place my comments here, in a separate post. I want to be super-clear that the signatories signed the letter of the last post, and endorse nothing else. 

What does it say? Free speech, free inquiry, academic freedom. Period. Not free speech so long as nobody feels hurt. Not free speech so long as you don't disagree with or are viewed as not fully supporting Stanford's policy on Diversity,  Equity, and Inclusion. Not free speech except if you disagree with Stanford's or the County of Santa Clara's covid policies, or Stanford's "sustainability" principles. Not free speech, but limited to your domain of academic expertise, determined by some bureaucratic process. There are other faculty groups and committees working on all these "free-speech but" policies. This group endorsed free speech, period.  

The Stanford Faculty senate has commissioned a report on speech and academic expression, chaired by Professor David Palumbo-Liu. Websitetwitter. Since Professor Palumbo-Liu was a main organizer of the move to censure Scott Atlas for his... well, speech, regarding covid policy, and to remove Hoover from the Stanford campus for... well, speech on policy issues (the presentation to the faculty senate cited in particular my blog post on Stanford's "school of sustainability" as an example of impermissible speech), it will be interesting to see what happens next.  As an example, here is a classic of his tweets
The report will be delivered to the Faculty Senate  Nov 18.  I'm not holding my breath that it will simply endorse Chicago principles.  

Why post? There is a national movement of faculty who care about academic freedom and expression. Kudos to our colleagues at MIT who wrote a free speech letter in the wake of the Dorian Abbott affair. You are not alone.  There are voices, from all over the political spectrum, who still believe in unfettered free speech and academic freedom 

An important issue came up in this process. Why the Chicago principles? Why not tweak them for local conditions, or particular issues? Indeed, what's bubbling up at Stanford are all sorts of modified free speech policies. 

The advantage of the Chicago principles, and next the Kalven Report principles that universities should not weigh in on political matters, is that there is one clean text.  80 others have signed as is. It's much cleaner to join a single unambiguous movement than everybody writes their own version. A statement of principles in a petition should, like the 1st amendment to the Constitution, be short, sweet, and universal, and state the minimum core that we can all agree on. 


  1. It is not what Professor X says. It is that he/she has the right to say it.

    If you can silence Professor X, then you can be next.

  2. Congratulations John. Says a lot about the current state of society you even need to produce and sign such letters.

  3. Free speech is a fundamental element of a well-functioning, free society. That should be unquestioned: those who question it do not have the welfare of the community at heart.

  4. Goebbels had similar ideas years ago.

  5. It's depressing that you have to point these self-evident truths out.

    Meanwhile, here's NZ's version of Palumbo-Liu — not as eccentric, but possibly more dangerous as a result:


    "Academic freedom is the right to bring forth unpopular or controversial opinions, not to promote opinions popular with those who have social or financial privileges."

    If nothing else, one has to admire the cunning reversal of "popular" and "unpopular".

  6. During my time at the ILR Schhol at Cornell it was not uncommon for academics to "weigh in" on politics but the content itself was largely apolitical. I think it worked well. There's was discussion and debate but no one got censured for stepping out of line, where ever that line was.

    But, things have changed...

    Free Speech is fine - it's the retaliation or consequences that are of issue. If there's retribution, why? And do we really want to punish people who don't agree or have a different take on the matter? Depends on the speech and intent. Hate speech is obviously bad, but no one can do anything about how these people think. Can only restrict their option sets.

    I think this is an example of social capital in action - how its used to steer towards a desired outcome.

  7. So why did you leave Chicago? I mean besides the weather and money.

  8. Professor Palumbo-Liu sounds unhinged.

  9. I would be interested in knowing your thoughts on why the leaders of most universities give in to wokeism, what allow them to behave this way, ad how they get to the leadership positions in the first place?


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