A conversation with Provost Jenny Martinez
As she begins her new role this week, Jenny Martinez shares her thoughts on free speech, the IDEAL initiative, and her favorite Star Trek series, among other topics.
Jenny S. Martinez begins her new role as Stanford’s 14th provost this week. President Richard Saller named her to the position in August, effective Oct. 1. Martinez succeeds Persis Drell, who announced in May that she would step down as provost this fall.
Martinez, a distinguished scholar of international law and constitutional law, comes to the role after serving as dean of Stanford Law School since 2019. She has been a member of the Stanford faculty since 2003. As provost, she will serve as the university’s chief academic officer and chief budgetary officer.
Before moving into her new office in Building 10 on the Main Quad, Martinez spoke about her new role and her views on free speech, the IDEAL initiative, and her favorite Star Trek series, among other topics.
What are you most excited about as you begin this new role? Any thoughts on initial priorities?
I’m most excited by the opportunity to support our amazing faculty and students. I have been a professor at Stanford for 20 years, and I think there is no other university that has our combination of strength across so many different fields. As is often pointed out, we have Nobel prize winners and Olympic medalists. We have top-ranked departments ranging from computer science to history, economics to physics, and top programs in fields like education, business, medicine, law, and now sustainability. We have so much to contribute to the world.
“My top initial priority is listening to members of our community about what is important to them and how best to support them in their life on campus.”
As I think about what has made Stanford special over the years, it is not just its excellence but its spirit. People at Stanford work together and collaborate. They are creative and entrepreneurial. There has also traditionally been a sense of taking our work seriously but not taking ourselves too seriously, a kind of whimsy and joy in what we do. One great example of that is the couch that some of the students motorized and were driving around campus last year. It was perhaps even more hazardous than the bicycles in the roundabouts, but what a great thing to be able to cruise to class with your friends on a couch.
My top initial priority is listening to members of our community about what is important to them and how best to support them in their life on campus. There’s no denying that it has been a rough few years at Stanford in a number of ways, but I am confident that we will get back on track because the fundamentals are strong. As President Saller put it, our core mission is excellence in research and education with integrity. That’s pretty simple and pretty compelling. If we have excellent faculty producing and sharing knowledge; we are providing our exceptional students with a great experience inside and outside the classroom; and our terrific staff are effectively supporting that mission, then we’re headed in the right direction.
We also have a number of important and exciting initiatives underway that came out of the extensive long-range vision process over the last several years. People have invested a lot of time and effort into these initiatives, and we need to see them through to success. These include things like getting certain kinds of research out in the world more quickly so it can have a positive impact, educational programs like the COLLEGE classes for first-year undergraduates to help prepare our students not just for their careers but also to be citizens and leaders in a world that needs them, as well as support for new fields like artificial intelligence and sustainability. And of course, all of the medical center work, treating patients and pushing forward knowledge to help people live longer, healthier lives.
How would you describe your leadership style?
First, being clear about values and mission makes it easier to tackle tough issues. When people get down into the weeds, I do like to step back and ask what we are trying accomplish in a big picture way, as that often helps clarify things. Second, I think listening is very important. I have found that although people do not always agree, if you listen before making up your mind and then explain your reasoning clearly, people can usually come together around a decision, or at least respect the decision. Third, I try to communicate in plain English. Universities can get wrapped up in a lot of jargon and that isn’t always helpful.
You have become well known for the “Martinez Memo,” following Judge Kyle Duncan’s appearance at the Law School earlier this year, that outlined the legal precedents and the university’s position on free speech, protests, academic freedom, and the First Amendment as it applies to private universities in California. How do you see Stanford navigating these issues in the period ahead?
These issues are not unique to Stanford, but are pervasive today throughout higher education and indeed throughout the world. Intense political polarization, social media, and the isolation of the pandemic have contributed to the problem. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are under assault from many directions, as you can see from book-banning controversies and school board battles over topics like critical race theory. And in countries around the world where democracy is weakening, attacks on academic freedom and free expression are a standard part of the authoritarian toolkit.
“I have found that although people do not always agree, if you listen before making up your mind and then explain your reasoning clearly, people can usually come together around a decision, or at least respect the decision.”
As a scholar of constitutional law and also international human rights, I have had a lifelong interest in issues of freedom of expression. As a 16-year-old, I led a protest against my high school’s censorship of our yearbook. The school administration did not like a survey about alcohol use that the editors had done that, not surprisingly, showed that students drank alcohol. One of my friends was editor of the yearbook and I was on the school’s model judiciary team, so I went to the library and did research on the First Amendment. My friends and I wrote up pamphlets explaining why the censorship of the yearbook violated students’ First Amendment rights.
There was a Supreme Court case called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which said that high school students did not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate and had a First Amendment right to protest so long as they didn’t create a material and substantial disruption of school activities. The students in Tinker had worn armbands to protest the Vietnam War. So we designed our protest to meet the Tinker standard and made “Free Press” armbands and pamphlets about the First Amendment and handed them out.
When the vice principal confiscated the pamphlets outside the gym before a pep rally, I could not have been more excited. I think I was really eager to sue, and it seemed like censoring pamphlets about the First Amendment would make the perfect test case. I felt a mixture of victory and disappointment when the school district’s lawyer made them give us back our pamphlets and publish what we wanted in the yearbook. I think the school administrators found me very annoying. Later, as an undergraduate, I was a reporter and editor for my college newspaper and spent a summer as an intern defending student journalists at an organization called the Student Press Law Center.
So the Judge Duncan event was not the first time I had thought about free speech on campus. The right of students to protest is very important. But, as my memo from last March explains, the right to protest doesn’t include the right to disrupt a speaker. You have the right to speak, but not the right to shut down someone else’s speech.
Protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression are really fundamental, in the sense that we can’t go about our work as a university if we compromise on that. The basic mission of a university is to generate new knowledge through research and to educate students. You can’t generate knowledge and find truth in an environment where people aren’t free to try out ideas and challenge orthodoxy. If students can’t grapple with ideas they disagree with and figure out how to make reasoned arguments against them, you aren’t fulfilling your educational mission.
One counterargument to allowing controversial speakers that I have heard is a famous quote by James Baldwin, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” But James Baldwin also famously debated William F. Buckley at the University of Cambridge in 1965 on the topic of desegregation and racial equality, and Baldwin won the debate by an audience vote of 540 to 160. It is not that you have to love those whose views you find abhorrent, though I think it can be important not to immediately jump to the conclusion that someone who holds a bad idea is a bad person. But I do think it is important to defeat bad ideas with substantive, reasoned arguments.
IDEAL is one of the important initiatives that Stanford has pursued over the last several years. You’ve been a champion of diversity, inclusion, and access during your time at the Law School. How do you plan to continue this work as provost?
Diversity is also something I have cared about for a long time and that I think is quite fundamental. Again, it helps to go back to first principles. The university’s core missions of knowledge creation and education depend on ensuring that a diverse set of voices are welcome and included in the conversation, that everyone on campus is treated with respect, and that we remove barriers that prevent people from reaching their full potential. The IDEAL initiative has been important in bringing attention to these kinds of issues, and this is work that needs to continue.
“If students can’t grapple with ideas they disagree with and figure out how to make reasoned arguments against them, you aren’t fulfilling your educational mission.”
People of different backgrounds bring different life experiences and insights to the classroom, and to research. Different life experiences also create distinct challenges for people, and unfortunately, people in our society still experience the effects of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and identity, religion, socioeconomic status, and other dimensions. Where we can, I think we need to take account of that and try to remove barriers.
Let me give a few examples. A high school student might have attended a poorly resourced school in a low-income neighborhood. It would be unreasonable to expect that student to have taken as many AP classes as a student who attended a high school in a wealthy suburb, and we might want to take that into account not only in admissions but also in designing different introductory sequences of classes to help bring students up to speed. Given the persistence of gender roles around parenting, the lack of affordable childcare might fall more heavily on female graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty and so we might want to work on affordable childcare to ensure that this isn’t unfairly holding people back. Many studies show that people tend unconsciously to gravitate towards hiring and promoting people like themselves, which means that without some conscious effort, organizations will not bring in people with different backgrounds, identities, and views. And so we need to make an effort to not fall into that trap.
There has been a lot of conversation about how issues of diversity intersect with academic freedom and free speech, and sometimes these issues are pitted against each other. As I said in my March memo, I think the university’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion can and should be implemented in ways that are consistent with its commitment to academic freedom and free speech. Indeed, the commitment to diversity can actually be traced to the same normative premise that undergirds our commitment to academic freedom, which is a concept of the university as a place of pluralism.
There are many ways to support diversity that are consistent with a commitment to academic freedom. At the same time, I don’t think our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion should take the form of having the university administration exclude speakers or announce institutional positions on a wide range of current social and political issues and news events. Focus on these types of actions as the hallmark of an “inclusive” environment can lead to creating and enforcing an institutional orthodoxy that is not only at odds with our core commitment to academic freedom, but also that would create an echo chamber that does not prepare students for effective citizenship in our society.
And, given what I have said about my lifelong interest in free speech and the First Amendment, you won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t think that a list of banned words is a good idea. I do think it’s important that we try our best to treat everyone with respect. If I say something that upsets someone else, I care about their reaction; that’s basic human decency.
In addition to supporting the academic life of the university, the provost is keenly interested in the student experience at Stanford. What are your thoughts on student life?
I am really interested in talking with a wide range of students to better understand the challenges in student life currently and in working constructively with them to come up with solutions. Stanford is a pretty large place with a somewhat complicated structure, and so getting a handle on how all the different pieces come together to affect student life is important.
Students’ experiences outside the classroom during their time at Stanford can be as important as their experiences inside the classroom. Lifelong friendships developed on the Farm have always been a part of the Stanford experience. Students can’t make the most of their academic opportunities if they are struggling with affordability or mental health challenges.
And our students are multidimensional, with passions across many areas, from athletics to music and art and any number of other things. Those passions shape the people they will become. That’s actually part of a liberal education, as our COLLEGE curriculum explores. This is true of our graduate students as well; even though they may have chosen a particular field to specialize in, they have a life outside school that is important to cultivate and many of them are at a point where things like childcare become significant. I should mention postdocs here as well because they are an important part of our community and they face distinct challenges in their phase of training.
I think this decade is turning out to be a particularly challenging time for young people to come of age, from the pandemic to social media to worries about the state of the world and the future. What worked in the past won’t necessarily work today, so we need to listen to students and adapt. And when we try something and it doesn’t work, we need to learn from that and adjust.
We’ve heard that you’re a big Star Wars and Star Trek fan. Tell us more about that.
I am a huge nerd. I’ve been into Star Wars since I was a kid. At my wedding, instead of the traditional music, we had them play the Star Wars theme song as a recessional. My husband wanted the Darth Vader theme when he came in, but I said that was too much.
I am also into other classically nerdy things like Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. My favorite Star Trek series is Voyager, and I also really am enjoying Strange New Worlds, and I liked the first few seasons of Discovery. I am also a fan of science fiction authors like Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin. I like science fiction because it makes you imagine different possible futures for humanity and therefore look at our own world in a different way.
In terms of other embarrassing pop culture obsessions, I am kind of a Swiftie. Going to the Eras Tour with my three teenage daughters was the highlight of my summer. My favorite Taylor Swift album is 1989, so I can’t wait until “Taylor’s Version” drops in October.