We live in a world where one person’s disinformation is another person’s truth. But the university’s free exchange of ideas can sharpen the picture.
Kathy Zonana | Stanford Magazine | May 2021
John Etchemendy shakes his head. He unclasps his hands, then clasps them again. “I’m terribly worried,” he finally says. “I think that academia has not been going in a good direction in terms of academic freedom.”
Etchemendy, PhD ’82, should be enjoying himself. After 16 years as provost—the university’s chief academic and budget officer—the philosophy professor has spent the past four years pursuing his intellectual passions, including co-founding Stanford’s Institute on Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. But ever the university citizen, he can’t shake the concern that something is amiss.
The academy, Etchemendy says, is becoming increasingly one-sided—one university’s economics department is liberal; another’s is conservative; these cardiologists think it’s all about cholesterol; those say eat the eggs. “There’s a natural tendency to become more and more homogeneous within a department, within a discipline, within a university as a whole, and less tolerant of people with different perspectives,” he says. And without the ability to pressure-test ideas, scholarship can become less credible and the public trust in the knowledge disseminated by universities can erode. “You know, up until fairly recently—I think it’s fair to say 10 years ago—support for academia was completely bipartisan,” Etchemendy says. “Science was good. That has completely become a partisan issue.”
During recent campus controversies over science, politics and speech, Etchemendy, PhD ’82, has been the center. Not at the center; literally the center. When the Faculty Senate voted in November to condemn the COVID-19-related actions of White House Coronavirus Task Force member Scott Atlas, then on leave from Stanford, Etchemendy was the chief voice objecting to institutional, as opposed to individual, censure. When a group of professors raised concerns about perceived partisanship at the Hoover Institution and asked the senate to form a committee to study the university’s relationship to it, there was Etchemendy again, proposing a compromise: that the policy institute’s new director, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and Stanford provost Persis Drell prepare a report on plans for and progress on increasing the interaction between Hoover and the rest of the university.
His fretting over academic freedom might seem esoteric, the kind of concern only a logician and longtime provost could embrace. But what’s at stake is nothing less than the university’s—and, by extension, society’s—ability to search for truth. And at a time of deep cultural fissures not seen since the Vietnam War, with fundamental disagreements about everything from pandemic policy to the nature of racism to election integrity, there might be nothing more crucial.
Academic freedom is the principle that protects faculty members’ right to study what they want and say what they think, to voice unpopular views and question conventional wisdom. “It is vital for both our research and our teaching missions,” says Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “It supports our scholars in their search to advance knowledge and deepen understanding, which requires at times contemplating views that some may consider strange or objectionable. It’s also, we believe, essential for education. It helps prepare students to function in a society where active citizenship and meaningful work require engaging with a broad diversity of individuals, ideas and arguments.”
The university’s Statement on Academic Freedom is expansive by design. “Stanford University’s central functions of teaching, learning, research, and scholarship depend upon an atmosphere in which freedom of inquiry, thought, expression, publication, and peaceable assembly are given the fullest protection,” it begins. “Expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged, free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion.” The statement goes on to say that “the holding of appointments at Stanford University should in no way affect the faculty members’ rights assured by the Constitution of the United States.”
This might suggest that academic freedom is essentially higher education’s version of free speech, and indeed both are grounded in John Stuart Mill’s precepts in On Liberty. The First Amendment, though, protects individuals from government sanction; academic freedom, instead, from employer retaliation. “It extends the rights of faculty members from the public sphere to their place of work, which is not true for all places of work,” says Tessier-Lavigne.
‘In all the academic disciplines, there must be wide room for disagreement: disagreement about the facts, the interpretation of the facts and what constitutes sound evidence.’
In general, at secular universities in the United States, the practice of granting lifetime tenure reinforces that protection for a distinguished portion of the professoriate. It’s not that only tenured scholars have academic freedom—Stanford’s policy, for example, applies to pretenured and many nontenured faculty—but rather that the job security afforded by tenure enables professors to feel secure in pursuing their work. “In a sense, academic freedom fortifies the First Amendment and tenure fortifies academic freedom,” Tessier-Lavigne says.
The First Amendment comparison also underscores that academic freedom protects unpopular expression whether the shoe is on the left foot or the right. “Beware of tinkering with the Statement on Academic Freedom,” Tessier-Lavigne says. “Some people who are concerned that certain types of speech should be either censored or constrained may well find that whatever is put in place then reverberates back on their own speech.”
But academic freedom is, well, academic. “The First Amendment does not say that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech except laws that require you to provide respectable arguments and sound evidence,” says Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution whose areas of expertise include constitutional government and liberal education. “We must immediately add that it’s complicated. In all the academic disciplines, there must be wide room for disagreement: disagreement about the facts, the interpretation of the facts and what constitutes sound evidence.”
Scholars can use strong evidence to challenge established orthodoxy, says history professor Priya Satia, ’95. “Academic freedom was what allowed scientists to disprove the eugenicist assumptions that guided early genetics,” she says. “That’s how knowledge advances, but you can’t just utter it. You’ve got to prove it and back it up. It’s a collaborative, collective process. It’s not just someone saying, ‘I had a thought today in the shower, and since I’m an academic, I’m free to assert that as evidence-based truth.’ ”
Indeed, rare is the academic-freedom controversy that arises from faculty publishing in peer-reviewed journals subject to the standards of their professional societies. Everyone agrees that plagiarism and data falsification are verboten. When firestorms over academic freedom erupt, a scholar who has taken a policy position is almost always at the center of the conflagration. This was true in 1900, when Jane Stanford’s animus toward a professor’s stance on Chinese labor led to his firing—and, indirectly, to the establishment of tenure and academic freedom in the United States (see sidebar). It was true in 1972, when tenured associate professor of English H. Bruce Franklin, PhD ’61, was dismissed from Stanford because of his role in campus antiwar protests that turned violent. And it is true of the questions permeating campus today, from pandemic policy to faculty friction over the Hoover Institution.
When former School of Medicine dean Philip Pizzo started hearing from people around the country about misinformation related to COVID-19, he wasn’t sure he had any responsibility to speak up about it. After all, since 2013, he has been focused on establishing Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute rather than practicing medicine. Pizzo’s sense of obligation began to grow, he says, when Hoover senior fellow Scott Atlas, a health policy scholar and the former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford, took a leave from the university to serve on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Being in that role, which Atlas held from August to December 2020, gave prominence to his opinions on mask wearing, herd immunity and risks of the disease to young people—views with which Pizzo, a pediatric oncologist and infectious disease specialist who is also a professor of microbiology and immunology, frequently disagreed. “But it wasn’t just Scott Atlas,” Pizzo says. “There’s a whole bunch of people, including here at Stanford, who had been making statements that have borderline scientific relevance.”
As his inbox continued to fill up—Pizzo characterizes the prevailing sentiment as “How could Stanford allow this to happen?”—he and 104 of his colleagues in infectious diseases, microbiology and immunology, epidemiology and health policy wrote an open letter in early September countering some of Atlas’s statements. It says that “the preponderance of data” supports the use of face masks; that asymptomatic people frequently spread the disease and should be tested when appropriate; that children of all ages can be infected, increasingly with serious consequences; and that herd immunity should be reached through vaccination rather than unchecked transmission.
Pizzo says the group wanted to both respect academic freedom and keep the letter apolitical. “We really wanted to speak only when we felt that the health of the nation was being endangered,” he says.
One week later, the signatories received a letter from an attorney giving them two days to withdraw their letter or face a defamation lawsuit. After a scramble, the faculty were able to retain counsel pro bono, and no lawsuit materialized. But many of them were spooked, says Pizzo. Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences David Spiegel, who was not a signatory to the letter, took objection in academic-freedom terms. “Siccing a lawyer on a group of 105 faculty who raised an issue,” he remarked to the Faculty Senate in February. “That is not welcoming disagreement.”
Atlas did not sit for an interview with Stanford, but at a virtual talk before the Stanford College Republicans in early March, he said, “It is understandable that most professors at Stanford are not experts in health policy—that is my field, my lane—and it’s understandable that most Stanford professors are ignorant of the data about the pandemic. But it is not acceptable to claim that I made recommendations that were ‘falsehoods and misrepresentations of science.’ That is a lie.”
At the event, Atlas questioned the efficacy of government actions such as business and school closures, lockdowns and mask mandates in stemming the spread of COVID-19. “All legitimate policy scholars should today be openly reexamining policies that severely harmed America’s families and children while failing to save the elderly,” he said. “Those who insist that universal mask usage is absolutely proven to be effective at controlling the spread of this virus and is universally recommended by ‘the science’ are ignoring all published evidence to the contrary.”
Although it may seem as though “the science” is at times overwhelmingly settled—Rice, a political scientist, says she’s “envious” of the scientific method—university administrators are agreed that scholars must be able to question its consensus. “I really have to defend a faculty member’s right to pursue ideas, to challenge ideas, to have unorthodox approaches,” says Drell. “I mean, gosh, where would we be if Galileo hadn’t insisted on taking an unorthodox approach to thinking about the solar system?” Moreover, she says, many of Atlas’s statements were based on the work of Stanford professors of medicine Jay Bhattacharya, ’90, MA ’90, MD ’98, PhD ’01, and John Ioannidis, who is also a professor of epidemiology and population health.
‘I mean, gosh, where would we be if Galileo hadn’t insisted on taking an unorthodox approach to thinking about the solar system?’
The essence of the 105 letter writers’ argument is that lives are at stake. “The natural process has been a disaster,” said Pizzo in February. “We’re approaching 500,000 deaths in this country.” The essence of Atlas’s arguments is that lockdowns put livelihoods at stake—not to mention that people forgo needed medical care—and when livelihoods and medical care are at stake, so too are lives. “To determine the best path forward necessarily means admitting social lockdowns and significant restrictions on individuals are deadly and extraordinarily harmful, especially on the working class, minorities and the poor,” Atlas said to the College Republicans.
“So set aside the mask thing,” Etchemendy says. “It’s not obvious to me that we will know what the right policy decisions were until long after the pandemic’s gone and we look back and we have lots of natural experiments where this state did one thing, this country did another thing. And there you do have to weigh the disease, you have to weigh the economic factors, you have to weigh the impact on kids’ education.”
Indeed, say Tessier-Lavigne and Drell, it’s imperative that a university let those scholarly debates play out. They resisted calls to censure Atlas. “Marc and I actually try not to speak all that often,” Drell says, adding that it’s “absolutely appropriate” for individual faculty to voice their disagreements with colleagues.
“When the university is sometimes called upon to speak out against a faculty member, our position is that, as a matter of principle, we do not do that,” says Tessier-Lavigne. “We ask that the faculty member clarify that the position they’re taking is their own and not that of the university. If the university happens to have a position on those issues by virtue of having to have one for its own community, the university can express its position.”
Which is what happened after the “rise up” tweet. When Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced on November 15 that the state would close some schools and businesses for three weeks amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, Atlas tweeted, “The only way this stops is if people rise up. You get what you accept. #FreedomMatters #StepUp.”
Some interpreted this as a call to lawbreaking, even violence. “Critics immediately condemned Atlas’s ‘rise up’ rhetoric,” the Washington Post reported, “which mirrored President Trump’s previous calls to ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN!’ and statements that correlated ‘tyranny’ with the pandemic restrictions put in place by Whitmer, who was the target of an alleged kidnapping plot that was thwarted last month.”
The next day, Atlas tweeted a clarification. “Hey. I NEVER was talking at all about violence. People vote, people peacefully protest. NEVER would I endorse or incite violence. NEVER!!”
Also that day, Stanford issued the following statement:
The university has been asked to comment on recent statements made by Dr. Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who is on leave of absence from that position.
Stanford’s position on managing the pandemic in our community is clear. We support using masks, social distancing, and conducting surveillance and diagnostic testing. We also believe in the importance of strictly following the guidance of local and state health authorities.
Dr. Atlas has expressed views that are inconsistent with the university’s approach in response to the pandemic. Dr. Atlas’s statements reflect his personal views, not those of the Hoover Institution or the university.
At the Faculty Senate meeting that week, Tessier-Lavigne reiterated the university’s commitment to academic freedom and Atlas’s right to express his opinions. “But we also believe that inflammatory remarks of the kind at issue here by someone with the prominence and influence of Dr. Atlas have no place in the context of the current global health emergency,” he said. “We’re therefore compelled to distance the university from Dr. Atlas’s views in the strongest possible terms.” Rice called the tweet “offensive and well beyond the boundaries of what is appropriate for someone in a position of authority, such as the one he holds.”
‘I’m continually asked to criticize individuals all across the political spectrum. That’s not the role of the president. It would be wrong, and it would have a chilling effect on discourse.’
Such statements from administrators are intentionally rare. Tessier-Lavigne says a “wonderful quip” by former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, that she did not see herself as “denouncer in chief,” resonates with him. “I’m continually asked to criticize individuals all across the political spectrum,” he says. “That’s not the role of the president. It would be wrong, and it would have a chilling effect on discourse, which would effectively undermine our Statement on Academic Freedom. My role is to foster and preserve an environment where diverse opinions can be expressed and debated freely.”
When Pizzo worked with his 104 colleagues to put together the open letter about Atlas, he strove to keep it about science. “For me, it’s never been an issue about the Hoover Institution,” he says. “I’ve worked with many people at the Hoover Institution, and there are some outstanding people there.”
But for some faculty, it is about Hoover. Some see the campus policy institute as an ideologically diverse and necessary corrective to an overwhelmingly liberal professoriate; others, a right-wing think tank. In September, 122 faculty members signed a letter entitled “COVID-19 and the Hoover Institution: Time for a Reappraisal,” arguing that statements by several Hoover fellows downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic in the service of a particular policy approach at a time when the White House was suppressing or distorting information.
“We thought we detected a concerning pattern where more than one person appeared to be straying outside of their area of expertise and making pronouncements on an important scientific question,” says Joshua Landy, one of five professors who represented the group’s concerns to the Faculty Senate in February. “We weren’t always convinced that their methodologies were sufficiently robust for such a vital question—it’s a matter of life and death. And we weren’t convinced that, as an institution, Hoover was taking all of the steps that it could to make sure it was safeguarding public health while, of course, being sufficiently sensitive to academic freedom.” (Landy, it should be noted, is a professor of comparative literature and of French and Italian; Spiegel made the medical portion of the presentation to the senate. “I’m happy until further notice to defer to the epistemic authority of the vast majority of epidemiologists at Stanford,” Landy says. “I’m certainly not about to quote a Shakespeare poem and go from there to some new insight about COVID-19.”)
But the presenters’ concerns about Hoover fellows’ statements went beyond COVID-19; their examples included sidelining ideas (a historian advocating “removing harmful influences” from high schools such as the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Center curriculum on Black history based on a New York Times special report) and raising questions about the 2020 election (a classicist concurring with a TV commentator about a “feeling” that Joe Biden was “installed” as president-elect). They expressed concern that Hoover, which is uniquely independent among Stanford institutes (see sidebar), has a partisan agenda.
“It’s not as if Hoover is the only place that has a value statement about what it’s studying,” says Rice. “I have been an adjunct to the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, and it explicitly says that it thinks these values [of democracy] are so great that we ought to be promoting them. Now, I happen to agree with it, but there are a lot of people who think the United States should mind its own business.”
“Hoover may be unique,” she told the Faculty Senate, “but it is not singular.”
And it’s not as if Hoover is the only place in the university that houses scholars whose views draw objections. “If the goal of the presentation is really to denounce or silence individual Hoover scholars who have behaved inappropriately, who have voiced unpopular opinions or views, who have spoken untruths, or have spoken publicly outside of their expertise, I just have to say as provost that is not just a Hoover issue,” Drell said at the Faculty Senate meeting. “I get many demands to censure Stanford faculty for all sorts of things. It is the essence of academic freedom that we are not going to institutionally pass judgments of that sort.”
As to the question of partisanship, Rice pulled 2020 data from the Federal Elections Commission that showed that Hoover fellows donated in equal measure to Democratic and Republican candidates for office. The Stanford faculty at large? 9:1.
“I think we’re lucky that we have Hoover in that it brings a little bit of this ideological diversity that we sorely lack,” Etchemendy says. “I wish people were encountering that kind of diversity within their own departments. The thing is, it hones your own argument.
“Now, mind you, I’ve been a Democrat my whole life.”
Rice, too, speaks forcefully against echo chambers. “You have to subject your views and your research and your opinions to contest with those who don’t agree with them,” she says. “I say this to my students all the time: If you simply are in the company of people who say ‘amen’ to everything you say, find other company.”
But there’s the value of ideological diversity and then there’s the pesky problem that commentary, whether from left, right or center, isn’t the same as data-driven research. And since Hoover is a policy institute, that issue can come up a lot, especially when its fellows engage with the media. As Spiegel pointed out at the senate meeting, not every member of the general public can differentiate between the results of a peer-reviewed paper and a scholar’s off-the-cuff remark, especially if it’s taken out of context and amplified by an internet outrage machine. Either way, they consider it “Stanford” speaking.
That’s part of the price of academic freedom, says Drell, and the benefit “totally outweighs the cost” in the final analysis. “Academic freedom is the right for me to study what I want to study and draw the conclusions that I choose to draw, and sometimes my conclusions are based in deep disciplinary knowledge—and that’s the goal that the university is built on. But sometimes my opinions are not very well formulated or they’re based on shallow thinking on my part. Because I want to protect the one, I’m going to allow the other,” she says. “And one person’s deliberate disinformation is another person’s truth.”
A 3-D Vision
Drell and Rice, who were ultimately tasked with presenting a report on Hoover to the senate in a year’s time, already have plans underway. Rice wants to more deeply integrate the institution with the rest of Stanford, especially in the relatively untapped areas of science and engineering, which Drell fully supports. “You want the technical people and the people who are crafting policy to be very closely tied together, or policy can fail to understand the power of the technology or squelch the technology,” Drell says. “Having some Hoover senior fellows who are joint with the School of Engineering or the School of Medicine—I think that would be awesome.” Also on the to-do list: increasing the diversity of the Hoover fellows in age, race and gender—“Condi will joke that she’s on the young side of the age distribution”—and focusing on the institution’s research priorities.
“If it is a matter of cooperation, integrating more deeply into Stanford, working more effectively with Stanford, I am committed to that. And I do believe that I know how to do it,” Rice, herself a former provost, told the Faculty Senate. “Let us get to work on it, and I’d be happy to come back with Provost Drell and talk about how it’s going.”
A fortified relationship between Hoover and the rest of Stanford could increase scholarly cross-pollination and healthy debate. It’s the kind of work universities are well equipped to do, both fueled by and in furtherance of academic freedom. Tessier-Lavigne brings us back to Stanford’s statement of its principles. “Every word was carefully chosen by our forebears back in 1974,” he says. “There is this phrase in it: ‘expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged.’ It’s very important for the university to be attentive to whether or not it has become captive to a small set of views, and there’s no question that without Hoover and the scholars at Hoover, Stanford would have less intellectual diversity. The academic life of the university would be the poorer for it.”
And he has a perfect example of the Hoover-Stanford relationship at its best. “That senate meeting was very poignant because it was soon after George Shultz passed away,” Tessier-Lavigne says. “If you think about what George Shultz contributed as a senior fellow at Hoover—to scholarship, to policy breakthroughs in arms control and energy policy and many other fields—Stanford’s intellectual life would have been dramatically impoverished without those contributions. His approach to tackling problems was to bring together people who often had very different views and persuasions in an attempt to develop policy solutions that could elicit wide support. That was part of his genius: He was a bridge builder extraordinaire. And so, especially at a time of such terrible division in our country, which is preventing progress in tackling many of the great problems confronting us, I hope we’ll keep in mind the value of Secretary Shultz’s approach.”
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Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at email@example.com.