An update for the Stanford community
Dear Stanford community,
Our news and social media feeds have been filled over the last few days with horrifying new details about the Hamas attack in Israel last weekend, which involved intolerable atrocities including murder of civilians and kidnapping. The likelihood of a lengthy and violent continued conflict in the region has become clearer. Our focus as university leaders is on supporting the members of our Stanford community in this difficult moment. We hear the deeply felt concerns, fears, and grief that have been expressed by students, faculty, and staff. We want to address several issues that have arisen on our campus in the past few days.
- We have heard many expressions of concern regarding student safety. We have heard from Jewish students, faculty, and staff concerned about rising antisemitism. We have heard from Palestinian students who have received threatening emails and phone calls. We want to make clear that Stanford stands unequivocally against hatred on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, national origin, and other categories. The expression of political views, in appropriate times and places, is important. Thoughtful, reasoned discussion of current issues is central to the life of the university. Our commitment to academic freedom means that latitude for expression of controversial and even offensive views is necessary to avoid chilling freedom of thought and ideas. But harassment and abuse have no place here. We are committed to working with affected communities to provide support and resources, and also to ensuring the physical safety of those on campus.
- We have received a report of a class in which a non-faculty instructor is reported to have addressed the Middle East conflict in a manner that called out individual students in class based on their backgrounds and identities. Without prejudging the matter, this report is a cause for serious concern. Academic freedom does not permit the identity-based targeting of students. The instructor in this course is not currently teaching while the university works to ascertain the facts of the situation.
- We have received complaints about banners, signs, and chalking on campus that express views that many find offensive. Again, it is important to remember that controversial and even offensive speech is allowed except when it crosses the line into certain illegal categories such as threats or harassment for which the threshold is quite high. Unlawful threats and harassment will not be tolerated. Stanford also has content- and viewpoint-neutral time, place, and manner rules that limit locations for banners and signs. Thus, many of the banners and signs have been removed, because they were in places where they are not allowed. Moreover, it is worth remembering that while a climate of free expression requires breathing room, our aspiration as a community is for respectful and substantive discourse.
Here and across the nation this week, there also has been discussion of the role of university leaders in commenting on global events. This provides an opportunity for the two of us, who are new in our current roles at Stanford, to share some further thoughts on this topic, and on the place and purpose of universities.
Stanford University is a community of scholars. We believe it is important that the university, as an institution, generally refrain from taking institutional positions on complex political or global matters that extend beyond our immediate purview, which is the operations of the university itself. Maintaining university neutrality allows for our individual scholars to explore them freely. In recent years, many universities have gotten into the habit of issuing frequent statements about news events. This creates a number of difficulties. The decision to take a position about one event or issue yields implications for silence with regard to other issues; given that different subsets of a campus community may be more or less affected by particular issues, this inconsistency is felt acutely. It can enmesh universities in politics and create a sense of institutional orthodoxy that chills academic freedom. In addition, crafting each message is challenging, from gathering facts and context on complex issues at the speed of online media and the news cycle while also walking a line between platitudes and overly political positions.
As a moral matter, we condemn all terrorism and mass atrocities. This includes the deliberate attack on civilians this weekend by Hamas. One of the advances in international law in the 20th century following the horrors of the Holocaust was the development of international humanitarian law prohibiting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Such crimes are never justified. Sadly, they occur regularly throughout the world; the International Criminal Court website lists seventeen different country situations for which it has launched investigations, all of which involve mass atrocities. And that court’s docket does not even reflect the full range of situations. We point this out not to in any way diminish the shocking severity of the events in Israel and Gaza this week, but to highlight the pervasive problem that humankind faces in conquering hate.
The events in Israel and Gaza this week have affected and engaged large numbers of students on our campus in ways that many other events have not. This is why we feel compelled to both address the impact of these events on our campus and to explain why our general policy of not issuing statements about news events not directly connected to campus has limited the breadth of our comments thus far, and why you should not expect frequent commentary from us in the future.
The fighting in the Middle East is likely to continue in the coming weeks, with casualties on both sides, and the overall situation has a deep and complex history. Stanford has community members who are themselves from the region or who have friends and family there. We recognize the deeply felt impacts across our community. We encourage you to approach one another with a spirit of compassion and respect for our shared humanity.
Richard Saller, President
Jenny Martinez, Provost