Divisive Academic Freedom Conference Proceeds

Controversial event on academic freedom at Stanford University goes forward amid controversy. Speakers include Amy Wax, Jordan Peterson, Scott Atlas, Joshua Katz and more.

November 7, 2022
A white man in a business suit stands at a lectern in front of a crowd of conference attendees.
John Cochrane opens the academic freedom conference at Stanford University.
(Zoom )

A conference on academic freedom proceeded Friday and Saturday under the auspices of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, despite faculty and student calls for Stanford to distance itself from the event platforming such divisive figures as Amy Wax and Jordan Peterson (and which was otherwise a who’s who of self-proclaimed canceled academics: asked at one point to raise their hands if they'd been canceled, a majority of participants did so). 

Co-organizer John Cochrane, economist and Rose-Marie and Jack Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, in his opening remarks said that the event’s critics had failed and that “Stanford’s leaders have supported us, for which we are grateful, so we are still here.” At the same time, he said, “untenured faculty figured out they should not be seen here. Several more deregistered from the conference after we decided to stream the proceedings, citing fear of repercussions.”

“One prominent Stanford professor, active in university academic freedom issues, spoke for many, telling us, ‘I can’t be seen on the program with right-wing nutjobs like …’ and named a few of our speakers,” Cochrane added. “At an academic freedom conference. There’s half the problem in a nutshell.”

The event was invitation-only.

Referencing Cochrane’s additional complaint that liberals had been invited to speak but refused, speaker Jonathan Haidt, Heterodox Academy co-founder and Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, said that there was nevertheless “more diversity, more ideological and political diversity, in the room today than in probably any other room anywhere in any of America’s top 100 universities this year.” (Demographically, the room skewed older, white and male.)

Haidt further said that colleges and universities have abandoned the “telos” or “North Star” of truth in favor of social justice, and that this promotes “structural stupidity” within an institution (“it’s primarily the far left shooting and intimidating everybody else”). This is “suicidal” in terms of retaining public support for higher education, he also said. As for what’s ailing universities, Haidt traced it back to students, who increasingly are arriving on campuses with mental health problems, and to the rise of social media. He said that 2015 was a pivotal year for changing student attitudes, but that “I don’t think you’re going to find the answer in anything about the objective world.” He didn’t mention the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, which many student groups at the time said influenced their increased activism.

Several panels attempted to address threats to academic freedom by broad academic field. Michael McConnell, Richard and Frances Mallery Professor of law and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford, said during a panel on legal education, for instance, “There is no way to teach the doctrine of consent and rape,” on which many sexual assault cases turn, “without making people self-righteously indignant, right, and the easiest course is, ‘Well let’s just not. Let’s avoid. Let’s talk about bank embezzlement, right?’ ”

During a panel on academic freedom in STEM, Mimi St Johns, a Stanford undergraduate student of computer science, said that students face pressure from peers not to study such fields as petroleum engineering or to pursue jobs in government, even though both of these paths could lead to work on some of the world’s most urgent problems. John Ioannidis, professor of medicine at Stanford, said that his elderly mother was targeted for harassment and suffered related health problems as a result of his COVID-19 research that ran counter to other findings early in the pandemic. 

While many other speakers described higher education’s commitment to the pursuit of truth as fading, the conference was heavy on anecdotes and speculative diagnostics relative to clear data. Part of this is because it’s impossible to prove a negative: no one can say how many papers never get written because of self-censorship on the part their would-be authors, for example. But some of the conversation arguably undercut the evident theme of the conference: that academic freedom is under grave threat from leftists who reject reason. In one case, Jonathan Berk, the A. P. Giannini Professor of Finance at Stanford, asked panelists during the STEM talk whether “charlatans [are] trying to get into the sciences” by studying and otherwise working on diversity, equity and inclusion in these fields. 

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Peterson, an author, YouTuber and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto, later returned to this idea, telling Ioannidis that “once diligent, conscientious, hardworking people build up a storehouse of resources, it opens up a space for the dark triad types to take over. So those are Machiavellian narcissistic psychopaths, fundamentally,” who engage in “reputation denigration and reputation savaging. It’s kind of a female antisocial personality type.”

‘This Is War’

At times, the conference operated like support group—speakers and audience members shared tips for surviving cancellation: don’t apologize, strategize, seek out allies. Scott Atlas, Robert Wesson Senior Fellow in health care policy at Hoover, who was denounced by colleagues for his stances on COVID-19 mitigation as a senior adviser to the Trump White House, said he wanted a public apology, not for himself, but “to make sure this never happens again.”

One panel on the cost of academic dissent featured an empty chair for Mike Adams, a professor who died by suicide in 2020 after the University of North Carolina at Wilmington paid him $504,000 to retire following several speech-based controversies. In addition to a matter of life and death, speakers on that panel framed the fight for academic freedom as war. Classicist Joshua Katz, whom Princeton University fired earlier this year over what it said were new revelations about a previously disclosed affair with an undergraduate, maintained that he’d really been fired for publicly comparing a group of Black student activists to terrorists. He said, “I am growing tired of standing on principle while watching academia get sacked by latter-day Visigoths,” and, “This is war and our job is to vanquish them.”

On the same panel, Wax, Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, who is currently facing disciplinary action for her repeated comments on race, said that while she’s already “radioactive,” she’s fighting for future academics. She told attendees the “centerpiece of wokeness is that all disparities or group disparities are due to racism, racism, racism, racism. If people on the right want to embrace meritocracy, and fight wokeness and be colorblind, they have to have an answer to that. They have to face up to the fact that the meritocracy will produce different outcomes by group and they can’t shrink from that, and I think that is where I see them some stumbling.”

Tech billionaire Peter Thiel, a Stanford philosophy and law alum, headlined the event. His speech began with a story about how he’d “completed [the] victimization” of and was indirectly responsible for activist Rigoberta Menchú getting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 following his public criticism of Menchú’s life story being included in some sections of a core curriculum redesign at Stanford around that time. Thiel said the antonym of the word “university” is “diversity” and dismissed the humanities as “ridiculous.”

Even technological innovation in recent decades has “not quite been enough to take our civilization to the next level,” he continued, offering various hypotheses as to why this may be so, including anxieties about technology advancing in such a way as to destroy civilization. Under what's known as the vulnerable world hypothesis, such destruction could be avoided by measures including increased preventive policing and global governance. But Thiel warned against this idea, saying that "however dangerous science and technology are, it seems to me that totalitarianism is far more dangerous, and that, you know, whatever the dangers are in the future, we need to never underestimate the danger of a one-world totalitarian state." 

The clearest evidence that academic freedom is under systematic attack came from Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Expression, who spoke during a panel on the meaning of academic freedom. Referencing FIRE’s Scholars Under Fire database, Lukianoff said that 40 tenured professors have been fired since 2015 for protected speech, “the kind of thing that tenure is designed to protect.”

That’s a big increase from earlier periods, he said, while approximately 60 percent of the 785 attacks on protected faculty speech in FIRE's database have resulted in the some kind of lesser sanction. Approximately 60 percent of attacks come from the left politically, and about 40 percent from the right, panelist Nadine Strossen, FIRE senior fellow and John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law Emerita at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said. 

As for solutions to these problems, some speakers endorsed federal regulation, such as tying federal funding to committing to academic freedom statements or administrative cost caps as to reduce administrative oversight—somewhat surprising given the largely Libertarian and conservative crowd. DEI statements as a condition of academic employment were widely rejected. Some said institutions should have free speech ombudspersons, and that presidents could head off controversies by quickly and decisively affirming support for a controversial scholar's academic freedom. 

Lukianoff endorsed challenging qualified immunity for administrators who censor and training undergraduates on academic freedom during orientation, among other ideas. Niall Ferguson, Milbank Family Senior Fellow at Hoover, a founding trustee of the new University of Austin, said new colleges and universities are needed. Atlas, a founding fellow of Hillsdale College's Academy for Science and Freedom, said "we need to form new institutions, by people who have moral authority." Faculty and alumni organizations, including the MIT Free Speech Alliance and the Alumni Free Speech Alliance are being formed, as well.

A few speakers expressed faith that the current system can be bettered by students. John Rose, associate director of the Civil Discourse Project at Duke University, said that his course—which teaches students how to discuss hot-button issues—attracts more student interest than it can meet, and it proves effective.

“I’ve discovered that the vast majority of students actually want more open inquiry in the classroom. Most of my students self-censor—I know this because I polled them anonymously,” he said. “All of these observations have led me to believe that if you want to create a culture of free speech on campus, it needs to start with the students in the classroom, not with faculty or administrators. If there is a movement afoot, that’s where the energy is.”

One attendee of the conference, who asked to speak anonymously as not to run afoul of the event's supporters or critics, said the room "was not simply full of right-wingers there to hear fringe right-wingers," as "many from around the country are alarmed at intolerance on both sides of the political spectrum."

At the same time, the attendee said, the meeting "required no scholarly rigor or counterargument, rather it proved mostly a feel-good session for an unfortunate mix of many powerful public voices who deserve criticism, and a few brave people who take unpopular positions and actually deserve to be heard. Clearly, the conference organizers were trying to be provocative in letting the most outrageous be heard, but that undermined the seriousness of harm done to the less outrageous but equally censored speakers."

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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