Academic freedom questions arise on campus over COVID-19 strategy conflicts
As Stanford faculty members disagree – often publicly – about the best way to confront COVID-19, questions about the responsibilities and limitations of academic freedom and the university’s relationship to the Hoover Institution have arisen.
Differences of opinion about the best approaches to fighting COVID-19 have prompted concerns among faculty members about how policies regarding academic freedom at the university should be applied and about Stanford’s relationship to the Hoover Institution.
The concerns, focused primarily on positions advocated by Scott Atlas, the Robert Wesson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a special advisor to President Trump for coronavirus, have resulted in critical public letters and challenging questions posed to President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell.
At the heart of the concerns are positions taken by Atlas, former chief of neuroradiology at the Stanford Medical Center, that his colleagues have said may have misled the public about, for instance, the efficacy of masks in combating COVID-19 and the viability of a strategy that encourages the achievement of what is often referred to as “herd immunity” through an easing of lockdowns and increased infections among those less at risk of dying of COVID-19.
A group of 98 Stanford physicians and researchers with expertise in infectious diseases, epidemiology and health policy published a public letter that said Atlas fosters “falsehoods and misrepresentations of science.” His opinions and statements, they wrote, “run counter to established science and, by doing so, undermine public health authorities and the credible science that guides effective public health policy.” Atlas, in turn, threatened to sue, saying the letter was defamatory and that his statements, in fact, were aligned with evidence-based science.
In response to a request for comment about the criticisms of his positions, Atlas provided the following: “In my 15 years of health policy work at the Hoover Institution, I have used my 25-year background in medical science and tertiary care clinical medicine to research and formulate policy solutions in health care. Since my appointment as special advisor to the president, I have used that unique background, critical thinking and logic to present the president with the broadest possible views on policy, so that he has the best science-based, fact-driven data available to combat this devastating pandemic and make decisions to save lives and best benefit the American people. To claim otherwise is an embarrassment to those who do so.”
The conflicts over COVID-19 strategies came to a head during the Faculty Senate meeting on Oct. 22, when the president and provost were asked to address whether Atlas’ pronouncements merited university sanctions. Also questioned was whether the university’s relationship to the Hoover Institution should be reviewed in light of Atlas’ actions and those of others associated with the think tank.
Specifically, David Spiegel, the Jack, Lulu and Sam Willson Professor in Medicine and associate chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, in his question suggested Atlas was the “latest member of the Hoover Institution to disseminate incorrect and unscientific information about the coronavirus pandemic.”
He said, “Atlas’ conduct is not merely a matter of expressing an opinion – it is a violation of the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics.” Spiegel also believes Atlas’ actions may violate the Stanford Code of Conduct, which holds each member responsible for “sustaining the high ethical standards of the institution.” Further, he has charged that Atlas has inappropriately leveraged his relationship to Stanford to assert a health care expertise he does not have.
Given those assertions, Spiegel asked why the university had not sanctioned Atlas or publicly disputed his statements about COVID-19.
In response, the president cited the university’s Statement on Academic Freedom, adopted by the Faculty Senate, which states, “Expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged, free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion.”
He said, “It’s also part of our environment in the university that colleagues challenge each other, including sometimes publicly. That, too, has occurred in this case, and it has allowed the dissenting voices of colleagues to be heard and considered in the conversation.”
As the media has inquired about the university’s response to Atlas’ actions, Tessier-Lavigne said Stanford insists that it be clear that the opinions of members of the campus community are their own and not necessarily those of the university. He also reported that, in its own approach to the pandemic, Stanford – as well as the Hoover Institution – has adopted strict measures to combat the virus on campus. The university requires, for instance, face coverings because, Tessier-Lavigne said, “we believe, based on science-informed public heath guidance, that they do inhibit the spread of the virus.”
Spiegel’s question was followed by one from Stephen Monismith, the Obayashi Professor in the School of Engineering, who expressed concern about “messaging from Hoover Institution fellows that has consistently downplayed the danger of COVID-19 and emphasized the need to send workers back to their jobs, and students back to classrooms.” Monismith also raised an Oct. 14, 2020, New York Times article that described a briefing to the Hoover Board of Overseers by senior economic advisers to President Trump, warning of COVID-19’s dangers. Information from that briefing was subsequently shared, according to the article, throughout parts of the investment world.
“The possibility that members of the Hoover Institution were apprised of the potential dangers presented by the virus, yet not only kept that knowledge secret, but in some cases may have also benefited financially from this inside information, should be viewed with grave concern,” Monismith said.
In response, Provost Persis Drell shared information from Hoover Institution Director Condoleezza Rice, who reported that the individual involved resigned from the Board of Overseers and that his views and recollections were not shared by the many others who attended the same meetings. Rice asserted that the sharing of such information was inappropriate and unacceptable to the Hoover Institution.
“There have been many questions recently about Hoover, its relationship to Stanford and governance, as well as its mission,” Drell said. “These are all good questions to ask and it is important for the senate to become informed and to engage these questions.”
Drell also noted that, in the past, Hoover was “disjointed from Stanford.” In the past decade, however, Hoover has become more integrated into Stanford, with members of the Academic Council increasingly participating in Hoover governance through joint appointments.
“In a very real sense, ‘they’ are ‘us,’” she said.
This winter, the Faculty Senate plans to discuss the issue of Stanford’s relationship to Hoover. The plans are in response to a letter initiated by David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and professor of comparative literature. The letter, signed by more than 100 faculty members, cited what the signers believe are statements made by Hoover Institution fellows that “dangerously downplay the deadly nature of the disease and recommend policies that seem more aligned with driving a particular policy position than with science or fact.”
Defining the responsibilities and limitations of academic freedom remains a source of contention among faculty members involved in the COVID-19 strategy conflicts. Although both Monismith and Spiegel said they appreciated the president’s and provost’s responses to their questions, they remain dissatisfied with the answers.
“This isn’t about academic freedom,” Spiegel said of Atlas’ actions. “It’s not just that he is wrong, and he is flat-out wrong – that’s not debatable. What he is saying is deception, and he is pretending to be an expert when he is not.”
He said, “There are limitations to academic freedom. What you express has to be honest, data-based and reflect what is known in the field. If you are going to claim academic freedom, you had better be academic, as well as free.”
Given the pandemic’s death toll and continuing threat to the health and well-being of the nation, Spiegel believes Stanford has an obligation to disavow Atlas’ actions and to make clear that his viewpoints represent neither the university nor accepted medical expertise.
Like Spiegel, Monismith will likely publicly raise the issues again, although only after the elections are over. The senate, he noted, has studied the relationship with the Hoover Institution before. What is new, he said, is the increasing integration of Hoover fellows into the university’s academic life.
The New York Times article, he said, reflected poorly on Stanford and raised issues of political partisanship that “need to be brought up publicly.”
The university’s statements on academic freedom also have failed to satisfy Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. He is one of three authors of the Great Barrington Declaration. That document, authored with other epidemiologists, argues for an easing of current restrictions in favor of what he calls “focused protection.” Public resources should be focused on those most vulnerable to dying of COVID-19. Those at minimal risk should be allowed to live their lives normally and to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection.
Although Bhattacharya’s and Atlas’ perspectives have differences, the two are often linked in media coverage – much of it critical. Bhattacharya, who says Atlas’ perspectives have been unfairly criticized and mischaracterized, believes the university has done a “poor job of protecting academic freedom during this pandemic.” Bhattacharya says he believes the university has not sufficiently defended Atlas’ right to academic freedom.
In response to these criticisms, Tessier-Lavigne said, “The university must provide a place where faculty can engage in unconstrained, even heated debate. It is central to what we do, and the reason for our policy on academic freedom. That function of the university would be seriously eroded if we were to publicly take sides either to disavow or to support the specific positions of a faculty member engaged in such a debate. What we do support is the right of faculty members to express their views.”
He added that “the issue is made more intricate by the fact that some policy areas are ones where the university itself must make decisions regarding its own operations; for example, in how to handle the pandemic within our community. Faculty members are, of course, welcome to criticize the university on any policy measures we adopt – and I can assure you that they frequently do. That, too, is part of academic freedom.”
Nevertheless, the issue of academic freedom as it applies to the advocacy of social policy is a particularly vexing one, according to Faculty Senate Chair Judith Goldstein, the Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communication, professor of political science and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
“We do basic research, and we do it well,” she said. “Our work is subject to oversight by the professional organizations in our disciplines. When published, we have confidence in the research. But when you are doing public policy, I don’t know that the university has established any guardrails akin to the oversight of professional organizations.”
Despite the complexity, Goldstein believes the Faculty Senate is the right place for the issue of academic freedom to continue to be discussed.
“The Faculty Senate is a place where this can and should be discussed,” she said. “This is a platform where faculty should be able to approach the administration with questions and suggestions. It allows us to have a conversation in a public and legitimate way. It is the place where we disagree, and that is at the heart of who we are as a university.”