A Stanford initiative that kicks off later this month will address some of society’s most complex issues and expose the campus to a wide range of perspectives and views.

Reflective of a broadly based commitment to open exchange across the university, Cardinal Conversations is an initiative between Stanford University and its Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. It is designed to be a thought-provoking community discussion of key issues across the political spectrum.

On Nov. 7, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell announced that preparations were underway for “a series of discussions with well-known individuals who hold contrasting views on consequential subjects.”

Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel

Stanford alumni and entrepreneurs Reid Hoffman, left, and Peter Thiel will join Niall Ferguson of the Hoover Institution for the first Cardinal Conversation on Jan. 31. (Image credit: Hoffman, Joichi Ito; Thiel, Dan Taylor, Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Tessier-Lavigne and Drell wrote in their blog, Notes on the Quad, that Stanford aims to “ensure that a diversity of views is not just a possibility but also a reality at Stanford, both in the classroom and outside it.”

Universities are devoted to the discovery and transmission of knowledge, they noted. “In both research and education, breakthroughs in understanding come not from considering a familiar, limited range of ideas, but from considering a broad range of ideas, including those we might find objectionable, and engaging in rigorous testing of them through analysis and debate.”

Such experiences are critical for students because it helps prepare them to be engaged citizens in the future, the president and provost said.

“Universities also must help students prepare to function in a society where active citizenship and meaningful work require engaging with a broad diversity of individuals, ideas and arguments,” they wrote.

The president and provost were not involved in selecting the speakers for Cardinal Conversations, though they encouraged and supported the development of the initiative.

“The student-led Stanford Political Union provided a model last year with its debate on affordable care,” and we hope to help expand that approach with Cardinal Conversations, they said.

Technology and politics

Cardinal Conversations’ first event takes place at 7 p.m. on Jan. 31 in the Hauck Auditorium of the David and Joan Traitel Building at the Hoover Institution. Entrepreneurs and Stanford alumni Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel will join Stanford’s Niall Ferguson to discuss the subject of “Technology and Politics.”

Topics for future talks include “Inequality and Populism” and “Sexuality and Politics,” with others currently under discussion. All events will be ticketed, and tickets will only be available to Stanford University ID cardholders.

Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, co-led the effort to create the initiative along with political science Professor Michael McFaul, who has also been involved in developing the fall discussions focused more on international topics. McFaul is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute and also a Hoover senior fellow.

Ferguson said the goal was to create an opportunity for all members of the Stanford community, especially undergraduates, to encounter firsthand “leading public intellectuals of the day, hear them debate the great issues of our time,” and participate in and continue these discussions.

McFaul said the student involvement led to the upcoming discussions that will focus on some of the major social and political issues of our time. “Working with students focused on global issues, I look forward to helping to assemble an equally compelling set of conversations on international and foreign policy issues in the fall.”

Ferguson said, “The idea originated with a diverse group of undergraduates, with views ranging across the political spectrum, all of whom felt that more could be done to air contested issues at Stanford.”

The plan is to make Cardinal Conversations a continuing series, and plans are underway for the 2018-19 program.

Robust exchange of ideas

The students on the steering committee that chose the topics for Cardinal Conversations belong to a broad range of organizations across the political spectrum, including some from the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) and other student groups active in fostering a diversity of views on campus, such as the Stanford Political Union and Stanford in Government.

Justice Tention-Palmer, president of the ASSU and a senior in mathematical and computational sciences, said, “Stanford hosts noteworthy speakers on campus to share and spread their ideas. Often these ideas are questioned and challenged by students, yet there no clear forum for discussion.”

He noted, “Cardinal Conversations is a student-lead initiative to bring this discussion directly to the stage.”

Anna Rose Mitchell, a junior in computer science, said that Cardinal Conversations hopes to encourage serious grappling with ideas on Stanford’s campus.

“Open-mindedness to the ideas of our political opposition will be crucial to repairing America’s extreme polarization,” she said.

Kyle Kinnie, a junior in international relations and history, described the concept of free speech as the “guiding star” behind the project.

“A society where people are not free to speak their minds is a society in the bondage of fear,” he said. “It is my hope that Cardinal Conversations brings greater student engagement and awareness of the assets we have on our own campus, and that Stanford continues to be an institution where the ‘wind of freedom’ still blows.”

We mostly just brainstormed a list of broad topics, based on current events and general points of interest for Stanford students.

Stephanie Chen

Senior in computer science

Stephanie Chen, a senior in computer science, said the focus on multiple viewpoints is “incredibly valuable.”

“We mostly just brainstormed a list of broad topics, based on current events and general points of interest for Stanford students. Some might be controversial, but the aim isn’t to create controversy, and if contentious points come up, I hope audiences will get a chance to parse through what’s being said and learn something new,” Chen said.

Antigone Zoe Xenopoulos, a sophomore in symbolic systems, said Cardinal Conversations is based on “academic curiosity and the commitment to civil discourse” at Stanford on a host of complex domestic and international issues.

Xenopoulos said students will benefit from an opportunity to learn from the free exchange of ideas and open discussions. “It symbolizes the university’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas and places it on a pedestal for all those at Stanford, and beyond, to see.”

Christos Makridis, a doctoral candidate studying public and labor economics, describes Stanford as an “incubator for discovery and cognitive development that helps us become multidisciplinary thinkers in an increasingly complex world.”

Makridis applauded Ferguson and McFaul for their leadership and collaboration, noting that they met frequently with students to discuss a wide range of speakers and topics.

He added, “If we do not understand what freedom means and how it supports the very fabric of our society, we’ll develop and use technology for the wrong aims, pursue relationships for the wrong reasons, and fail to achieve our full potential.”

Looking ahead

Other confirmed speakers include a Feb. 22 event with Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and author and political scientist Charles Murray on “Inequality and Populism”; an April 9 event with journalist and author Anne Applebaum, broadcaster Ted Koppel and another speaker to be announced, on the topic of “Real and Fake News”; and a May 23 conversation with philosopher Christina Sommers and journalist Andrew Sullivan on “Sexuality and Politics.”

For ticket information on the Jan. 31 event, visit “Technology and Politics,” on the Stanford events page.