Closed Conference on Academic Freedom at Stanford Sparks Controversy

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In November 2022, faculty and students at Stanford University denounced a campus conference on academic freedom for its conservative bias and closed format, John K. Wilson reported for Academe Blog.

In a statement denouncing the conference for its closed format, a group of more than fifty Stanford academics wrote, “If Stanford is to hold true to its motto (‘The Winds of Freedom Blow’), it should emphatically dissociate itself from an event that has done everything possible to stifle those winds when it comes to academic freedom.”

In response to criticisms of the conference’s closed format, its organizers agreed to livestream the event. But, as Wilson reported, the academics critical of the conference noted that livestreaming would not solve “the main problem: there is still no mechanism whereby any of the speakers can be challenged in any significant manner.”

Conference organizers defended their choice to use a closed format by invoking the “Chicago Trifecta,” which Wilson explained consisted of principles on free speech developed in 2014 at the University of Chicago; the university’s 1967 Kalven Report, which provided guidelines for institutional neutrality on political and social matters; and its 1970 Shils Report, which proposed that academic contributions should be the only criterion for hiring and promotion of faculty. Each element of the Chicago Trifecta, Wilson noted, “presents certain problems.”

Citing the Chicago Trifecta, conference organizers asserted that “the university and its administrative subunits must abstain from taking position [sic] on the political issues of the day.” As Wilson noted, “Far from promoting free expression, this is a policy that can be used to suppress it.”

“Universities need to protect the right to dissent, rather than banishing political statements they do not like,” Wilson concluded.

The controversy surrounding Stanford’s conference on academic freedom has received limited coverage from national news outlets. It was covered mainly by local news outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Stanford Daily and the Stanford Review, and education-focused outlets, such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and Academe Blog.

Source: John K. Wilson, “The Stanford Arguments over an Academic Freedom Conference,” Academe Blog, November 4, 2022.

Student Researchers: Kaitlin LeBlanc, John McNamara, Mitchell Regan (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)