Dear members of our Stanford community,

Welcome to Spring Quarter, and hopefully to warmer weather and a respite from the torrential rains that have visited us in recent months.

As spring is a time for renewal, I have been reflecting on what binds us together as a community, and the commitments and actions needed for that community to flourish in an increasingly fractious world. I’d like to share some of those reflections here.

At the heart of what we do, and what unites us, is the pursuit of learning. We learn in the classroom; through our research activities; and from each other in countless interactions every day.

Learning thrives in an environment of discussion and experimentation, in which both new and old ideas encounter dissent and countervailing views. That environment is essential to preparing students for life after Stanford. The world is a place of disagreement, and we would not be preparing students adequately if we sheltered them from ideas they find difficult.

Several conditions are required for us to be successful in our foundational mission of learning.

First is a commitment to academic freedom and to the expression of diverse viewpoints. In the past few weeks, there has been an intense focus on these principles as a result of recent deeply disappointing events at the law school in which an invited speaker’s talk was disrupted. In response, Dean Martinez wrote to the law school community to address academic freedom, free speech, and those events. Her forceful message does a superb job in, among other things, explaining university policies and how they relate to the First Amendment and California law, and in reaffirming that the university must be a place that supports and encourages expression of a diversity of views. Those who disagree with a speaker are fully within their rights to express their views and even protest; what they may not do is disrupt the effective carrying out of the event. I encourage you to read the memo in full.

A commitment to academic freedom and free expression is paramount. But it is just one of the conditions needed for our learning community to prosper fully. Of importance, too, is how we navigate contentious issues.

Out in the broader world, we see too often the impact of misinformation, oversimplification and, especially, demonization in public discussions. Social media, cable news, and political discourse can be home to taunts, personal invective, and even the rule of the mob.

We must collectively reject such corrosive conduct at Stanford. It is the opposite of constructive engagement with diverse ideas. Universities are called on to be places of vigorous and thoughtful inquiry – not only of ideas palatable to the mainstream, but of a broad array of ideas, including challenges to mainstream views. Our role is to provide knowledge, nuance, and an approach based in truth-seeking and reasoned discussion.

But we will only be able to achieve that goal, I believe, if we approach new ideas and perspectives with curiosity, and with respect for the dignity of each member of our community. This includes assuming good intent in the people one disagrees with and giving them grace.

The work of creating an environment that both enshrines free expression and fosters such engagement is not easy. It requires intentional and sustained focus. An example of this, and one that is particularly exciting to me, is in the new COLLEGE program, where faculty members help first-year undergraduates build their skills in the constructive discussion of contentious issues.

But we have much more work to do, especially as the pursuit of learning takes place not just in the classroom but also at an individual level in offices, in residences, in our daily interactions with one another. We all navigate disagreements and differences with the people that we live and work with every day. As members of a university community, we are called on to extend our empathy beyond our close personal relationships – to see one another as people with complexity, not as partisan types.

In her message, Dean Martinez announced several next steps that will take place within the law school, including further clarifying policies and the consequences that result from not following them.

Likewise, this quarter Provost Drell and I will announce new initiatives to safeguard and strengthen the norms and values that support a robust learning community at Stanford, including those I have touched on here. We must continue building understanding and active dialogue about both the opportunities and the expectations of being members of this community, including shared commitments to both free expression and to dignity and integrity in our interactions. These commitments must be reflected in our current community as we interact in classrooms, residences, and offices. They must also be shared with prospective faculty, staff, and students who are considering joining Stanford, and through orientations of new community members. The Provost and I look forward to working with faculty, staff, and students on initiatives to achieve those goals.

As we enter the final quarter of this academic year, let us recommit ourselves to rising above the lowest-common-denominator discourse. Let us aspire to open, curious, and reasoned engagement with one another. Let us maximize our potential – as a learning community, and as individuals seeking to make contributions to our world.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne