By John K. Wilson
The second day of the Stanford Academic Freedom conference is here on Nov. 5, 2022 (watch the videos, and read about Day 1 here). So far not much news coverage of the conference except the College Fix, but I would expect to see an Inside Higher Ed report on Monday.
We begin with a panel on “Academic Freedom Applications: Climate Science and Biomedical Sciences” with Noah Diffenbaugh, Bjorn Lomborg, Jay Bhattacharya, and John Ioannidis. Noah Diffenbaugh is the token liberal invited, and he does a good job. He says, “I have not ever once seen a decision by the institution come down to viewpoint or speech.” He praises Stanford, noting how one time “I was being told by a funding agency that I could not publish based on the words in a manuscript” and “the university supported me vigorously.” He says, “Here at Stanford we have clear policies that have been adhered to.” As a climate editor for Geophysical Research Letters, he says, “we published a lot of papers that were controversial” and “our emphasis was on public debate.” He argued, “The paper should be in the public domain” and “not stifled by confidential peer review.”
Jay Bhattacharya makes the spirited attack on universities, saying that at Stanford, “When you take a position that is at odds with the scientific clerisy, your life becomes a living hell.” He adds, “Stanford prides itself on academic freedom, but does not actually have academic freedom.” When Bhattacharya attacked Covid lockdowns, “I started getting hate mail. I started getting death threats.” He complained that “the press has been used to do hit pieces on me.”
Bhattacharya is particularly upset by a “poster campaign on campus” that was “blaming me for the deaths in Florida.” He says, “it felt like a physical threat. For two days, I did not come on campus.” No, it wasn’t a physical threat: Criticism is not a physical threat. But he complained about the administration, “they effectively did nothing” and he denounces them because they “permit this kind of hostile work environment to go on.” While Stanford’s president rejected censorship (“of course he had to say he didn’t” support censoring me), Bhattacharya apparently wanted him to walk around the campus and personally rip down all the flyers Bhattacharya didn’t like.
Bhattacharya wondered, “what if there had been open scientific debate on campus sponsored by the university about this?” But why does he think it’s the administration's job to sponsor a debate? Do you really want the president establishing the parameters of acceptable people to debate ideas? Nobody was stopping Bhattacharya from having a debate or expressing his views. Yet he concludes, “If university leaders do not stand up for it, then they do not deserve the positions they have.” Is Bhattacharya actually calling for the president to be fired because he didn’t censor Bhattacharya’s critics? Bhattacharya's invocation of the phrase “hostile work environment” seems to be a clear claim that he was a victim of harassment, and criticism of him needed to be suppressed. I think we need to keep repeating this crucial phrase until people understand it: Criticism is not harassment. Criticism is not harassment. Criticism is not harassment.
Ioannidis talks about his views on Covid leading to death threats, including against his family, “social media hoaxes,” and cancel campaigns (interestingly, he says “the most severe attack I received was from the right wing, in Greece”). He warns, “unless we incentivize the diligent, rigorous scientist, they will become extinct.”
Interestingly, Diffenbaugh reveals during the question period that he has also gotten death threats and attempts to have him fired, and “that has been part of the landscape as a climate scientist as well.” It’s an important corrective for anyone who thinks conservatives are the only ones on campus getting death threats.
Unfortunately, what’s missing in this whole conference is an analysis of what universities can do to stop illegitimate actions against anyone (such as death threats) while making sure that they do not ever punish protected speech (including mean flyers). I think it’s an important step for universities to stigmatize violent threats, and to pursue both legal and disciplinary action against those who make them. Instead, we get whiny conservatives saying they want the university to take their side and denounce and silence their critics.
Next up is Jordan Peterson, but before his talk he asks a question at the morning panel and it makes Peterson sound like a raving lunatic. He talks about “reputation denigration and reputation savaging” and blames it on “a female anti-social personality type." What kind of idiot thinks this way? But I’m also disturbed by Peterson denouncing “Machiavellian psychopaths” and his concern about the danger “when societies don’t control the 3% of parasitic psychopaths.”
I know Peterson has taken a lot of abuse, but I definitely have an aversion to anyone who routinely refers to people whose views he doesn’t like as “parasitic psychopaths.” And I think we should worry about what he thinks the “control” of these “psychopaths” should be.
Peterson is talking with Douglas Murray, who is fond of making big claims that aren’t actually true, such as “America is in the process of destroying all its founding fathers” (since when is criticism “destroying”?) and “look at what they’ve done to all the philosophers of the enlightenment,” claiming, “John Stuart Mill, gone.” Gone? How is Mill gone?
Peterson again denounces “the narcissistic and psychopathic Machiavellians” who are “stealing the culture” and all that, but he says nothing of any significance, and certainly these two offer no insights whatsoever about academic freedom. I don’t think they even mention the phrase.
Finally, a really good panel: “Academic Freedom: What Is It and What Is It For?” with Greg Lukianoff, Nadine Strossen, Richard Shweder, and Hollis Robbins.
Lukianoff talks at a blistering pace, and he first condemns the anti-CRT laws and promises, “FIRE will sue, and we’re going to win.”
He says, “We’ve talked about a National Leonard Law within FIRE” and “I am increasingly in favor of it.” I have hated California’s Leonard Law for 30 years, and I oppose government laws forcing private colleges to obey free speech.
Lukianoff also talks about revoking qualified immunity for administrators, but worries that “insurance will cover those administrators” and says “they should no more do it than for someone accused of murder.” I’m not sure I think restricting free speech is equal to murder, and I don’t think trying to bankrupt college employees is the best path to protecting free speech.
Lukianoff also wants to “ban political litmus tests” (he means diversity statements) and says, “we’ll probably need a law to flat out say that.” He adds, “I don’t think you should be allowed to do that at a private school.” I’m very disturbed at the idea of laws banning faculty from considering certain skills in hiring decisions.
Hollis Robbins, a dean at the University of Utah, says “I think things are going pretty well.” She says about deans, “We don’t always get training” about academic freedom and notes, ”I’ve never been through a training about how you tell the difference between a free speech question and an academic freedom question.” She calls for “training in supporting each other.”
Fortunately, Rick Schweder is here to denounce the idea of administrators telling faculty to “spend three hours on this training or that training.” He says, “I view academic freedom as the preeminent value in classical liberalism’s academy” and rejects the idea to “balance it against other values.” I agree with his complaint that the “IRB system puts all kinds of limits on research.” He offers a couple of small improvements: “reform the IRB system, they have gone way beyond what is required by law” and state that “we are open to all political viewpoints” in job ads.
Nadine Strossen declares, “I am a liberal, and I constantly crusading and evangelizing for free speech and academic freedom” and “constantly telling progressives” to embrace it. She added, “I have to tell my conservative allies the very same message” and “I hear a little too much rhetoric that is demonizing the liberals and progressives.”
Strossen argues that “most of the attacks are coming from the extremes” and “those being victimized are more moderate.” Actually, I don’t think that’s true. While there are often attacks from the right or left, and sometimes a moderate makes a slip, in reality most of the campus censorship is centrist administrators punishing those on the left or the right. The extremists may light the bonfires, but it’s administrators who decide to burn the witches.
Strossen says, “you forfeit the moral high ground if you are uneven in application” and she notes that about campus problems, “it pales in comparison to the danger of government censorship.” She also notes how the Stanford Law School Federalist Society filed a complaint against a student who made a satirical poster mocking them. According to Strossen, “We should be less about anti-woke, and much more about being for academic freedom.”
Lunch is with Scott Atlas on "Academia, Science, and Public Health: Will Trust Return?" Atlas devotes most of his time to blaming his enemies for “killing and harming millions” during Covid, and doesn’t say much about academic freedom. He does say, “There’s a lot of nuance to censorship” although he admits, “I have not been fired from my job. There is a value to tenure.”
Atlas says he was “publicly defamed by other faculty members” and he attacks defamation law and the case of New York Times v. Sullivan: “That’s a problem, that decision.” As he notes, “You have to ensure any kind of statement unless those statements are done with actual malice.” Atlas argues, “We cannot have an incentive to say whatever falsehood you want in the legal system.” But of course that’s an argument for censorship, which is ironic because when Atlas was attacked because people thought he was saying false things, it was free expression that protected him. It’s rather sad that the lesson Atlas has learned from efforts to censor him is to support more repression.
The afternoon starts with Steven Pinker on “Rationality and Academic Freedom.” While Pinker goes after both sides and says “I don’t want to leave the right-wing off the hook,” he is mainly attacking the left, including his claim that there is “mutual unintelligibility between Enlightenment liberal science and postmodern critical wokeism.” I don’t think that’s true at all and this kind of choose one side or the other is antithetical to rational thinking.
Sometimes I think Pinker is guilty of wishful thinking: “When we suppress free speech, we are disabling our species’ only mechanism for getting to the truth.” I’d like to imagine that, but I just don’t think that’s true. I think free speech is the best mechanism for the truth, but it’s hardly the only possible way.
Pinker concludes, “Academic freedom should not be branded as a right-wing cause,” but not even the conservatives here believe in that. I don’t think Pinker really challenged the audience much at all.
I love people mocking conspiracy theories and ESP, and I appreciate anyone who quotes George Carlin in an academic talk, but this is mostly a book talk about his book on rationality, and it’s a bit too up disconnected from academic freedom.
I know it’s mean for me to keep saying that these keynote speakers aren’t saying anything about academic freedom, but they aren’t, and that’s supposed to be the focus of the conference. Just because someone is a celebrity doesn’t mean we should be enthralled by them giving their usual talks without bothering to address the actual important topic of the conference.
I don’t think Pinker grapples with the potential conflict between trust and academic freedom. Pinker argues that “the credibility and objectivity of rationality-promoting institutions must be safeguarded.” But what if protecting the academic freedom of some crackpot undermines the credibility of a university? Pinker calls for trust based on the “earned credibility of institutions” (such as “reputation for accuracy” and “open inquiry”)
In fact, Pinker tends to distrust freedom. He dismisses Twitter as a place “where anyone can say anything.” So is being free to say anything good or bad? If academic freedom makes universities more like Twitter (where idiots who are wrong are not removed), should we trust universities less if they’re free?
If trust means I trust anyone at Stanford who says something, then academic freedom undermines trust, because it allows raving idiots at Stanford to say false things, and you obviously shouldn’t trust everything said by every academic (in fact, you can’t, because they often contradict each other). Trust in everyone at Stanford is only rational if Stanford strictly regulates its faculty to remove untrustworthy people. Academic freedom undermines trust.
But maybe that’s good. Maybe we shouldn’t trust Stanford or any other institutions. Perhaps we can only trust our own rationality–and we can’t really trust that, because of our biases, so we need dissent in order to enhance our own rationality.
The next panel is “Academic Freedom in Law and Legal Education” with Ilya Shapiro, Michael McConnell, and Eugene Volokh. Shapiro talk goes through his personal story. He says, “This is the illiberal takeover” He notes the “explosion in the bureaucracy.” He says deans are not woke, but they are “spineless cowards,” which I think is often correct. Interestingly, he endorses the campaign to boycott Yale law clerks, which I believe is alarming example of cancel culture.
McConnell (a teacher of mine almost 30 years ago) is just as thoughtful and insightful as he was long ago. He notes, “I have made a point of defending academic freedom of persons whose policies I disagree with.” He says, “Both sides need to police their own team,” which I think is one of the most important ideas offered at this conference. He worries about “an intolerant monoculture” in classrooms where “certain subjects have been taken off the table” such as affirmative action or sexual assault, and a debate is “not going to happen”--not because of the professor, “it’s the other students” and a small minority of them: “they run the show” and threaten “social reputations” and “friendship groups.” According to McConnell, “that is the greatest threat to academic freedom in the law school.”
McConnell offers some practical solutions for “little things that might be done.” He advocates a “campus climate survey” (I’m always skeptical of their value–McConnell says, “when you count something, it becomes important” but that isn’t necessarily how it should be). McConnell also notes, “there’s not a single administrator at Stanford whose job it is to protect student or faculty speech” and advocates hiring “freedom of thought officers,” which I think is a very good idea. He calls for improving orientation to promote free speech, and says that “free speech policies ought to have a summary judgment procedure” to dismiss complaints without an investigation. He argues for a federal government imposed “cap on the percentage of expenses that are administrative” to receive federal funds, an idea that I think will promote more clever lying than effective reform.
Volokh gives an informative but not really provocative summary of the current law on free speech and academic freedom. A few interesting comments he makes: “I’ve very rarely seen universities try to punish students for libel”--I wonder if that may change as more colleges adopt the Chicago Principles, which explicitly mentions libel as a reason for punishment. Volokh says about the Leonard Law, “the skies haven’t fallen” in California (but he adds, “maybe it doesn’t matter that much”). Volokh did note that “the legislature is not going to be any good at these kinds of decisions.” He says, “I am very skeptical of micromanagement of the curriculum by legislators.”
The conference concludes with its most controversial figures, “The Cost of Academic Dissent” with Joshua Katz, Amy Wax, Elizabeth Weiss, and Frances Widdowson. Katz describes how he “actually did something wrong” by sleeping with his student, but he is defiant that he was the victim of “obvious double jeopardy” and a “pretext” for his criticism of campus racial politics. I have defended Katz and said he should not have been fired, but I think many of his claims are wrong. Katz turns in a very dark direction, saying about his former colleagues, “many of them are truly horrible people.” Katz says, “I confess that I am tired of standing on principle while watching the university sacked by visigoths.” He concludes, “This is war, and our job is to vanquish them.”
Amy Wax speaks about “the costs of dissent” and says “they are heavy indeed in the current environment.” Wax argues that “the university does not vilify or penalize faculty for their positions.” She complains that “my school has called me every name in the book.” According to Wax, “the goal of the progressive left today …is to destroy and demolish our legal system” and “send it back to Third World status.” Wax does not pretend to put on a moderate face. She says, “the elephant in the room at this conference is race.” She rejects the idea that racism causes group disparities, saying the racial differences are the real cause: “they have to face up to the fact that the meritocracy will produce different outcomes by group.”