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Understanding academic freedom’s flawed past can help improve its future, Stanford scholar tells Faculty Senate

On Thursday, the Faculty Senate heard presentations on academic freedom and from the School of Medicine during the senate’s last meeting of the winter quarter.

In order for Stanford classrooms to become more inclusive, two key shortcomings of academic freedom in America – a right whose origins trace back to Stanford University at the turn of the last century – will need to be addressed, Emily Levine, associate professor of education and, by courtesy, of history, told the Faculty Senate on Thursday during its last meeting of the winter quarter.

Emily Levine, associate professor of education, gave a presentation on academic freedom during the Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Levine presented on the history of academic freedom, a subject that she is an expert on. That context can help us understand the consequences of those early decisions, as well as the lingering misconceptions about academic freedom and the fault lines underlying current debates around the issue, Levine said.

The Faculty Senate also heard a report on strategic investments from the School of Medicine.

At the start of the session, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said the university has been focused on supporting the community during a particularly difficult time over the past two weeks. Undergraduate student Katie Meyer’s death has deeply affected many in the community, Tessier-Lavigne said, and the university is still grieving the loss of other students in the past year: Jacob Meisel, Rose Wong and Dylan Simmons.

Additionally, the university has been reaching out to students from Ukraine and Russia to offer support since war began between the two countries, he said.

“I’m personally deeply concerned about the appalling human toll and growing humanitarian crisis, and I worry about the longer-term implications of this war, a clear attack on democracy and an attempt to reassert authoritarianism in the world order,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “As always, I’m really appreciative of everything that our faculty and staff are doing to support our students and other members of the community through the challenges of these tumultuous times.”

The university has reached out to students through the Bechtel International Center and allocated resources to support immigration counseling for Ukrainian scholars at Stanford, said Provost Persis Drell. The university is also a member of the organization Scholars at Risk, which helps scholars who have had to flee their native countries find new academic homes.

In response to a question about whether Stanford would be divesting from all financial interests in Russia, Tessier-Lavigne explained that the Stanford Management Company has not actively invested in Russia for many years, based on its standard business practices, economic considerations and principles articulated in the Ethical Investment Framework that governs its investments. He added that “exposure to Russia currently is de minimis in the Merged Pool and arises from the broad passive equity indices that track global markets.”

Moreover, Stanford’s Export Control Office has also been actively engaged to ensure Stanford is fully complying with U.S. sanctions, and the university has no active sponsored research contracts with Russian sponsors. If faculty have compliance questions, they can consult with the Export Control Office as well as the Global Engagement Review Program, Tessier-Lavigne added.

Academic freedom

The origin story of American academic freedom began at Stanford in 1900, Levine said, when the university’s founding president, David Starr Jordan, requested the resignation of a professor.

In protest, another Stanford professor, Arthur Lovejoy, resigned. In 1915, Lovejoy helped establish the American Association of University Professors, which laid out a set of formal guidelines around academic freedom that protected tenured faculty from removal for controversial speech or inquiry. As inspiration, Lovejoy and others drew upon German ideals of freedom of learning and freedom of teaching.

However, the American version came with a significant downside, according to Levine: While the document outlined what the freedom is from, it never spelled out what the freedom is for.

“A century later, an inability to clearly answer the question, ‘What is the purpose of academic freedom?’ still haunts our public conversations,” Levine said.

The other major shortcoming of academic freedom, as it was originally defined in the U.S., was that it did not extend to students or untenured faculty, Levine told the Faculty Senate.

We are now paying the price for the narrow American definition of academic freedom, Levine said. “Because without a shared understanding of the purpose of academic freedom, we have no criteria for the boundaries of its legitimate and its illegitimate uses,” she explained. “And without a code that protects students and others outside the tenured faculty … we have no forum for them to criticize, rather than to cancel.”

To make classrooms more inclusive, these shortcomings must be addressed. Steps in that direction include Stanford’s new Civic, Liberal, and Global Education liberal arts curriculum (COLLEGE) and, particularly, the first part of the sequence, Why College, which aims to create a shared intellectual community based on a positive set of values, Levine said.

“This is just but one model for making inevitable disagreement in the classroom productive as recommended by Stanford’s faculty-driven statement on open and inclusive classrooms,” she added.

Rob Reich, faculty director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, also shared information on the center’s new programming on questions of academic freedom and freedom of expression. A student track titled “Socrates at Sunset: Small Talk over Big Questions” began in October and is designed to encourage peer-peer and peer-faculty engagement over challenging questions. A track for faculty and staff, titled “Academic Freedom: Rights and Responsibilities,” began this month and seeks to stimulate campus conversation about the intellectual foundation, history and evolution of academic freedom.

Another event will be held April 18, Reich said, and he invited any member of the university community to contact the Center for Ethics in Society with suggestions for that event or others like it in the future.

Following the presentations, senators were placed into virtual breakout rooms for small group discussions about the responsibilities associated with academic freedom, how to have conversations about it with students, and how to deal with the external factors making people fearful of saying what they think. The outcome of those discussions will be shared at the next meeting.

School of Medicine

The Stanford School of Medicine has made strategic investments in mission-driven growth, Dean Lloyd Minor told the Faculty Senate.

Lloyd said these investments have enabled the school to democratize access to cutting-edge medicine and research with a focus on reaching underserved communities. The school has also enhanced the diversity of its student body through financial assistance, increased translational research and expanded its network of care and access to its clinical trials network to historically underserved areas, such as Oakland and the East Bay.

“Clinical trials are really the best opportunity for patients to receive state of the art care in complex diseases such as cancer and heart disease,” Minor said. “And in the past, clinical trials representation in our country has not reflected the demographics of our country.”

The expansion not only creates greater equity and access to trials but also gives patients greater access to Stanford-level care while sparing them difficult commutes and reducing congestion in communities.

The School of Medicine has responded to the surrounding community’s needs during the pandemic with testing, vaccinations and essential care services and by serving as an expert resource on public health and safety matters, Minor said.

It has also advanced the university’s mission through faculty collaborations with other centers and institutes across campus, and by supporting critical priorities of university leadership, such as the Innovative Medicines Accelerator and the life sciences initiative.

When asked about potential risks related to clinical care expansion, Bob Harrington, the Arthur L. Bloomfield Professor in Medicine and chair of the Department of Medicine, noted that an increasing amount of care is being provided in the ambulatory environment, which will become “mission critical to care of tomorrow.” Also, hybrid approaches to ambulatory medicine will help expand reach to patients as well as opportunities to participate in research, Harrington said.

Charles Holloway, the Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers Professor of Management, Emeritus, in the Graduate School of Business, also asked about whether there is research happening at Stanford aimed at identifying and treating the root causes of suicides.

The School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences has a close collaboration with Counseling and Psychological Services for the campus community, Minor said.

“Any loss like this is unacceptable,” added David Spiegel, the Jack, Lulu, and Sam Willson Professor in Medicine. Spiegel noted that there is ongoing research on treatment for acute depression, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation. The university also needs to continue working to make the community aware of danger signs, he said.

“Asking a person who is giving indications of being depressed or thinking about suicide will not make them worse, but ignoring them will,” Spiegel said. “And so it is very important for everybody in the community to take any hint of suicide very seriously.”

In memory

In other actions, the Faculty Senate heard memorial resolutions for Deborah Rhode and Leslie M. Zatz.

Rhode, a scholar of legal ethics, leadership, and gender and the law at Stanford Law School, died Jan. 8, 2021, at age 68.

Zatz, professor emeritus of radiology at Stanford Medicine and former chief of radiology at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital, died Feb. 21, 2020. He was 91.

The full minutes of the senate meeting will be available on the Faculty Senate website.