Intimidation-Produced Silence at Stanford

Back in the late middle of the last century I attended Stanford for my last three years of college and my last three years of graduate school. Since then I have looked in vain for the dividend checks from that investment, but one thing I have received with some regularity is the alumni magazine.

Along with its almost equally depressing news of classmates either more successful or deceased, Stanford usually presents impressive representatives of the unusually talented undergraduates it attracts, as well as items highlighting other accomplishments on campus. A recent issue, however, featured a symposium by four senior faculty members on “What Should Free Speech Mean in College?” that is discordantly, uncharacteristically depressing — in no small part because the editors obviously had no idea how bad the picture they painted makes Stanford look.

Michael McConnell, law professor, director of the Constitutional Law Center, former judge on the the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and one of the few conservatives at Stanford, struck a common note with his observation that “at Stanford, students frequently appeal to the university to silence other students whose views make them feel uncomfortable. Students of a conservative persuasion tell me that they do not feel free to express their views—even mainstream, reasonable views shared by millions of Americans—in class or in common spaces, for fear of attracting a torrent of abuse from fellow students and occasional disapproval from a small minority of ideologically intolerant faculty. They simply self-censor; they keep their mouths shut.”

[The Assault on Free Thought]

Another Stanford law professor, the conventionally liberal Ralph Richard Banks, agrees that conversations about “such sensitive issues” as gay marriage, affirmative action, and abortion “have become more daunting in recent years. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain an environment in which all students feel free to share their views.”

Next, Banks makes a common plea for “inclusion”: “Students are unlikely to make useful intellectual contributions if they are feeling attacked or if they feel that they don’t belong at Stanford.” His emphasis here, although not exclusively, was on race:

Gay and lesbian students may feel, understandably, that criticisms of same-sex marriage imply a rejection of them. Other students may be hesitant to voice religious opposition to same-sex marriage, fearing moral condemnation by their classmates. Similar issues arise with race-based affirmative action, where students from underrepresented racial minority groups might feel as though their status as a Stanford student is being questioned. Classmates, in turn, might either imply that they don’t belong or decline to voice important questions about the wisdom and effects of race-based affirmative action.

Professor Banks to the contrary, however, the relationship of ideas about affirmative action to “inclusion” is quite different from the other “sensitive issues.” Objections to gay marriage or abortion, for example, imply nothing about whether gays or women who have had abortions “belong” at Stanford. By contrast, since the essence of affirmative action is that some students are admitted who would not have been but for their race or ethnicity, objecting to affirmative action does inevitably imply that in fact its beneficiaries do not belong at Stanford, especially since the preference they received because of their race or ethnicity means that an equal number of at least equally deserving applicants were rejected because of their race or ethnicity.

[How Oberlin Played the Race Card and Lost]

Professor Banks commendably attempts “to frame the discussion broadly and to make it about policies rather than people” and “by encouraging students to identify unbigoted reasons that people may oppose race-based affirmative action or the Supreme Court’s mandate of same-sex marriage.” One can appreciate Professor Banks’s effort here, but the fact that it is necessary paints a depressing picture of the majority of Stanford law students blithely assuming that only bigotry can explain criticism of favored liberal projects.

Another of Professor Banks’s efforts is less commendable. “I situate race-based affirmative action,” he writes, “in the context of the many ways that universities deviate from strict admissions criteria of grades and test scores.” Perhaps it is not surprising that so many of his students are not offended by discrimination based on race since his “situating” means that discrimination based on race is of a piece with discrimination based on legacy status or athletic ability. As I argued here, quoting the late eminent social scientist James Q. Wilson, “we did not fight the Civil War to make sure the University of Mississippi would admit good quarterbacks, we fought it to make certain it would admit blacks. To say that racial and athletic classifications are similar or that one can reason from the latter to the former is foolish.”

According to Professor of Psychology Hazel Rose Markus, the main problem of free speech at Stanford seems to be too much speech, which results in too little “inclusion.”

“We have two ears and one mouth,” she observes; “it is wise to use them in these proportions.” The problem, in her view, is that free speech, “which privileges the use of the mouth, is far stronger. Inclusion, the idea that everyone belongs and that no one should feel like a guest in someone else’s house, could use buttressing. Cultivating the use of the ears … is one way to strengthen inclusion.”

So, in effect, shut up and listen, but the identity of those who should shut up and listen is not randomly distributed because the demography of speech at Stanford also appears to be a problem. “[S]ome students with European American backgrounds were extremely well practiced in speaking freely and often,” she writes, but others, “often those with less wealth and privilege, or those who were first-gen, were decidedly more reticent.”

[Word by Word, SJWs Are Changing America]

When Joe Biden recently exclaimed that “poor kids are just as bright and talented as white kids,” he was blasted and ridiculed for his racially insensitive “gaffe” and quickly backtracked. When Stanford’s Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences writes something eerily similar, she is the esteemed voice of academic “inclusion.”

With her contribution, Debra Satz, Professor of Philosophy and Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, made it unanimous: Stanford’s free speech problem is intimidation-produced silence. “A central impediment with respect to free speech in our classrooms is self-censorship,” she writes. “Many students are afraid to voice opinions that go against what they perceive as the dominant opinion of their peers.”

Free speech at Stanford, of course, is no more endangered than at other institutions. In January of this year, for example, FIRE published the results of a survey of 2225 college students that found 57% think university administrators should be able to restrict views that some see as hurtful or offensive. Even though the fate of free speech at Stanford may be no worse than at other institutions, it is also no better, and the fact that threats to it are so common across similar and different campuses makes what is happening there of interest to more than its students and alumni. Thus, its recent symposium is sadly, revealingly relevant.

Some will find it ironic, others (like me) will find it entirely predictable, that the current emphasis on “inclusion” and “diversity” has resulted in an oppressive blanket of what Dean Satz properly called “conformism” at Stanford and elsewhere.

Finally, perhaps Stanford should reconsider its often controversial but still current motto, “Die Luft der Freiheit weht,” usually translated as “the winds of freedom blow.”

Today, at Stanford and on campuses across the country, it would, unfortunately, be more accurate to say that freedom of speech seems to be an ill wind that blows no one any good.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

14 thoughts on “Intimidation-Produced Silence at Stanford

  1. I used an extreme example to make my point — those attacking the Atlantic Wall were not making a banzai charge in the definition of what a banzai charge is.

    In academia circa 2019, these students would be.

  2. Based on the summary above, I’m quite troubled by law professors “situating” race-based preferences with criteria such as test scores and legacy status. The Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed that race-based distinctions must survive “strict scrutiny” and be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling public interest, and only when race-neutral alternatives are impracticable. Test scores and legacy status, on the other hand, get a virtual rubber stamp from the courts, so long as they bear some rationally relation to the school’s stated interests.

    This is a pretty important distinction to make at a law school, as it provides the logical framework for all affirmative action jurisprudence.

    Also notable was how facile the speakers are with perniciously offensive stereotypes regarding “European Americans,” apparently a perfectly homogenous (though chatty) group of tens of millions that stands in sharp contrast to “those with less wealth and privilege, or those who [are] first-gen.”

    I hope it’s not “bigoted” to suggest that we aspire to look at students as individuals, or to remark that maybe students who talk too much in class should talk less, while those who aren’t sharing their views should contribute more, regardless of where their grandparents happened to be born.

  3. The only solution to intellectual intimidation is moral courage. It must be cultivated, rewarded, and taught to our children.

    1. No amount of moral courage can justify a banzai charge, which is what you are asking these young people to do — on their own and with no one behind them.

      At least the 19-year-olds who stormed Normandy had guns and the ability to shoot back, and they had a considerable amount of naval artillery behind them. Even those in the worst of it, the first wave at Omaha Beach, had a 50% survival rate.

      By contrast, the 19-year-old who attempts to stand up to the academic intimidation is committing career suicide and everyone knows it….

      1. I’m going out on a limb and say that “career suicide” is a little less intimidating than facing the bombs, machine guns, barbed wire, and fortifications of the Atlantic Wall. What they DO have in common is that both require courage to face, and defeat is the inevitable result to cowardice.

  4. Anyone attempting to shut down classroom speech on the grounds that they are offended should immediately be dismissed from the university. Minds so delicate cannot possibly absorb or contribute anything useful, so their seats are best taken by others.

  5. What else is new? Let us not conflate human nature–the desire to suppress those who disagree with us–with some new university-based totalitarianism. The good news is that these obstacles to free expression are easily overcome by going outside the university. But, that will not happen since this requires a little money and nobody is willing to pay for “free” speech.

    One last observation: even those academy-based organization supposedly committed to free speech will not bite the hand that feeds them. I was recently kicked out of The Heterodoxy Academy. My name just mysteriously disappeared from the list of members with no explanation (and e-mail requests for an explanation drew evasive responses). I’d guess that those who fund it are unwilling to tolerate unorthodox opinions regardless of official pronouncements. Any thoughts?

  6. > “at Stanford, students frequently appeal to the university to silence other students whose views make them feel uncomfortable.”

    I feel like I’m stating the obvious but nobody else sees it.

    The correct response when the university tells conservative students to shut up because they’ll offend their fellow students, is:

    “You’re telling me to shut up? Okay, now I’m offended. Do my feelings count? If not, why not? I’m paying tuition. Why do their feelings count, but not mine?”

    1. Lee, what you have to understand is that the Left can do no wrong and is always right, while the Right can do no right and is always wrong.

      What you don’t understand is that your proposed response would get a student reported as being violent, e.g. “the next Virginia Tech shooter” and likely expelled on purported mental health grounds as well.

      It’s called “Cognitive Aggression” and the theory is that anyone who disagrees with the group will inevitably progress to mass murder — unless stopped. Here, they’d explicitly get you on your “insensitivity to others” which would be claimed as evidence that you are a dangerous psychopath who could (and thus would) nonchalantly murder them to win your argument. (NB: I’m compressing a lot of psychobabble here, but this is what it would mean.

      It’s right out of the Soviet concept of Sluggishly progressing schizophrenia…..

  7. “According to Professor of Psychology Hazel Rose Markus, the main problem of free speech at Stanford seems to be too much speech, which results in too little “inclusion.””

    Interesting to note that a woman with a Jewish father takes an approach toward academic free speech that a Nazi could love.

  8. Conservative students at Stanford probably hid the fact during the application process. Had they not, they likely wouldn’t have been admitted. So, these aren’t bold, risk-raking conservative students. They are go-along to get-along types; certainly not modern day Patrick Henry’s.

  9. The ultimate irony is that both the AAUP and the concept of “Academic Freedom” evolved out of Jane Stanford’s demand that Stanford fire an Economics professor for saying that her late husband had exploited Chinese laborers in building his railroad — which he had.

    Back then, more speech was considered a good thing….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *