President’s remarks to Faculty Senate on academic freedom
President Marc Tessier-Lavigne delivered these remarks at the Faculty Senate meeting of January 26, 2023.
I would like to touch on the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative in the university’s IT community. We’re going to be discussing this as one of the agenda items today, and I anticipate that we’ll have a very rich discussion.
Before we do that, though, Persis and I would like to step back and provide a few overarching comments at the outset.
I want to emphasize how strongly I believe in academic freedom.
We have heard, from faculty, questions and concerns about how the EHLI website might constrain or undermine academic freedom in the university.
More broadly, we have seen in the national news recently that many institutions are grappling, in various ways, with fundamental issues of academic freedom – a topic I had the chance to discuss earlier this week with 10 university presidents who were visiting our campus to learn about our new COLLEGE curriculum for first-year students.
Let me be clear:
Academic freedom is paramount at Stanford, as it must be at all universities. It is the very lifeblood of our institution. It is the principle that lies at the heart of our endeavor in the university to continually ask new questions, explore new avenues of inquiry, consider new alternatives, and ultimately develop new knowledge.
The Faculty Senate here at Stanford adopted a clear and robust Statement on Academic Freedom for this university as early as 1974.
We owe a great debt of thanks to the faculty leaders who developed Stanford’s statement. It continues to guide us today.
It states that our very mission of teaching and research depends upon freedom of inquiry, thought, expression, publication, and peaceable assembly.
It encourages expression of the widest range of viewpoints and warns against the development of what it calls “institutional orthodoxy.”
Colleges and universities have an obligation to support a diversity of views so that the ideas sparked on our campuses can evolve and sharpen in the face of critique and competing opinions.
We also have an obligation to expose our students to diverse views to prepare them for a world in which they are going to be continually confronted with a wide array of opinions. This is why I am especially grateful to faculty who have been engaged in creating the COLLEGE curriculum, which helps all students grapple with diverse views and develop critical reasoning skills.
Stanford’s academic freedom statement has guided me and Persis, as leaders, and we have worked to support academic freedom throughout our time in the Stanford leadership.
No speakers have been disinvited and no conferences have been canceled under our watch.
And we have declined frequent calls, from people on different sides of the political spectrum, to condemn individuals expressing particular views at Stanford. We have often been criticized for resisting these calls. We have steadfastly exercised restraint in this area precisely because of our respect for academic freedom and our desire to avoid imposing an institutional orthodoxy.
And it is as part of academic freedom that we also seek to create an inclusive environment at Stanford, one that is welcoming of people of all backgrounds and points of view.
What the events of the past month point to is that the actions we take to foster that inclusive community must always be consistent with our paramount commitment to academic freedom and to the free expression of ideas.
Actions that help inform or open people’s minds can be entirely consistent with this commitment. Actions that impose an orthodoxy – or that could reasonably be perceived as imposing one – are not.
In particular, we must exercise great care to ensure that any actions that are taken to foster inclusion do not, wittingly or unwittingly, have the effect of restricting speech.
These are some of the considerations at the heart of concerns raised about the EHLI initiative, and which will be discussed today.