A Glimmer of Hope at Stanford

A few years ago, I wrote about one of the most overlooked facets of college and university life: students and professors have far less influence on campus culture and programming than most people think. In reality, it is the ever-growing ranks of administrators who have the greatest influence. Administrators are now embedded in virtually all areas of collegiate operations, from the management of dorms and community centers to direct involvement in the screening and hiring of faculty to the subject matter of orientation programs. Moreover, their numbers have grown precipitously over the past decade.

This is a dangerous trend for higher education. Most of these administrators are progressive activists with strong political inclinations who promote a divisive diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda on campus and establish the terms of political engagement. This reckless campaign has polarized so much of the discourse on today’s campuses and has created a state of intellectual paralysis among faculty and students alike.

Why have so many faculty members—professors with the job security of tenure who are generally liberal, but certainly less ideological, and well aware of the value of viewpoint diversity—remained silent and allowed administrators to “colonize” their campuses?

[Related: “Not Just Semantics: Stanford’s ‘Harmful Words’ Problem Is Serious”]

Some faculty have been organizing against imperially minded administrators who push troubling identity politics at their institutions. Others have been standing up for academic freedom, open debate, and free speech in groups like Heterodox Academy and the Academic Freedom Alliance. But direct cases and challenges to administrators are quite uncommon, with large numbers of conservative faculty remaining silent in order to avoid professional and personal consequences.

Fortunately, 2023 began with a strong faculty response to Stanford University’s blatant attack on academic freedom and free speech. This is a sign of progress.

A few months ago, Stanford University’s IT department published a long list of words as part of its Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI). This list, which was not debated or critiqued widely by faculty or students, created a Kafkaesque, anxiety-filled campus by claiming that it was harmful to say terms like “American” and “you guys.”

The list was divorced from reality and was rightly condemned by many around the country. A senior official at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression powerfully argued that “many of these words are normal parts of how we speak as a society that … regular, reasonable people would not consider to be harmful or offensive, and by deeming this long list of words to be harmful and offensive, Stanford creates a chilling effect on all of the students and faculty who may want to use these words for their research, their teaching and just their everyday discussions of issues in our society.”

[Related: “Reinvigorating the American Dream with Individual Agency”]

Fortunately, at a January 26 meeting of Stanford’s Faculty Senate, faculty pushed back. Not only did the professoriate introduce a “motion that would require any University policy regulating academic speech to originate from the Faculty Senate,” not an administrative office, but it also took aim at the EHLI.

A political science professor noted concerns about transparency and argued that faculty have been marginalized, stating that “initiatives like EHLI,” which was mainly led by staff, raise the question of “who gets to decide what faculty can and can’t do.” Moreover, a comparative literature professor argued that the EHLI has “shaken the faith of faculty and students in the University’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech.” The professor argued that this policy was both dangerous and chilling, for the initiative’s logic implies that faculty would “not be able to teach poems by T. S. Eliot” because “their antisemitism may cause harm.” The professor rightly argued that administrative encroachment is “not a healthy atmosphere. The way to fix it is by rebalancing faculty oversight on a university-run increasingly by administrators.”

While these positions are reasonable regarding both free speech and administrative power, this is one of the first times faculty on their home campus have publicly declared their opposition to omnipresent and precarious administrative overreach.

There is no reason why a fairly balanced student body and a liberal-leaning professoriate should be told what or how to think, how to socialize and question, or how to explore the world by a narrow group of activist administrators. Seeing faculty push back is a powerful sign that they know wokeism and administrative overreach must end—state governments in Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida are beginning to make that position powerfully clear. On a smaller scale, it is a positive step forward to finally see a group of faculty who are ready to take a stand against dangerous and irresponsible behaviors on the part of activist administrators. Hopefully, other faculty will follow Stanford’s lead and showcase how education, viewpoint diversity, and open inquiry should work by embracing debate and difference.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Samuel J. Abrams

    Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

2 thoughts on “A Glimmer of Hope at Stanford

  1. Sorry, Samuel, but I take little comfort in what happened at Stanford. The list of offensive terms originated in some administrative office. Notice the faculty senate did not oppose banned word lists; they just wanted to make sure they were the authors of such lists in the future.

  2. Regarding the summary paragraphs …. yes, academics ought to get back to academics – including fact based social science analysis – not ideologically based screeds.

    The word list belongs in 1930s Germany not the America I know.

Leave a Reply

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