Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Welcome to Stanford’s Class of 2021

Professor John Etchemendy, who served as provost for over 16 years (2000-2017), in a departing speech before the Stanford Board of Trustees, outlined challenges higher education is facing in the coming years. Following is an excerpt from that talk, with comments inserted by your friendly proprietor.

But I’m actually more worried about the threat from within. (Comment:  I cannot recall or find a single public remark or email to the faculty, staff, and students of Stanford in which Provost Etchemendy expressed concern during his 16 years as provost over the threat from within.  Perhaps he only realized this problem after stepping down.)  Over the years, I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country – not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines – there we have made laudable progress. Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for. It manifests itself in many ways: in the intellectual monocultures that have taken over certain disciplines; (Comment:  In my 16 years as provost, Stanford’s Academic Council tenured and tenure-track faculty has grown from 1368 to 1659.  During those years, several hundred members of the faculty retired.  This means we made about 500 new appointments.  I can’t recall how many of these have conservative credentials, but there must be a few.  Some Stanford departments do not have a single registered Republican.  I’ve searched my email files but I can’t find those in which I instructed our 7 school deans and dozens of department chairs to include highly qualified conservative candidates in their searches, nor can they find their email replies to me assuring this was the case); in the demands to disinvite speakers and outlaw groups whose views we find offensive; in constant calls for the university itself to take political stands. We decry certain news outlets as echo chambers, while we fail to notice the echo chamber we’ve built around ourselves.
(Comment:  In the 2016 presidential election, over 90% of Stanford’s faculty voted for Hillary Clinton; only 5% for Donald Trump.  But our faculty never let their politics intrude on their teaching and research.)
This results in a kind of intellectual blindness that will, in the long run, be more damaging to universities than cuts in federal funding or ill-conceived constraints on immigration. It will be more damaging because we won’t even see it: We will write off those with opposing views as evil or ignorant or stupid, rather than as interlocutors worthy of consideration. We succumb to the all-purpose ad hominem because it is easier and more comforting than rational argument. But when we do, we abandon what is great about this institution we serve.  (Comment:  Who was the Chief Academic Officer of Stanford University during the past 16 years?)
It will not be easy to resist this current. As an institution, we are continually pressed by faculty and students to take political stands, and any failure to do so is perceived as a lack of courage. But at universities today, the easiest thing to do is to succumb to that pressure. (Comment:  Stanford Board of Trustees voted to divest from coal companies during my tenure as provost.)  What requires real courage is to resist it. Yet when those making the demands can only imagine ignorance and stupidity on the other side, any resistance will be similarly impugned.
The university is not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view, and when it does it violates a core mission. Universities must remain open forums for contentious debate, and they cannot do so while officially espousing one side of that debate.
But we must do more. We need to encourage real diversity of thought in the professoriate, and that will be even harder to achieve. (Comment:  No thanks to you.)  It is hard for anyone to acknowledge high-quality work when that work is at odds with, perhaps opposed, to one’s own deeply held beliefs. But we all need worthy opponents to challenge us in our search for truth. It is absolutely essential to the quality of our enterprise.
(Comment:  The Hoover Institution is the only unit on campus in which diversity of thought truly prevails and in which the monoculture of the left does not dominate.  Yet during your years as provost, you made it more difficult for Hoover to hire full-time Senior Fellows by removing their right to purchase a campus residence, sponsor foreign visitors, and serve as principal investigator in federally funded research.)
I fear that the next few years will be difficult to navigate. We need to resist the external threats to our mission, but in this, we have many friends outside the university willing and able to help. But to stem or dial back our academic parochialism, we are pretty much on our own. The first step is to remind our students and colleagues that those who hold views contrary to one’s own are rarely evil or stupid, and may know or understand things that we do not. It is only when we start with this assumption that rational discourse can begin, and that the winds of freedom can blow.
(Comment:  Hmmmm.  Wonder if new Provost Persis Drell will take actual steps to do something about the intellectual imbalance at Stanford, or just mouth the same platitudes as her predecessor Etchemendy—after he left office.)
At the Faculty Senate Meeting of April 27, 2017, here is a summary of Provost Drell’s remarks.
In reaffirming Stanford’s commitment to academic freedom, Provost Drell said that expression of the widest range of viewpoints of members of the faculty at Stanford is encouraged, free from any institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion. She said individuals may express viewpoints that are critical of elected officials and national policies.
“The only thing legally forbidden is for the institution itself or the institution’s resources to be used in engaging in political activity in support of or opposition to a candidate for elective public office or other purely partisan activity,” she said.
Drell said Stanford has a long practice of not taking political or policy positions, unless they have a direct bearing on its ability to carry out its core missions of research and education.
“We believe the sharing and appreciation of diverse perspectives is vital to our community, therefore it is essential that the institution remain a neutral broker of ideas,” she said.
(Comment:  I am eager to see her instructions to Deans and Department Chairs that they include candidates with diverse perspectives in their searches.  Or that she re-instates former privileges that Etchemendy removed from full-time Hoover Senior Fellows.  I’m from Missouri, the “Show Me State.”) 

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