The Faculty Senate voted Thursday to create an ad hoc committee on university speech following a robust discussion focused on academic freedom.

The Faculty Senate voted to create an ad hoc committee on university speech and heard a presentation on the COLLEGE undergraduate requirement program in Thursday’s meeting. (Image credit: Harry Gregory)

The vote came after some faculty voiced concerns at the last senate meeting about a perceived threat to academic freedom – both at Stanford and nationwide – and a language initiative that garnered heavy media coverage over winter break.

Senators also heard a presentation about the Civil, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) first-year undergraduate requirement program.

In remarks to the senate, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne noted that faculty have reached out with concerns about the national environment for scholars engaged in international collaborations and in particular about attacks and accusations directed at scholars who are Americans of Chinese descent or Chinese nationals.

A response has been posted to the website of the Global Engagement Review Program, which provides information about issues regarding foreign engagement at Stanford. The letter includes resources available to scholars.

Stanford takes seriously threats from foreign governments to the security and integrity of the research environment, Tessier-Lavigne said.

Yet, inflammatory rhetoric and generalized accusations have caused some researchers in the U.S. to feel targeted and vulnerable due to their relationships with and collaborations in China, he continued. “Stanford pursues its mission drawing on the talents and contributions of a diverse international community of students and scholars,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “Likewise, engagement and collaboration with international partners are essential to our efforts to develop knowledge and innovations for some of the world’s most pressing problems.”

Academic freedom

Senators voted to establish the Ad Hoc Committee on University Speech to assess whether there are constraints on academic freedom and speech, to share findings with the university, and to recommend changes, if necessary, as to how the senate conducts oversight of the issue.

On Jan. 26, the Faculty Senate postponed a motion to establish an ad hoc committee after senators agreed more time was needed to consider the matter.

The ad hoc committee will report to the senate on issues such as how faculty should approach the “ ‘right’ of speech, and associated responsibilities, in an academic environment.” Read the full approved motion here.

While considering the motion to establish the committee, senators voted to make several amendments. Much of the lengthy discussion focused on a proposed amendment to specify support for programs to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the exchange of ideas at Stanford from David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and professor of comparative literature. The amendment failed following discussion of how it may affect the committee’s work.

Philip Levis, professor of computer science and of electrical engineering, argued that the idea that primacy of speech could trump all university concerns or responsibilities is not true. “We care about speech, and we care about everyone participating in speech,” Levis said. “And in the end, these efforts of diversity, equity, and inclusion are about helping people who have been historically excluded or inhibited from speech being able to participate.”

Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, and professor, by courtesy, of sociology and of political science, said including language referencing DEI “could be interpreted as applauding generally all programs that are seeking to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, and frankly, I think there are many people that have some concerns about some specific programs, one of which is what triggered this entire conversation.”

The Ad Hoc Committee on University Speech will report its findings and recommendations to the senate in the 2023-24 academic year, and an interim report will be provided to explain the committee’s work process. The committee will include up to seven academic council members as the committee’s voting members, and no more than four non-academic council members and staff can be appointed as ex-officio non-voting members.

“One of the things I hope this committee will do is examine carefully how we need to think of academic freedom and academic responsibility in the light of the wide and weird dissemination and influences, like doxxing, that social media and the internet have,” added David Spiegel, the Jack, Lulu and Sam Willson Professor of Medicine.


Stanford’s COLLEGE program, which began rolling out in academic year 2021-22, is designed to provide a unifying intellectual experience, establish a foundation and capacity for exploration, and develop critical and ethical thinking skills for new undergraduates, said Dan Edelstein, the William H. Bonsall Professor of French and professor, by courtesy, of history and of political science.

Edelstein provided senators with an update on the program, along with Emily Levine, associate professor of education, and by courtesy, of history; Dustin Schroeder, associate professor of geophysics and of electrical engineering, and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment; and Parna Sengupta, associate vice provost and director of Stanford Introductory Studies.

COLLEGE is administered by Stanford Introductory Studies, part of the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, and overseen by a first-year governing board with close quality control over the classes.

A distinctive feature of the program is that all students in the fall and winter quarters take a version of the same course. Instruction is delivered in a discussion seminar capped at 16 students, which is “essential for meeting our learning goals,” Edelstein said.

COLLEGE courses are taught by a mix of faculty, lecturers, and fellows. The fall and winter courses are designed so that any faculty member, regardless of discipline, can teach the course, alone or with a co-instructor, Edelstein said, while any faculty member can propose a spring quarter course.

In the fall, students reflect on their own education and purpose; in the winter, on how to live in and organize a society with people who are very different from themselves; and in the spring, on what it means to think globally about issues and challenges. COLLEGE aims to spark discussions on these topics that continue outside the classroom.

The program’s Why College syllabus currently incorporates one of the books from the university’s Three Books program, and the author is invited to Stanford during fall quarter. Due to this model’s success, COLLEGE will absorb the entire Three Books program and distribute the texts across three quarters, Sengupta said.

A multi-modal assessment plan has been developed to combine surveys, evaluations, interviews, and direct analysis of student work to ascertain whether the program is working, Levine said.

Feedback thus far has generally been very positive, she said, with a small number of critiques about the amount of reading as well as that the course is required. Also, nearly every COLLEGE instructor who isn’t going on leave has signed up to teach it again, Levine said, citing helpful support like the detailed lesson notes and activities provided.

The citizenship course is running 78 concurrent sections and enrolls more than 1,100 students, nearly four times more than last year, Schroeder said. A study of last year’s citizenship course reveals many encouraging outcomes but also challenges: while 58% of students reported feeling comfortable stating their opinion in class, 30% of students do not for fear of “getting canceled,” Schroeder said.

“That’s one of the issues we’re hoping to improve this year, but it also highlights the importance of having such a class,” he added.

A survey found that pre-quarter, 34% of students “often” or “very often” stay informed about challenges facing citizenship while that number rises to 75% post-quarter, Schroeder said. The number of students who reported they “strived to stay informed as a citizen” increased from less than 1% to 46%.

At the end of the program’s pilot phase in academic year 2025-26, the program’s creators will request a full three-quarter implementation of the requirement. Edelstein asked senators to share what kinds of data and information they may want to review in making a decision about COLLEGE’s future.

Senators widely praised the program. Susan McConnell, the Susan B. Ford Professor and professor of biology, said she was intrigued by the use of contract grading and asked how its use will be assessed.

COLLEGE used contract grading – in which students are told what satisfactory work they need to do for a grade – for the first time in the fall quarter.

“The point is that the grading system is based on completion through participation, rather than evaluation and discernment,” Levine said. “I think the reason for that is because there’s so much emphasis on self reflection. … We want you to think deeply about the intrinsic motivations for learning.”

Judy Goldstein, the Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communications, professor of political science, and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, recommended that COLLEGE instructors help prepare students for how grading will work in courses that do not use contract grading, and where the quality of their work will be an important factor in determining their final grade. “I’m explicitly clear about what you have to do in order to complete the class … the grades you get [are] based on the quality of what you do, not the completion of the assignment,” she said. That is “a big conceptual jump.”

David Miller, the W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of Electrical Engineering and professor, by courtesy, of applied physics, said he would like to see more engineering in the syllabus, citing its crucial role in understanding the world. Provost Persis Drell, who co-taught in COLLEGE with historian Caroline Winterer last fall, responded that because COLLEGE is designed to be flexible, engineers can bring engineering into the program. “I really encourage engineering faculty to think very seriously about co-teaching this course with one of your humanities or social sciences colleagues,” Drell said.

Multiple senators added that they would like to hear from students who have participated in COLLEGE once they graduate to best assess the impact of the program on their Stanford experience.

In memory

Senators also heard a memorial resolution for W. Bliss Carnochan, the Richard W. Lyman Professor in the Humanities in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Emeritus, and former director of the Stanford Humanities Center. He died Jan. 24, 2022, at age 91.