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The Stanford University Graduate School of Business will host a controversial conference on academic freedom next week.

Stanford University

There’s mounting faculty opposition to an invitation-only, no-media-allowed academic freedom conference scheduled for next week at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. The conference, headlined by libertarian tech billionaire Peter Thiel and organized by the business school’s Classical Liberalism Initiative, has been criticized as pre-emptively limiting dissent in the name of open discourse.

Critics also fault the conference for platforming such speakers as Amy Wax, Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, who is known for making racist remarks—including to and about students.

“While we respect the rights of free speech and academic freedom, both are meant to encourage debate and discussion that can test those assertions,” more than 30 Stanford professors from a variety of fields said in a statement asking Stanford to distance itself from the conference. “The organizers have in fact gone out of their way to create a hermetically-sealed event, safe from any and all meaningful debate, filled with self-affirmation and self-congratulation, an event where racism is given shelter and immunity." 

A conference on academic freedom "would indeed be a timely and urgent one, given today’s context where we find the passage of laws (e.g. in Florida) banning faculty from teaching about selected issues, the banning of books from public libraries, the banning of even particular forms of language, and the harassment of scholars working in certain fields of study, like Michael Mann working on climate change, or Jo Boaler on working on math curricula," the faculty statement also says. "But the organizers of this conference have something else in mind."

Event organizers appear to be responding to some criticism of the conference, adding a livestream option and at least one new speaker. But these steps haven’t relieved opponents’ concerns.

Stanford did not immediately provide comment on the event. Both Jonathan Levin, dean of the business school, and Persis Drell, provost, faced questions about it last week while addressing the Faculty Senate. Drell said university funds are being used for the conference, consistent with university policy, and that faculty members may generally decide how to run conferences. Levin told the Senate that universities “strive to be places where we are fostering engagement and discussion and debate about a broad set of issues from a broad range of perspectives” but that not “every discussion on campus, or every colloquium, or every conference is going to have a balanced range of perspectives and views.” That’s “a by-product of the freedom that we give to faculty and to students,” he added.

‘Ideological Monocultures’

Faculty organizers of the conference, from Stanford and several other institutions, promote it as follows: “Academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of speech are under threat as they have not been for decades. Visibly, academics are ‘canceled,’ fired, or subject to lengthy disciplinary proceedings in response to academic writing or public engagement. Less visibly, funding agencies, university bureaucracies, hiring procedures, promotion committees, professional organizations, and journals censor some kinds of research or demand adherence to political causes. Many parts of universities have become politicized or have turned into ideological monocultures, excluding people, ideas, or kinds of work that challenge their orthodoxy. Younger researchers are afraid to speak and write and don’t investigate promising ideas that they fear will endanger their careers.”

The two-day gathering “aims to identify ways to restore academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of speech and expression on campus and in the larger culture and restore the open debate required for new knowledge to flourish. The conference will focus on the organizational structures leading to censorship and stifling debate and how to repair them.”

Beyond Thiel and Wax, speakers include Dorian Abbot, associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago; Scott Atlas, Robert Wesson Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and former senior adviser to former president Trump; Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University; Jerry Coyne, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Chicago; Niall Ferguson, Milbank Family Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution; Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University and Heterodox Academy co-founder; Lee Jussim, distinguished professor of psychology at Rutgers University; Joshua Katz, former professor of classics at Princeton University; Richard Lowery, associate professor of finance at the University of Texas at Austin; Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression; Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University; Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute; Nadine Strossen, John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law Emerita at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union; and Elizabeth Weiss, professor of anthropology at San José State University.

Some of these speakers have long had reputations as free speech advocates. But many recently have been involved in their own academic freedom or academic freedom–adjacent disputes. Abbot saw a planned public lecture canceled over his criticism of diversity initiatives. Atlas was slammed by Stanford colleagues for downplaying the threat of the coronavirus. Lowery is suing Texas A&M University, arguing that a new faculty fellowship program designed to increase diversity at the university discriminates against white and Asian male candidates. Shapiro was suspended and then resigned from Georgetown University Law Center over his tweet about President Biden picking a “lesser” Black woman for the U.S. Supreme Court. Weiss has accused her university of retaliating against her for her stance against repatriating skeletal remains for reburial. And Wax, whose racist statements were for many years begrudgingly accepted by Penn, is currently facing serious disciplinary action.

Katz, the former Princeton professor, has become something of a martyr among the antiwoke, with his supporters arguing that he was really fired for publicly comparing Black student activists to terrorists. Princeton says he was terminated because the university learned new information about Katz’s affair with an undergraduate under his supervision. Katz previously had been punished for the inappropriate relationship. But Princeton said that the woman did not cooperate with its initial investigation in 2018 and that when she finally came forward in 2021, it was determined that Katz had actively discouraged her from participating in Princeton’s first inquiry and from seeking mental health care, even though she was in distress.

Katz, who has denied engaging in any misconduct beyond that for which he was first punished, is now married to another former student of his, Solveig Lucia Gold. Gold has written and spoken about their relationship, saying she and Katz did not start dating until after she graduated from Princeton. She, too, is scheduled to speak at the conference. Her panel is called “Are the Humanities Liberal?/How to Liberate Them?” Gold earned her Ph.D. in classics this year and is currently a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton.

‘Proof That the Conference Is Necessary’

Abbot, who is helping organize the event, said Monday that the “vituperative reaction of some academics to a conference promoting academic freedom is proof that the conference is necessary. The conference will be a good opportunity for those interested in academic freedom to brainstorm strategies and coordinate across universities.”

African American literature scholar Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Utah, who was just added to the lineup, doesn’t quite fit the academic freedom purist mold or the canceled-scholar one. She said she reached out to another conference organizer, Iván Marinovic, associate professor of accounting at Stanford, about the participation of administrators on Lukianoff's and Strossen's panel, and that Marinovic “generously invited me to participate. As a dean I am of course interested in supporting the academic freedom of faculty, particularly at this moment in time.”

Strossen, who has previously said that she was not aware the conference was a closed event, said Monday that the new livestreaming option addresses any concerns she had.

Asked where FIRE stands on whether academic freedom events should be open by default, Nico Perrino, executive vice president of the organization, said that Lukianoff (FIRE’s CEO) agreed to participate without being told whether the event was open or closed, and that he supports media access. But as a Stanford graduate, Lukianoff says that it’s “not uncommon” for campus events to be invite-only, Perrino added.

Conference organizers told FIRE that they’d invited numerous progressives to participate, Perrino also said, but over time “more conservatives said yes, and very few of the big-name progressives said yes. The political polarization and tribalism is dispiriting.”

Abbot said that organizers invited several dozen progressives who’d previously expressed a “negative view” of academic freedom, who ultimately declined.

Marinovic said that "we invited many academics who have argued for some kind of restrictions on academic speech to present and debate their views, and all of them declined."

David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford and professor of comparative literature, who’s publicly opposed the conference, said he wasn’t asked to participate, but that a few of his colleagues had been asked and “objected to the lopsidedness of the program. The organizers placed them on panels where it was clear they were there only as tokens.”

Livestreaming the conference doesn’t change much at all, Palumbo-Liu added.

“This in no way solves the problem of the inability of those not present being able to substantially question or interact with speakers. That is, it does not reflect a change of thinking whatsoever, nor does it cover up the original intent of the conference.”

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