AI, academic freedom, and research: A look back at the 2022-23 academic year
The 2022-23 Annual Meeting of the Academic Council featured a panel discussion of Stanford faculty on ChatGPT, generative AI, and the future of teaching and learning; an annual report from the president; and remarks from the Faculty Senate chair.
Stanford’s 2022-2023 academic year included major accomplishments like the opening of the Doerr School of Sustainability, continued progress in implementing its institutional vision, and robust discussions of academic freedom, leaders of the university and Faculty Senate said during the 2022-23 Annual Meeting of the Academic Council on Thursday.
“We have accomplished a huge amount together – from advancing our mission of teaching and research, to continuing to implement our Long-Range Vision for the future of the university, to returning to greater normalcy post-pandemic,” said President Marc Tessier-Lavigne.
“…In the past, when we faced issues head on, we’ve always emerged stronger, wiser, and poised to deploy Stanford’s strengths for the benefit of humanity,” Tessier-Lavigne added. “I’m confident that, together, we will successfully navigate today’s challenges as well and ensure that our university remains on course for a vibrant, inspiring, and purposeful future.”
One such opportunity and challenge that has become more prominent over the last year is the impact of artificial intelligence on education.
“No matter what your discipline is, no matter what your opinion of AI is, and how far removed you think your work and interests are from AI, please lean in,” said Fei-Fei Li, the Sequoia Capital Professor, co-director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI), and professor, by courtesy, of operations, information and technology at the Graduate School of Business. “This is the moment to embrace – for the very exciting new possibilities, and more importantly, for the future of our society and civilization.”
The meeting featured a Stanford faculty panel discussion on ChatGPT, generative AI, and the future of teaching and learning moderated by Daniel Schwartz, dean of the Graduate School of Education, the Nomellini and Olivier Professor of Educational Technology, and the Halper Family Faculty Director of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning.
The 2022-23 academic year included instrumental work centered on research funding, student life, sustainability, the new first-year COLLEGE curriculum, the IDEAL initiative, and academic freedom, Tessier-Lavigne detailed in his annual report to the Academic Council.
“We have relied on the expertise and partnership of our faculty, and we have adjusted course, where needed,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “And throughout the last 12 months, our faculty has continued the important work to advance knowledge, educate students, and contribute to solving the world’s great problems.”
Tessier-Lavigne proudly recited some of the university’s recent accolades, including Carolyn Bertozzi receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and faculty members being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine, Engineering, and Inventors.
To help support the faculty’s extraordinary work, the university has invested an additional $100 million in research support beyond what has been previously budgeted over the last two years, Tessier-Lavigne said.
Stanford also continues work toward the public launch of its next fundraising campaign. In just the past two and a half years of the campaign’s “quiet phase,” Stanford has surpassed the total raised during the entire 7-year Stanford Challenge, the university’s last major campaign, said Tessier-Lavigne, who called it a “remarkable milestone.”
The university has secured significant support for undergraduate scholarships and supported efforts to broaden access to financial aid. In the upcoming academic year, families with incomes less than $100,000 will be eligible for free tuition, room, and board, “making a Stanford education more attainable to a broader group of deserving students,” Tessier-Lavigne said.
Once students arrive at Stanford, their experience will be improved with new initiatives to strengthen student life, such as making it easier to change residential neighborhoods, and simplifying the processes for student-led events.
Tessier-Lavigne also announced his approval of a proposal to update the university’s 102-year-old Honor Code to better meet the needs of the university community. This is in addition to previously approved improvements to the Student Judicial Charter to allow for a more nuanced approach to student disciplinary action with a focus on educational rather than disciplinary interventions for minor infractions.
The 2022-23 academic year saw intense focus on principles of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, which Tessier-Lavigne called the “lifeblood of the university.”
As a result, Tessier-Lavigne reported, the university is developing new near-term initiatives which include introducing concepts related to academic freedom and the free expression of ideas to prospective undergraduates during the admissions process, and ensuring that the importance of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas is introduced to all frosh, Tessier-Lavigne said. Also, in consultation with faculty, the university will be developing staff training on academic freedom and free speech on campus.
“I am so proud of everything that this community has accomplished over the last year and of the groundwork we’ve laid for continuing advances and improvements in research, in student life, and beyond,” Tessier-Lavigne said.
He also highlighted the opening of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability last September. Since its launch, the school has rolled out ambitious programs to advance its goals in research and education, and consolidated its structure of nine academic departments, three interdisciplinary institutes, and a Sustainability Accelerator.
The new first-year undergraduate curriculum, the Civic, Liberal, and Global Education program (COLLEGE) is now a mandatory two-quarter experience for all first-year students. COLLEGE has partnered with the Department of Theater & Performance Studies to stage Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and introduced the COLLEGE Faculty Fellows program, which connects COLLEGE faculty members with campus neighborhoods.
Under the IDEAL initiative, the university has made significant progress in creating a new department of African and African-American Studies which is tentatively expected to open in January, pending Board approval, and has advanced plans to launch a new Institute on Race.
AI and learning
AI is a young discipline around 60 years old that touches every facet of society, from medicine to laws to science, Li underscored in her introductory remarks to the panel discussion. With the launch of the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) in 2019, Stanford became “the only university in the world that has such a concerted effort in framing AI in such a deeply, deeply human way,” Li continued.
“No matter what discipline you come from, we need you … to make AI better, to mitigate its risks, and to realize its full human potential,” Li said.
Ge Wang, associate professor of music and, by courtesy, of computer science, noted that students are also grappling with AI FOMO, or the “fear of missing out,” and that many feel a sense of obligation to use AI in their work to feel validated. Wang also cautioned against viewing AI as an oracle with all the answers, and instead encouraged people to view it as a tool for bolstering human productivity and creativity.
Sarah R. Levine, assistant professor of education in the Graduate School of Education, said she has spent a lot of time recently in high school classrooms tinkering with ChatGPT to see what it may mean for classrooms.
Describing it as a positive disruption, Levine said ChatGPT is helping to address teachers’ lack of time, and frustration and angst on the part of students, especially when it comes to writing. For example, ChatGPT can give students more examples of arguments to help them understand what an underlying argument structure could be, and provides an accessible, low-stakes audience to challenge students when learning to write.
It’s important to understand the mechanics of AI, its relevance across all school subjects, and its limitations, said Victor R. Lee, associate professor of education in the Graduate School of Education (GSE).
To address these needs, Lee discussed the Curricular Resources about AI for Teaching (CRAFT), an initiative from the GSE, HAI, and Stanford Digital Education to build resources to teach AI literacies for high school and college instructors.
“What we want is to make sure that there are quality resources, given the amazing expertise we have at Stanford, in education, in computer science, in the humanities, in the social studies, and in politics, and bring those together, and do so in a way that really works for schools,” Lee said.
Dora Demszky, assistant professor of education and, by courtesy, of computer science, noted that a big problem facing education at this time is that teachers are burnt out. AI could potentially be leveraged to make teaching more enticing, exciting, and enjoyable, she said.
AI could save teachers time, transform the instructional experience, and could provide important feedback to improve teaching practices, Demszky explained, “not as a replacement but as an augmentation to teacher expertise.”
Mehran Sahami, the James and Ellenor Chesebrough Professor, and senior fellow, by courtesy, at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, said AI forces us to consider what students are asked to do in the educational process.
In regard to cheating, ChatGPT and other generative AI has created a low-cost, easily accessible way to short-circuit the process to produce a product, Sahami explained, and there will be more options on the horizon.
As such, educators are challenged to think of a different model for assessing education and the steps they want students to go through when learning.
An interesting year
In his report of the Senate of the Academic Council, Faculty Senate Chair and political science Professor Kenneth A. Schultz looked back at what he described as an “interesting” year.
“The reason this was an interesting year in the Faculty Senate is that we dealt with issues that were really consequential, and a number of groups mobilized to be heard precisely because they believe that what the senate does matters,” he said.
Academic freedom was a central theme in multiple meetings this year as senators debated “different views about what dimensions are most important and which threats are most pressing,” Schultz said. A language initiative that went viral over winter break prompted lengthy discussion on academic freedom, perceived threats, and inclusivity. The senate later created an ad hoc committee on university speech which will assess university policies and practices that might affect academic speech and, if necessary, make recommendations for improved faculty oversight.
Schultz said the process of writing the committee’s charge reflected a variety of views and priorities: “To what extent does academic freedom come with responsibilities to ensure that what people say accurately reflects the state of knowledge? Although we agree that free speech is essential to an academic community, how do we think about speech that effectively excludes people from full membership in that community?”
One potential tool to address the issue is the new COLLEGE requirement for first-year undergraduates. In a couple of years, the senate will be asked whether to make the new curriculum permanent, and the initial assessments presented to the senate seem “quite promising,” Schultz said.
Schultz also commended the president’s approval of the C-12’s proposal updating the Honor Code as well as the C-12’s work that led to an extensive revision to the judicial process that handles alleged infractions of the Honor Code and Fundamental Standard.
“The new system is designed to be more flexible, better able to match the consequences with the severity of the infraction, and more focused on helping the student who just made a mistake to get back on the right path,” Schultz said. “Getting this passed is a major achievement.”
Now, with the president’s approval of the Honor Code, all of the C-12’s recommendations have been adopted and their work is concluded.
“Many of the issues we grappled with this year get to the heart of who we are as an institution, what we value, and whom we value,” Schultz told Senators. “These are among the most consequential questions we can ask.”