By John K. Wilson
I wrote a post for AcademeBlog about the Stanford academic freedom conference this weekend (see the videos) and here is summary of some speakers at the event and my reactions from Day 1 (day 2 is here).
John Cochrane opened the conference quite pissed off at the criticism it’s gotten. He claimed that the Chronicle of Higher Education “declared this conference a threat to democracy.” That’s a bit too far from the facts. The Chronicle’s piece is titled, “A Conference Says Academic Freedom Is in Danger. Critics Say the Event Is Part of the Problem” with the subhead, “To some at Stanford, the event — starring Peter Thiel, Scott Atlas, Jordan Peterson, and Amy Wax — is alarming evidence that the elite university is fueling threats to democracy and public health.” I think the criticism of the conference is overblown and sometimes unfair, but I don’t think the reporting on this criticism is unfair. Cochrane complains that the absence of speakers on the other side is due to “refusal to participate, not lack of invitation.” However, I’m skeptical of that, since most of the reporting has been about several failed attempts to find a single liberal speaker to fill one slot on one panel about medical issues. I don’t think there was ever a plan to have contrary speakers on most panels but all of them refused to speak. A conference isn’t obligated to offer equal time, but let’s not pretend that this was an even-handed conference boycotted by leftists.
Some interesting things about the conference revealed by Cochrane: “several more withdrew” due to it being livestreamed. And the Hoover Institution (where Cochrane is based) declined to support it because it was “too political.” Cochrane delivers the key thesis of the conference: “the main threats to academic freedom inside the university…predominantly come from a left-wing ideology.”
And we’re off with a keynote by Jonathan Haidt. I have criticized Haidt’s theories before, and his speech is more of the same dubious theory: There was a revolution in the culture of colleges in 2014-16, caused by liberal students suffering anxiety and depression due to social media. In reality, there is no evidence of any revolution in academia at that moment, and no evidence that students were driving any of the minor changes at colleges. Haidt is still pushing trigger warnings and safe spaces as a dire threat to higher education, long after anyone stopped caring about it.
Haidt declares that there’s “more ideological diversity in the room today than in any room in any other top 100 university,” which seems as unlikely as many of his other unproven claims. There’s a lot about victimhood culture “brought into universities around 2014 by Gen Z” who were “demanding change, demanding that we not have the free flow of ideas.” According to Haidt, for the entire two-plus-millennial-long history of academia before 2014 (387 BCE to 2013, to be precise), everyone viewed “academic life as playful.” Haidt says, “you remember what it was like before 2013 when there was humor…” Haidt offers his usual careful analysis: “Social media is basically destroying our epistemic institutions.” Haidt complains that “administrators have Ph.D.s from education departments” (actually, that’s pretty rare) and adds with typical hyperbole that “the worst unit of any academic institution is the education department.” And of course Haidt complains that these leftists think “how evil the other side is,” without ever noticing how he is doing exactly that. No, I’m not impressed by this talk, and I’m not alone. Later in the day, Tyler Cowen says this about Haidt denouncing social media: “it’s stunning to me that our first big speaker closes with an attack on free speech.”
Next up, a panel on “Academic Freedom in STEM” with Anna Krylov, Luana Maroja, Mimi St Johns, and Jerry Coyne. I’m a big fan of Coyne and his great blog Why Evolution Is True (read his defense of the conference), but not so much this talk. Coyne says “the academic freedom of biologists has been degraded and infiltrated by ideology.” He admits that “the ideological pollution has come from the right and the left” (and briefly refers to creationism and climate change denial), but his talk only goes into four examples from the left. He really ought to be challenging his conservative audience more. The cases are 1) “denial of discrete sexes”; 2) “males and females are biologically identical” mentally; 3) “evolutionary psychology is worthless as a discipline”; and 4) “race is purely a social construct with no biological content.” There’s nothing really controversial in what Coyne says, but no real evidence that these ideas are being banned on campus. His sole example is a professor at the University of Southern Maine, whom Coyne (incorrectly) says was removed from classes for teaching that sex is bimodal. Coyne worries that “there are things you can’t say” and expressing these views is “enough to get you called a racist.” He claims, “the moniker of ‘racist’ or ‘transphobe’ is horrifying and it makes you shut up.” But aren’t people free to say mean things about one another?
The real star of the show and the best speaker at the conference is Mimi St. Johns, a Stanford undergrad in computer science and editor of the right-wing Stanford Review. St. Johns attacks the “obsession with identity politics” and how DEI managers “weave a web of political correctness.” She complains that the “general culture of protest around certain industries” is a “distraction” for students who want to work in fossil fuels and defense, and bemoans the protests of CIA recruiters: “the recruiters might not be able to hand you a flyer on this campus without a protester getting in the way.” I’m not sure why she thinks that the right to protest should be limited to prevent conservatives from being distracted.
According to St. Johns, “DEI initiatives do little except destroy rational thinking on campus.” She asks, “how do we take on college administrators when they create a monoculture”? St. Johns brings a personal experience to these issues: “Some students won’t talk to you when they find out you’re on the right” and adds, “you might face backlash.” She notes that “A lot of conservative students are afraid to speak out” but adds, “I know it’s important to voice these opinions.” She advises, “don’t nail yourself on the cross, but it’s easier than you think to speak out.” St. Johns seems smarter and more eloquent than pretty much all the other conservatives speaking here, and it’s not hard to imagine her becoming a star on right-wing talk shows, if she wants to lower herself to that level.
The next keynote is Peter Thiel, whom I debated about diversity on C-Span back in 1996. Throughout his talk, I kept thinking, “What does any of this have to do with academic freedom?”’ Thiel says that “the arguments are super-powerful on our side” and I instinctively distrust anyone who says their arguments are “super-powerful.”
Thiel says that “the humanities we all know are ridiculous” but notes how some people will defend higher education by pointing to STEM subjects. So he devotes his speech to talking about science and technology, but he promises “not to strawman our opponents.” He breaks that promise a lot.
Thiel offers a lot of big, vague thoughts about “taking our civilization to the next level” and a few specific attacks on the left. Thiel claims that “This is the zeitgeist on the other side” that they think “we need to embrace a one-world totalitarian state right now.” (Of course, Thiel provides no evidence of anyone who actually thinks that.) Thiel makes grand declarations like, “However dangerous science and technology are, it seems to me totalitarianism is far more dangerous.” Well, duh. Thiel calls for us to be “a little more scared of the anti-Christ, and a little less scared of armageddon.” I guess he thinks that’s a good argument for deregulation or whatever he is trying to say.
Thiel wonders why there wasn’t a ticker tape parade for the MRNA vaccine scientists, and claims, “people are really uncomfortable with the MRNA vaccine” because it’s close to the gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab. That, of course, is loony. We don’t celebrate the vaccine scientists because we don’t have a culture that celebrates science, and because we have a political system where lots of the Republicans that Thiel is supporting have pushed conspiracy theories about scientists and vaccines being evil.
Thiel also speaks about “uncomfortable entanglement that the US has with China” and his bizarre fear that as a result the US will adopt China’s “surveillance AI.” Yes, that’s a warning about surveillance tech from the founder of the surveillance tech firm Palantir, although he bizarre thinks US/China cooperation (?) is the threat rather than himself.
I’ll admit that I sometimes enjoy listening to Thiel talk, when he says fun oddball things like, “We’ve overdosed on psychology, we’ve overdosed on therapy, all this nonsense.” But this speech was way too incoherent and off-topic to add much of anything to the conference.
Next up: “Academic Freedom: Practical Solutions” with Richard Lowery, Dorian Abbot, John Hasnas, and Peter Arcidiacono.
Lowery argues that universities “need to be subject to some kind of bankruptcy” and advocates the “tobacco company treatment.” He wants to make it embarrassing to work for universities and “get the brand to look like Philip Morris” because “universities are only selling their reputations.
Dorian Abbot argues for the universities adopting the Chicago Principles, Kalven Report, and Shils Report. Interestingly, he says that “The Shils Report is keeping DEI statements out of University of Chicago hiring.” Abbot argues that “the woke stuff is super unpopular” and “the silent majority of students and faculty is on our side.” He notes, “If you look at what the woke people say, it’s insane most of the time” but they control universities because “the woke people work really hard.”
On the Kalven Report, Abbot says he has been fighting a “two year battle to get these statements removed” that various departments have made. He says, “we’ve started getting these statements taken down” and reports 100% success. I’m very disturbed at Abbot’s belief that silencing statements is some kind of victory for free speech.
Abbot’s ideas get much worse, though, when he turns to “ways the government could get involved.” He recommends government imposition of the Chicago Trifecta: “you could tie federal funding to adopting and enforcing these doctrines.” And “you could enable lawyers to file class action lawsuits if you could prove that a university was not following these” doctrines, with a class action lawsuit to get tuition refunded if a university makes a statement about something, apparently. Abbot says he has filed eight Title VI and Title IX complaints against the University of Chicago, and says, “Let the lawyers go at it like sharks.” It’s a remarkably scary scenario of government control and litigation, and it will get worse later in the day at this conference.
John Hasnas talks about “conquering the climate of fear.” There are two fears: “being sanctioned by the university” and “fear of the reaction of your fellow students or colleagues.” He focuses on the first. He notes that “universities are committed to freedom of speech” but “the commitment is not enforced.” He says there is “no incentive for enforcement” and we need to “change the incentives.” Interestingly, Hasnas notes that deans “are certainly not ideologues” but are responding to incentives. Hasnas calls for a “safe harbor clause” in policies that “will summarily dismiss” complaints “if based solely upon” religious or political viewpoints, make that “legally binding on the university.” Hasnas says, “the last thing you want is the government making the rules” but he does advocate litigation, to “empower individuals to enforce the laws themselves.”
In the Q&A, Amy Wax makes her first appearance, saying “there is potential for the government to take action.” She says, “the only legislators are Republicans” because “Democrats are not your friend here.” She says, “the model here is Title VI,” and say federal funds “can’t discriminate on the basis of” “additional requirements. She also says to “adopt First Amendment principles” into faculty handbooks. Wax says, “of course we don’t like bureaucracy” but says she’s fine with them enforcing this.
Eric Kaufmann says, “we’ve really got to get government and legislation involved” and adds, “without getting government involved, I don’t see how we can crack this nut.”
During the panel, Peter Arcidiacono invokes his watchwords of “courage, compassion, community.” He seems very nice, and says “my relationships with people who disagree with me” allowed him to survive despite his views. He adds, “I end up learning a ton because my arguments actually get challenged.” Arcidiacono speaks out against the “demonization of the other side” and says, “I disagree with the mockery.”
Well, Lee Jussim loves the mockery. He’s the next keynote speaker, and he chortles his way through his talk, laughing hysterically at various left-wing journal articles he thought were so stupid. He decries the “rise of this authoritarian cancel culture on the left” radicalization of academia. He makes three points: 1) academics are “massively, massively left of the American mainstream” 2) “you can make almost any claim no matter how virulent, bizarre or unjustified” if done in the name of social justice; 3) if you criticize social justice, “you are at increased risk of being punished or suffering reputational damage.” He describes DEI statements as “affirmative action on steroids” and “professionally compelled speech.” Jussim calls for forming new organizations since “most of academia is mostly lost.” It’s a common theme of the day, that the keynote addresses are weakest speeches with little worth engaging about.
After lunch, a panel on “Are the Humanities Liberal?” with Solveig Gold, Joseph H. Manson, and John Rose. Gold goes after the classics, Manson goes after anthropology and suggests “the case for letting anthropology burn.” He blames “the rapid spread of the religion of wokeism.” He calls it “a religion of fanatics” and says “you can’t expect to talk people out of their beliefs.” According to Manson, this makes “repair from within institutions close to impossible.” At least he does note that “abolishing tenure would make things even worse.” Amusingly, Manson tosses off some gossip trashing the one university glorified by all at this conference: “I heard something disturbing about the University of Austin from one of you this morning.” Disturbingly, Manson says that the problem for new institutions is “how to prevent them from being infiltrated” by the wrong kind of people, and he admits it is ”morally rather thorny” to engage in “exclusion” in order “to keep some people out.”
John Rose, on the other hand, offers “a message of hope”: “I’m not ready to give up on the humanities.” He reports that 2/3rds of his students say they self-censor, and says, “if you want to create a culture of free speech on campus, it needs to start with the students in the classroom.” Rose says, “Students aren’t the problem in my view, they’re the solution.” It’s a refreshing break from Haidt’s hate students mantra of the morning. He describes how “students discuss hot–button topics in a civil manner” and “the classes have been a success.”
I’m a little troubled by some of the things Rose does in his class, in telling students what they can’t say: “Students are required to assume good will,” “no bullying in your speech,” and “No attributing phobias that people don’t claim to have.” He also says, “I actively recruit students into my class who will promote intellectual diversity” (by which he means conservatives and religious students) and claims (which I doubt) that “I teach from a politically neutral position.” But these are minor quibbles. He sounds like a fine teacher, even if we are just getting his side of it. It’s hard to criticize anyone urging virtue, curiosity, and charity. Rose does worry that after hearing Arcidiacono’s talk earlier, “the two guys from Duke are going to sound like the lovey-dovey ones.” They do sound completely out of place in a conference full of people trying to figure out how to destroy the evil woke ones.
Jennifer Burns is the rare moderator here who says anything interesting, raising the important issue about “conditions of academic labor” and dwindling of tenure, noting that “as job security has changed, conformity has increased.”
“The Economics of Academic Freedom” panel features Niall Ferguson, John H. Cochrane, and Tyler Cowen. Ferguson is enjoyable in proclaiming what academics want, “I wish you would just leave me alone to do my effing work.” Ferguson likes being a bit contrarian: “In the university, we’re supposed to be protected from the market.”
Ferguson complains that academic work is “concentrated in the hands of committees dominated by today’s secular orthodoxy.” He says “academic freedom is only available now to card-carrying liberals” and “conservatives can’t have academic freedom because they can’t get a job.”
The solution, Ferguson says, is “the creation of new institutions” such as the University of Austin: “there is no other way to do this.” He says, “The existing institutions will not fix themselves.”
Ferguson says “the only way in fact to have true academic freedom is to have true financial independence.” He claims, “Wage slaves don’t really get that much freedom” and “the only person who really has academic freedom at this conference is Peter Thiel.”
John Cochrane denounces the leftists “capturing the institutions of society” and says “they desire totalitarian power to tell us what to do.” Cochrane says “Institutions do not get reformed, they get replaced” and says “every destroyed institution is an opportunity.”
Cochrane calls higher education “one of the least competitive industries around” and blames “involvement of the government.” He adds, “I’d like to just get rid of nonprofit status.”
Cochrane says, “The real danger is the things not seen”--the people driven out, the knowledge not gained. He says to “build alternative institutions”--not just universities, but examples like the Federalist Society, FIRE, AFA: “You can create centers, you can create thinktanks.” Interestingly, Cochrane does denounce the bans on CRT as “profoundly bad” and even praises “faculty unions” in Canada for protecting faculty.
Tyler Cowen offers some personal advice, starting with “be nice.” He bemoans that “in the universities, we’ve lost the battle.” He does offer some very good advice: “Don’t let the free speech crusade turn you into an opponent of free speech.” And he adds: “But I see in here, people all the time, they go overboard,...” and mentions his critique of Haidt’s talk.
The day concludes on some very ominous notes in “The State of Higher Education: USA, UK, Canada” with John M. Ellis, Gad Saad, and Eric Kaufmann
Gad Saad says that In Canada they have the “indigenization of the university” claiming that there are “other ways of knowing” such as “indigenous astronomy.” Saad says, “No, there isn’t.” According to Saad, “Everybody needs to learn to speak with this kind of boldness.”
Ellis and Kaufmann go well beyond boldness to advocating repression.
Ellis calls for “replacing the wrong kind of people in higher education with the right kind, and nothing short of that will have much effect.” He says about the left, “Their control of the campus is virtually complete.” And he claims, “You can’t really persuade people whose values have nothing common with yours.” According to Ellis, “The radicals know they’re safe because they control all of the campus enforcement mechanisms.”
Faced with these “irretrievably corrupt institutions” Ellis says, “some good news is that the public is already beginning to vote with its feet.” They see that “college is no longer worth the cost” and Ellis hopes, “Let’s hope more do so soon.”
Kaufmann declares that “cultural socialism has managed to become hegemonic.” To cure this, “government has a very important role to play” and he is an advocate of the UK Higher Education Freedom bill.
Kaufmann argues that an “atmosphere of punishment and political discrimination” creates “a massive effect of self-censorship.” Kaufmann says, “Just having these high minded statements does nothing.” He argues for an “academic freedom directorate” that will have a “chilling effect on universities and their ability to censor.” It will give allow victims of censorship “immediate recourse around their universities” unlike lawsuits which are “costly, uncertain in its outcome, and takes time.” Kaufmann wants the government “breathing down the necks of universities in real time.” That creepy metaphor is his model for freedom in higher education.
Kaufmann also embraces a very broad version of the Kalven Report as a requirement on all universities, declaring that “universities cannot be taking political positions.” He says “we have to start to define things” much more broadly, such as calling an effort at “decolonizing the curriculum” as “political” and “therefore in violation” of the Kalven Report.
This has been a very angry conference, marked by a sense of despair and hostility to the left (with a few kinder, gentler exceptions). It’s also very much an activist conference, aimed at the solutions to the problem of leftist control over higher education. It’s interesting that the reformist impulse of protecting academic freedom principles that might have dominated conservatives in the past has all but been abandoned now, with only two alternatives offered: Destroy the left with competition by creating right-wing colleges like the University of Austin, or destroy the left by government control over higher education. And sadly the latter response reflected many of the speakers today, arguing that we must restrict freedom in order to protect it. As Kaufmann put it at the end, “You really need this government regulation, intrusive regulation” to “force them to promote academic freedom.”