Holding the Line

Hollis Robbins shares her takeaways from that academic freedom conference at Stanford.

November 28, 2022
An image of the Stanford university campus including the Hoover tower.
Stanford University campus
(lisandrotrarbach/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Now that the dust has settled and the drama of midterm elections has come and gone, I have some thoughts on the Stanford University–hosted conference on academic freedom held earlier this month, from my perspective as the only dean on the program and as a scholar whose political affiliations are not wholly aligned with the generally right-libertarian positions of the conference organizers.

I will be a better dean for having attended and participated in the conference, hosted by the Classical Liberalism Initiative of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The stated goal of the conference was identifying 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.”

I’m grateful to the organizers for including an administrator, as it is our job to adjudicate, manage, resolve, turn the heat down on or stand firm on issues of academic freedom as well as freedom of expression. There can be no academic freedom without enforcement. Conflicts are harrowing for everyone.

My primary takeaway after the two-day conference is that expressions of trauma have no political affiliation. The discourse of trauma, which has largely been seen as a phenomenon of the academic left, has as much purchase and relevance on the right. If there is an opportunity to find common cause in establishing a culture of understanding and civil discourse on university campuses, perhaps, unexpectedly for me, the shared language of alienation and the importance of community can provide a foundation.

The language of trauma and victimization saturates the foundational document for the conference, the Stanford Academic Freedom Declaration, “Restoring Academic Freedom.” Harassment, intimidation, ostracism, punishment, branding, suppression, character assassination, doxing and cancellation describe incidents motivating the proceedings. The trauma articulated by many of the conference’s panelists, particularly by scientists John Ioannidis and Scott Atlas, who faced backlash for expressing views on COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and by Jordan Peterson, for the backlash he has faced for views on gender and culture, was undeniably genuine, whatever one thinks of their views. As a scholar who has written about historic exclusion from university labs, classrooms and public halls, the expressions of real pain articulated during the conference—loss of colleagues, friends, stature, sometimes livelihood, followed by bouts of loneliness, dramatic weight loss, anger and depression—was all too familiar. Making space for and listening to expressions of trauma have become norms on campus, thanks to “the left.” And so, I listened.

While I am not convinced that there is an academic freedom crisis on campus, I do believe there is a crisis of culture that precludes understanding the experience of suffering across the political divide.

What is a dean to do? The Stanford Declaration argues that leaders give lip service to academic freedom but are weak overseers of “politicized bureaucracies that harass, intimidate and punish those who express views deemed to be incorrect.” Leaders are also weak overseers of academic departments and other university units that “make public statements of political views, thus effectively branding as heretics—and even bigots—members who may question those causes.” And finally leaders are too weak in nurturing a free inquiry culture, though rather than be heavy-handed we should nurture social norms to do the work of protecting “incorrect” views.

I wish the conference had devoted time to working through the leadership tasks set out here: how to be a free speech traffic guard when the conflicts are faculty versus faculty, faculty versus students, faculty versus social media mob. Administrators are asked to “hold the line,” as one attendee put it. But how and against what varied from panelist to panelist.

My second takeaway: the conference, the Declaration, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and too many panelists conflate academic freedom with free speech, as if they have the same roots and the same standing in the university. They do not. One is a higher ed–specific principle central to the essential functioning of a university in seeking truth and creating new knowledge; one is a U.S. political principle that is embedded in all our lives and actions. The operational aspects of defending academic freedom on campus are very different from upholding free speech. Nadine Strossen and I, in our panel “Academic Freedom: What Is It and What Is It For?” took pains to emphasize this distinction, as did law professor Eugene Volokh in his presentation on academic freedom in law and legal education. Indeed, most of the traumatic testimony of panelists came as a consequence of “mob” free speech, not violations of academic freedom.

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Academic freedom is the freedom to research and pursue knowledge in the subject of one’s choice and to follow where the research leads. As the American Association of University Professors defined it in its seminal 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, there are three elements to academic freedom: “freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action.” This third element is the hard one for administrators. I might be able to “hold the line” to protect a controversial faculty member’s employment in the face of calls for firing, but no dean can quiet an angry Twitter mob. Angry students, community members, not to mention other faculty members, have their free speech rights, too.

The AAUP makes clear that university administrators should support academic freedom “rights within the educational contexts of teaching, learning and research both in and outside the classroom,” but they may not be able to stop public protests, noting that “the First Amendment generally restricts the right of a public institution—including a public college or university—to regulate expression on all sorts of topics and in all sorts of settings.” We can’t protect faculty against the free speech of gown or town protests.

I wholly support FIRE’s mission of supporting faculty members caught up in bewildering, official processes sparked by complaints or controversies, who often have no campus advocates and who do not always understand the finer points of intake, investigation, hearings and findings. As a dean I may not be in the loop when a complaint is lodged in another office. I share the frustration. I may quibble that FIRE is not as neutral as it claims when it comes to student protest—for example, when it calls the freedom to advocate for a faculty member to be fired “misguided” and “myopic.” And I might note that FIRE has the luxury of categorizing violent speech from a safe distance, while we on campus may have to act.

My third takeaway is that nobody likes or is clear what to do about death threats. FIRE in fact might address responses to death threats more explicitly. Death threats are provoked by trauma and provoke trauma in return. It is impossible to evaluate rationally issues of academic freedom in the context of death threats, whether against faculty, staff, students, or administrators. The number of times “death threats” should be mentioned at an academic freedom conference is zero—which is why the phrase jumped out at me every time it was spoken over the course of two days.

What is the opposite of death threats? Civility. I noted in my remarks that in professional sports public flare-ups involving controversial speech (such as an NBA player’s recent antisemitic tweets) are relatively rare. Athletes are given media training within an inch of their lives. They are drilled in how to praise the opposing team whether they win or lose. They are drilled to see a loss not as a slippery slope portending obliteration but as a single event to be overcome next time.

Searching for an example of a good man who received death threats, I mentioned the late Red Sox outfielder Bill Buckner, whose error cost his team the 1986 World Series. His teammates never blamed him, but that didn’t stop the death threats he received from an outraged public for years—decades. The support of teammates mitigated the trauma. Perhaps academics could learn something from athletes, I suggested. While there will always be clashes and disputes in academia, perhaps we could model how to deal with each dispute kindly, individually and with good will, in the name of academic freedom, even in the face of constitutionally protected free expression of outrage or unprotected violent speech.

The trauma of the panelists who lost the support of their colleagues as a consequence of their professional academic views is real, whatever one thinks of those views. Creating a culture of team support, as it were, on campus, is not helped by characterizing disputes as war, as both Amy Wax (“war has casualties; people get hurt”) and Joshua Katz (“this is war … our job is to vanquish them”) did.

My fourth takeaway is that I likely failed to convince anyone that most academic freedom cases a dean faces are mundane and petty matters, such as faculty members declining to comply with disability accommodations (e.g., refusing to show subtitles when screening films in class) and resisting mandates on learning outcomes or the pacing of sequential courses or the price of textbooks that can be assigned. Claims of academic freedom violations are often the last refuge of the lethargic.

Even so, with my dean hat on, I am glad I participated and would urge those interested in seriously addressing academic freedom to watch the panel on Practical Solutions, particularly the presentation by Georgetown University’s John Hasnas. I note here that two important topics that did not come up at the conference were the rise of parental involvement on college campuses—increasingly a problem for administrators, when parents lodge complaints—and also competence. I pondered examples of scholars at the very top of their fields, not present at the conference, such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. or Larry Summers, who have global stature and influence beyond their universities, who have withstood very public controversies for their academic work and views. Cancellation is a state of mind.

Taking my dean hat off, civility is difficult, and on two occasions I found myself literally biting my tongue. The first was when Douglas Murray, in his conversation with Jordan Peterson in a panel entitled “The War on the West,” remarked that a “devastating” consequence of the Holocaust was, as he put it, that “so much of culture is behind crime scene tape.” The second was the presentation by anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss on her opposition to returning Native American remains to appropriate tribes on the grounds that “victim narratives” should not hold sway over “scientific truths.” (A leader of a tribe with whom I spoke later quipped that he hoped Weiss might, in her will, donate her remains to them.) I support the freedom of academics to express their views, particularly at an academic freedom conference, but I retain for myself the right to quietly shake my head.

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Hollis Robbins is dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Utah.

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