A Conference Says Academic Freedom Is in Danger. Critics Say the Event Is Part of the Problem.

Open inquiry is “under threat.” Scholars are being “canceled” for unorthodox views, and colleges are “ideological monocultures.” So says an academic-freedom conference that begins on Friday at Stanford University, one that bills itself as determined to “restore the open debate required for new knowledge to flourish.”

When the agenda circulated online last month, critics saw the invitation-only event as a contradiction of the free-speech principles it purports to champion. And to a swath of Stanford’s faculty, the event is yet another alarming piece of evidence that their elite institution is propping up figures who are threatening democracy and public health.

If you’ve ever read an article or tweet in which a professor declares that “wokeness” has taken over the Ivory Tower, there’s a good chance that person will be speaking at Stanford this weekend. There’s Scott W. Atlas, who lobbied former President Donald J. Trump to let the coronavirus spread unabated through most people; Amy Wax, who is facing disciplinary action at the University of Pennsylvania for her statements about racial minorities and gay people; and Jordan Peterson, whose insistence that universities are “indoctrination cults” has won him a loyal following. Oh, and Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire who has repeatedly dismissed college as a waste of time and money and is funding a cadre of hard-right congressional candidates, is giving a keynote about “the end of the future.”

The event, sponsored by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, was initially closed to the media. Following public criticism, the organizers announced that it would be live-streamed. Informing attendees of the change, they wrote that “leakage would be unavoidable,” according to an email obtained by The Chronicle.

John H. Cochrane, a conference organizer and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford, told The Chronicle that the 150 expected attendees, who he described as academics and others with “concerns, writing and expertise on academic freedom,” will put the room at capacity. “That, not external pressure, is the reason for the live stream,” he said by email, adding that the tight schedule will not permit remote questions.

Under these conditions, critics say, the speakers are unlikely to be meaningfully challenged. “One cannot evoke academic freedom in order to deprive others of it,” stated a letter signed by more than 50 Stanford faculty members. “This deeply cynical instrumentalization of ‘academic freedom’ to protect racist lies and other mistruths is an offense to the very concept that forms the bedrock of the University.”

The hypocrisy is so thick that you need a gas mask to survive.

“The hypocrisy is so thick that you need a gas mask to survive,” said David Palumbo-Liu, an author of the letter and a comparative literature professor, in an interview.

But in Cochrane’s view, the letter signers — some of whom turned down invitations to speak — are the hypocrites. “We find the effort to censor a conference on free speech and academic freedom rather hilarious,” he wrote.

“Conferences on evolutionary biology do not routinely invite creationists for a debate,” he added. “Are they excluding people and stifling expression? Where is the letter of faculty protest that creationists are being stifled? No, they are getting on with a productive conference. This is a conference for people who are worried about academic freedom and want to discuss what to do about it. Extraneous debates, media, politics, are just a waste of time for our purpose.”

At Stanford, back-and-forths like this have become very familiar.

‘The Rift Between Stanford Colleagues’

The event, according to Cochrane, grew out of concerns shared by all the organizers. “We all felt academic freedom is in serious danger,” he said by email, “and we wanted to get together with others who also worry about academic freedom, learn what is happening in different fields and different parts of the country, and work together to find solutions.”

Faculty members say some colleagues are using academic freedom as cover for unscientific and harmful ideas — and shirking responsibility for the consequences.

Thiel and Wax, for instance, were invited for their “interesting and articulated views about academic freedom,” Cochrane said, adding that Wax “has relevant experience with university disciplinary procedures.” The UPenn law professor is facing a potential “major sanction” for, among other things, saying “the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration” and, according to a university report, stating that Black people have “different average IQs” than non-Black people, could “not be evenly distributed through all occupations,” and that this would not be “due to racism.” (Thiel and Wax did not respond to requests for comment.)

Frances Widdowson, who was a tenured professor at Mount Royal University, plans to discuss how she was fired from the Alberta, Canada, institution. After saying that the Black Lives Matter movement had “destroyed” the university and that indigenous children “were able to get an education that normally they wouldn’t have received” at residential schools, which a government panel has said were an attempted “cultural genocide,” over 6,000 people signed a petition calling for her firing, and several students and colleagues also filed complaints against her. Widdowson, who is seeking to be reinstated, said that she is the one who was harassed by faculty and that she was raising legitimate questions about residential schools. “This is what is referred to as the ‘woke culture’ of our universities, and this conference is trying to push back against that, and it is very much needed,” she said.

The controversial event has the support of the business school’s leadership. Asked about it at a Faculty Senate meeting, Jonathan Levin, dean of the school, said that Stanford is “trying to create a collision of ideas that gives rise to research and to learning.”

At Stanford, academic freedom has indeed been a lightning-rod subject over the past few years, especially during the Trump administration. But some faculty say the problem is not that such freedom is in short supply, but that some of their colleagues are using that freedom as cover for unscientific and harmful ideas — and shirking responsibility for the consequences.

Some of the professors most frequently invoked in this critique will speak this weekend. One is Niall Ferguson, a British historian and a Hoover senior fellow, who in 2018 urged members of the Stanford College Republicans to conduct “opposition research” on a left-wing student, as leaked emails revealed. At the time, Ferguson told The Stanford Daily that he had been concerned that a group that coordinates a speaking series was “in danger of being taken over by elements that were fundamentally hostile to free speech.” He also said that he regretted writing the emails and resigned from his role with the group.

Another Hoover senior fellow, Atlas is a former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford. When he was part of the White House’s coronavirus task force in 2020, more than 100 doctors, scientists, and public-health experts at Stanford penned a letter criticizing his statements on mask wearing, social distancing, transmission, and vaccination as unsubstantiated. Atlas demanded that they retract it or face being sued. Stanford lawyers told the signatories that they could not be represented by the university, since they had spoken on their own. A lawsuit ultimately didn’t materialize.

“That is an assault on academic freedom,” said David Spiegel, a professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences (who said he did not sign the letter because he is not an infectious-disease expert). “That’s saying, ‘You’re going to pay with your reputations and your pocketbooks if you don’t take back what you said about me.’” Atlas did not respond to a request for comment. In 2020, in response to criticisms about his positions, Atlas told the Stanford News Service that he had used his “unique background, critical thinking and logic to present the president with the broadest possible views on policy” and that “to claim otherwise is an embarrassment to those who do so.”

Later in the fall of 2020, the Faculty Senate condemned Atlas for spreading falsehoods about Covid-19 and for calling on the people of Michigan to “rise up” against the governor’s transmission-reduction measures. After the resolution passed with 85 percent of the vote, the administration distanced itself from Atlas, saying that his views “are inconsistent with the university’s approach in response to the pandemic.”

Atlas has said that he called two Stanford professors of medicine, John P.A. Ioannidis and Jay Bhattacharya, “every day, every other day, for nine months straight.” In a study in the spring of 2020, Ioannidis and Bhattacharya reported that local Covid-19 infections were much more widespread than reported, which, the researchers told the media, lowered the virus’s fatality rate to be on par with the flu’s. Outside statisticians called the study fundamentally flawed. In the first month of the pandemic in the U.S., Ioannidis predicted that Covid-19 would result in 10,000 deaths (the toll now exceeds 1 million) and spearheaded an effort to persuade then-President Trump to avoid lockdowns. Bhattacharya went on to co-author the Great Barrington Declaration, which advocated for letting the virus spread in healthy, unvaccinated people to build “herd immunity,” and to advise Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, to block mask mandates in schools.

On Saturday, before Atlas’s lunchtime speech (“Academia, Science, and Public Health: Will Trust Return?”), both professors will speak on a panel called “Academic Freedom Applications: Climate Science and Biomedical Sciences.”

The presence of speakers with controversial track records, combined with the lack of a mechanism to challenge their claims, has upset critics at Stanford. But Cochrane said he tried to arrange for greater ideological diversity among the speakers. One-third of invitees declined requests to speak or did not respond, he said. “Many of the critics were invited and refused to attend,” he said by email. “We tried hard to get more views represented, including inviting quite a few people who self-identify from the political left. (Otherwise, our invitations were not based on politics at all.) They refused to come.”

Three Stanford faculty members told The Chronicle that they turned down offers to join the medical panel for various reasons. Spiegel, the psychiatry professor, said that he agreed until learning that he would be potentially up against Ioannidis, Bhattacharya, and Atlas. “Three-on-one is not a reasonable discussion,” he said. “When I found out what this really was and who were some of the people, I thought, ‘There’s no way on Earth I’m going to be associated with that.’”

Michelle Mello, a professor of law and health policy, said she declined because “the rift between Stanford colleagues during Covid has been very painful. This did not seem like the right forum to air that.”

Joshua Landy also said no — for the reason that he is a professor of French and comparative literature. An organizer suggested to Landy over the summer that even though he is not a scientist, he could “advocate for responsibility in biomedical academic speech and health policy in general,” according to emails shared with The Chronicle. “I think any such panel … should feature all and only subject experts,” Landy responded.

Plenty of speakers at the conference haven’t cultivated divisive reputations — and they’re looking forward to participating. Hollis Robbins, dean of humanities at the University of Utah, will speak in a session called “Academic Freedom: What Is It and What Is It For?” She said her faculty is looking for guidance at a time of intense debate over what public-university educators can and cannot say.

Nadine Strossen, an emeritus professor at New York Law School, said that some speakers, such as Wax, hold ideas “I completely reject,” but “I don’t believe that I’m endorsing Amy Wax’s ideas by virtue of participating in a conference with her.” “I’m completely happy to engage with people who have different perspectives,” Strossen said. “To me, this is something that regardless of your views on everything — including what academic freedom should be — we depend on academic freedom to debate and discuss that.”

‘Difficult and Dangerous Times’

Some professors, however, are beginning to think about academic freedom not as an absolute guarantee, but as one end of a two-part bargain.

At Stanford, Landy and others have been advocating for an emphasis on “academic responsibility” — the notion that academic freedom is not the same as freedom of speech, and that scholars are obligated to make evidence-based claims and acknowledge the limits of their expertise. They hope to plan a conference of their own on the subject, which Landy said he worries won’t get enough airtime this weekend. (In response, Cochrane said, “I am sure that the tension between freedom and responsibility, and how responsibility should be enforced, from social norms to extensive rules and a detailed university bureaucracy, will be a central question discussed at the conference.”)

These people already have academic freedom and the tenure to prove they have academic freedom.

Last year, Landy was also part of a group that proposed that the Faculty Senate create an ad hoc committee to “conduct a thorough and comprehensive review of the current relationship between Stanford University and the Hoover Institution.” They cited concerns about statements made by Hoover fellows like Atlas and Victor Davis Hanson, who claimed on Fox News that “Orwellian convergence” had made Election Day in 2020 “an abstraction.” “This new concept of early voting and mail-in balloting — we’d never heard those words before,” Hanson told host Tucker Carlson.

The resolution that passed read quite differently than what the authors had originally intended: It tasked the Stanford provost and the Hoover director with “increasing interaction”between the institutions. Persis Drell, the provost, has defended Hoover’s role on campus, saying, “They are, in fact, us.”

Asked to describe the mood among the faculty he is in touch with, Landy said, “The word ‘demoralized’ comes to mind.”

“Most or all of the faculty understand the times we’re living in to be difficult and dangerous times,” he said. “And we would really like it if Stanford as a whole did its small part in trying to shape a better world, trying to reduce the dangers that are currently besetting us, trying to increase the quality of discourse.”

On Saturday afternoon, while the event is underway, student activists will be trying to push the discourse about it in a different direction — via an on-campus trivia game. One of the questions: When Ferguson organized a history conference at Stanford in 2018, all of the panelists were white men. How many were there in total? (Answer: 30.)

As Elias Aceves, an organizer with the groups Rethinking Economics and Students Against Imperialism, has been digging into the scholars coming to Palo Alto this weekend, he said he is puzzled why so many of them seemingly feel so censored.

“These people already have academic freedom,” he said, “and the tenure to prove they have academic freedom.”

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