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Report to Faculty Senate reveals stress around the issue of free speech on campus

The Planning and Policy Board Subcommittee on Campus Climate presented an interim report to the Faculty Senate on Thursday that highlighted students’ concerns about free speech and general campus climate.

As they met with graduate and undergraduate students on the issue of free speech, members of the Faculty Senate’s Planning and Policy Board Subcommittee uncovered some larger issues about the current campus climate. Most prominent among their findings was that many students report feeling stressed, isolated and uncomfortable with expressing ideas that might not be supported – feelings that have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zoom view of Faculty Senate meeting April 8, 2021

The Faculty Senate on Thursday heard a report that highlighted students’ concerns about free speech and general campus climate. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Those findings by the subcommittee were presented in an interim report to the senate on Thursday by David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and professor of comparative literature. The presentation also included reports from a student representative and other committee members, followed by discussion among the senators.

During the meeting, the Faculty Senate also learned more about the recent announcement from Provost Persis Drell about a return to an in-person academic experience on campus this fall and approved a proposal to change the name of the Medical Center Line faculty to University Medical Line faculty.

Free speech and campus climate

In light of increased political polarization, the issue of free speech on university campuses has intensified in recent years. The Planning and Policy Board Subcommittee, chaired by Palumbo-Liu, was charged with tackling the issue with the goal of producing a clear statement that would express basic values and reinforce the idea that the widest range of speech should be protected on campus.

After reviewing the Fundamental Standard, the Honor Code and similar statements from peer institutions, the committee embarked on a series of robust interviews with students, resident fellows and others across campus.

The subcommittee concluded that the issue of free speech is a subset of larger issues regarding campus climate, which include building community, fostering a sense of belonging, feeling supported and being comfortable expressing one’s views – particularly views that may not be popular, according to Palumbo-Liu.

“We all know the usual anxieties that students face coming to the university – not knowing if they belong, if they will fit in, and all those feelings of insecurities were amplified exponentially after the 2016 presidential election … and of course, we had the pandemic,” he said. He said that students said they often feel they are on their own to deal with these issues and expressed a fear of making mistakes.

Undergraduate student Megha Parwani further outlined the issues in a brief video statement.

“For me, coming to Stanford was about meeting and learning alongside a variety of people with different lives than mine, but I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to step beyond my own circle of friends who understand where I’m coming from and might have something in common with me already,” she said.

Resident fellow and subcommittee member Elaine Treharne, the Roberta Bowman Denning Professor and professor of English, discussed the implications of community within the context of the ResX initiative.

“While there is a focus [in ResX] on the campus regions and the IDEAL initiative, what we learned from our conversations is that the institution needs to state explicitly, clearly and repeatedly what community means [at Stanford] to ensure maximum ownership and engagement across campus.” She said that many students often feel excluded and are afraid to speak up, and need opportunities to be heard.

Resident fellow and subcommittee member Richard Ford, the George E. Osborne Professor in Law, noted that in the absence of an ethos of open dialogue and mutual respect, students often default to citing free speech laws or isolate themselves in small groups, which impedes the learning experience.

Palumbo-Liu said that the subcommittee will continue meeting with students and others throughout the spring and summer with hopes of producing a final report and recommendations by next winter. “The solution must come from the students,” he said.

Report from the provost on fall plans, recent COVID-19 cases and new appointments

Provost Drell reported that Stanford is planning for as normal a fall as possible in its research and teaching enterprise. She cautioned that the return to an in-person academic experience will depend on the trajectory of the pandemic and the public health rules in effect at the time. In addition, some international students may face hurdles in obtaining visas.

“But I believe that we have really good reasons to be optimistic in our planning,” Drell said.

The provost also reported that there are approximately 2,880 undergraduate and 5,000 graduate students currently living on campus. She said that there have been 10 student positive COVID-19 test results this week at Stanford, nine of which are students at the Graduate School of Business. Most of these students live off campus, and all who test positive will be in isolation consistent with protocol.

The provost also drew attention to new leadership appointments that were announced earlier this week.

  • Patrick Dunkley will serve as vice provost for institutional equity, access and community.
  • Shirley Everett will serve as senior adviser to the provost on equity and inclusion.
  • Matthew Rascoff will serve as special adviser to the provost for digital education and innovation.
  • Stephen Chen, currently a supervisory attorney in the Denver regional office of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, will serve as Title IX coordinator and director of the SHARE Office.

President’s remarks

In his remarks, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne congratulated the Stanford women’s basketball team and Coach Tara VanDerveer for their national championship victory on April 4.

“It was an exciting win, and it was a fitting capstone to a unique and extremely challenging season for the team,” he said.

“I have to say that I’m continually impressed by our student-athletes, and by their dedication to excellence both in the classroom and on the court or field. This year especially, the challenges that our student-athletes have overcome related to the pandemic speak to their passion and their determination, it makes this victory all the more impressive,” he said.

Other actions

Following a brief presentation by Dean of Medicine Lloyd Minor, the senate unanimously approved a proposal for changing the name of the Medical Center Line faculty to University Medical Line faculty in order to clarify and recognize that they are part of the university rather than employees of the hospital. The proposal will now go to the full Academic Council for a vote.

A memorial resolution was also read for Kenneth Taylor, the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy in the School of Humanities and Sciences.