The Faculty Senate postponed a motion to establish an ad hoc Committee on University Speech Initiatives on Thursday following a lengthy discussion on academic freedom and inclusivity prompted by a language initiative that went viral over winter break.

Wide shot of Faculty Senate meeting on January 26, 2023. At the meeting, the Faculty Senate Senate discussed the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative and concerns about academic freedom.

The Faculty Senate discussed the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative and concerns about academic freedom during its Thursday, Jan. 26, meeting. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell underscored that the university remains committed to its foundation of academic freedom and to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment amid challenges like this.

“Academic freedom is paramount at Stanford, as it must be at all universities,” said President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “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.” (Read the full statement.)

Regardless of intentions, the potential impact of the language initiative and others like it are broad and could impinge upon academic freedoms, said Anna Grzymala-Busse, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor in International Studies, professor of political science, and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies.

Faculty would like greater transparency about how related efforts are taking place and under whose authority; inclusivity to ensure faculty are not marginalized; and faculty governance to preserve academic freedoms, Grzymala-Busse said.

“We can work together to improve decision making, and to restore the kind of trust, reputation, and accountability that has been harmed in the last few weeks,” she added.

Senators also heard a brief update on the winter course registration.

Language initiative

At the beginning of winter break, prominent media outlets began reporting on a website for Stanford’s Information Technology (IT) community that discussed the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI), drawing widespread criticism for recommendations such as using the term “citizen” instead of “American.” The site has since been taken down.

Vice President for Business Affairs Randy Livingston explained the impetus for EHLI: In the aftermath of George Floyd’s 2020 murder, the Business Affairs organization at Stanford reconsidered how it could create a greater sense of belonging and inclusion for its diverse staff. Staff members came forward and said one thing that makes them feel less included is terminology widely used in the IT world, such as the “master-slave relationship.”

As a result, an attempt was made to adopt different language within some of IT’s coding and websites within Business Affairs, and the initiative was shared with the CIO Council, a group of university IT leaders, Livingston said. The list of words in the initiative drew on many sources, and was intended as a guide, not a mandate.

Livingston and Chief Information Officer Steve Gallagher took full responsibility for the matter, outlining lessons learned from the issue.

“We did not pay attention in the transition from assigning this task to the workgroup to when the website got published,” Livingston said. “We feel, I know I feel, absolutely horrible about the adverse publicity that this generated. And it’s really gotten in the way of creating a greater sense of inclusion and belonging on the part of members of our community.”

The list should also have remained narrowly focused on technological terms. “Somewhere along the way, it actually got expanded much more broadly. … That’s really when things went awry,” Gallagher said

Also, words like “eliminate” or “purge” should not have been used. “If the entire site was simply saying, ‘Here are some nuances to language that we may want to consider,’ this whole thing probably would not have happened,” Gallagher said.

Furthermore, language summarizing the initiative erroneously implied that its scope was broader than it actually was. “The intent … was never ever, ever to impose this on the university or represent this as anything more than an internal effort within our own organization and the other organizations that adopted this,” Livingston said. “We acknowledge fully that the way the website was published and appeared may have conveyed a very, very different impression.”

“These are all problems that are quite clear in retrospect, but we were somehow blinded to them at the time,” Gallagher said.

Drell said that neither she, Tessier-Lavigne, or Vice Provost for Institutional Equity, Access and Community Patrick Dunkley had seen the list of words before they went viral, and that the word list was not university policy.

“We do not have speech codes and never will,” Drell said. Further, the concept of “eliminating” language is not part of the IDEAL initiative, Drell said. “We believe that true inclusivity by definition, requires, enhances, and supports diversity of thought, diversity of expression, and those are essential to the educational research missions of this institution.”

The site’s existence has damaged the IDEAL initiative, Drell said, as people are reaching the wrong conclusions about what IDEAL is about, and the existence of such lists, even if they are not mandates, can have a chilling effect on speech. Drell detailed the work of IDEAL, noting that faculty controls most elements of IDEAL that affect faculty, research, and teaching.

Tessier-Lavigne noted that Stanford is still guided by the Statement on Academic Freedom that the Faculty Senate adopted in 1974.

“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,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “We also have an obligation to expose our students to diverse views, to prepare them for a world in which they’re going to be continually confronted with a wide array of opinions. This is why I am especially grateful to the faculty who have been engaged in creating the COLLEGE curriculum, which helps all students grapple with diverse views and develop critical reasoning skills.”

Tessier-Lavigne said that under his and Drell’s leadership, no speakers have been disinvited, and no conferences have been canceled. Further, the president and provost have not condemned any individuals for expressing particular views out of respect for academic freedom and to avoid imposing an institutional orthodoxy.

‘Intellectual courage’

Juan Santiago, the Charles Lee Powell Foundation Professor and professor of mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering, said many faculty feel this is an important time for self-reflection to understand what happened, citing several concerns regarding the EHLI as well as the “Anti-Racism Toolkit” used across campus, which he described as “worrisome.”

Other senators expressed concerns about the long-term impacts of such endeavors. “The goal of the initiative, as stated, is protecting university members from allegedly harmful words,” said Russell Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, professor of German studies and of comparative literature, and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. “This is a road we should not go down. It’s not the role of the university to protect students or anyone else from difficult ideas. On the contrary, we need the intellectual courage to confront them.”

David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and professor of comparative literature, said he likes lists in certain instances to help him in knowing how to address students, citing previous discussions around mental health issues and trust between students and faculty. “It’s a matter of rationality and precision,” he said.

Several senators also voiced concerns about the discomfort many university community members feel in discussing issues. “Students, faculty, staff are walking on eggshells,” said Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. “We have a huge problem here, in terms of our mission, and that won’t be solved just by looking at what’s going on by enthusiastic staff.”

Santiago and Grzymala-Busse together put forth the motion to establish an ad hoc Committee on University Speech Initiatives, but the action was ultimately postponed following vigorous debate and after several senators requested more time to consider the issue.

Winter course registration

A new course enrollment system was developed and implemented in time for winter quarter class registration after outages and instabilities affected enrollment last September, Gallagher told senators during an update to an October presentation on the course registration system.

The increased performance of the new technology resulted in enrollment opening about a minute early, and the Cisco DUO multifactor authentication system was briefly overwhelmed and delayed twice during winter quarter class enrollment, Gallagher detailed. Both issues will be addressed to ensure they don’t happen again during spring quarter registration.

The university is working to merge two of its enrollment systems into one and will continue to implement plans to improve the enrollment experience for students, added Johanna Metzgar, associate vice provost for student and academic affairs and university registrar.

In memory

Senators also heard memorial resolutions for Jennifer Kelsey and John L’Heureux.

Kelsey, the former head of the Division of Epidemiology at Stanford Medicine, died Oct. 13, 2021, at age 79.

L’Heureux, the Lane Professor in Humanities, Emeritus, and longtime leader of the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship program, died April 22, 2019. He was 84.