More Hope From Stanford

For almost five years, I have been sounding the alarm about problematic higher education administrators. Not only are these staffers omnipresent and growing in number, but they try to set the terms of discourse on campuses nationwide and actively promote progressivism among the student body.

This tragic state of affairs was on vivid display last week at Stanford Law School (SLS), where administrators from the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) publicly excoriated a sitting federal judge. Such premediated behavior has been condemned at the highest level of the university, but it serves as yet another example of how dangerous this administrative class has become to free speech, student instruction, and collegiate culture more generally.

On March 9, SLS’s chapter of the Federalist Society hosted Fifth Circuit Appeals Court Judge Kyle Duncan for an on-campus event. Students aggressively shouted down Judge Duncan and disrupted his intended speech, “The Fifth Circuit in Conversation with the Supreme Court: Covid, Guns, and Twitter.”

Before the event, Tirien Steinbach, SLS’s associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, sent an email to the student body. At first glance, the note seems reasonable. The dean correctly notes that:

Today, SLS will not censor Judge Duncan’s [speech], nor the students’ hosting him, nor stifle free speech by canceling this engagement. This would be antithetical to our school’s principles of free speech, academic freedom, AND creating a culture of belonging. Moreover, I believe cancellation would not result in actually quieting or stopping speech or a speaker that many may find offensive or harmful, rather it would only amplify it (as we have seen played out on campuses and in media across the country). Instead, SLS supports this event going forward, and also supports the rights of students to protest this event, in keeping with University policies including those against disrupting speakers.

But rather than taking an appropriate, neutral stance and reminding students of SLS’s clear policies regarding disruption and speech, the email contained additional sentiments that were explicitly biased and intended to influence students. The dean opined with clear intent:

While Judge Duncan is not expected to present on his views, advocacy or judicial decisions related directly to LGBTQ+ civil rights, this is an area of law for which he is well known. Numerous senators, advocacy groups, think tanks, and judicial accountability groups opposed Kyle Duncan’s nomination to the bench because of his legal advocacy (and public statements) regarding marriage equality, and transgender, voting, reproductive, and immigrants’ rights. However, he was confirmed in 2018.

Further, the dean alleged that Judge Duncan “repeatedly and proudly threatened healthcare and basic rights for marginalized communities, including LGBTQ+ people, Native Americans, immigrants, prisoners, Black voters, and women.”

[Related: “A Glimmer of Hope at Stanford”]

It gets worse, however, because Dean Steinbach did far more than send an inappropriately political letter to the community—she knew that students were going to shout the speaker down and planned to politically involve herself in a student-run event. She prepared remarks with the clear expectations to promote her agenda and attack the judge. When students began to prevent the judge from speaking, rather than advising them that they were violating university policy and asking them either to stop disrupting the event or to leave, five administrators present did nothing except support the dean.

Dean Steinbach spent almost ten minutes interfering with the event and spoke from pre-drafted, ideological remarks—a fact that she made clear in front of the audience. She claimed that the judge was harming students and causing them direct pain, all while offering essentially fake platitudes about the sanctity of free speech and expression.

The good news is that, within a day, SLS Dean Jenny Martinez responded with the usual statements about supporting free speech and open inquiry and noted that the student disruptions were wrong. But Martinez did not hold her dean responsible. Fortunately, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne addressed this the next day by formally apologizing to Judge Duncan, noting that “what happened was inconsistent with our policies on free speech.” More importantly, however, the letter asserted that “staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so and instead intervened in inappropriate ways that are not aligned with the university’s commitment to free speech.”

While it is unclear what will happen to the associate dean and SLS’s DEI office, we should pause and recognize that the president of Stanford took an important step toward speech. Given how dominant DEI offices are today and how little is being done by school presidents to rein them in, it is nothing short of remarkable for a major university to formally acknowledge that an administrator crossed the line. Stanford made it clear that Steinbach’s behavior was absolutely inappropriate and violated free speech norms that are “bedrock principle(s) for the law school, the university, and a democratic society.”

Stanford is imperfect and must address many continuing issues surrounding open expression. Stanford must also hold this administrator and the disruptive students accountable—that is not a fait accompli. But between a public apology and an admission that this DEI administrator was simply wrong—as well as the Faculty Senate’s denunciation of administrative overreach and call for more professorial engagement in teaching, learning, and speech—the Farm may be finding its way back to a place where “the winds of freedom blow.”

Image: King of Hearts, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


  • 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.

11 thoughts on “More Hope From Stanford

  1. Martinez paid the price for her apology. Masked students protested outside her own classroom and harassed people attending her class. In addition to firing Steinbach, some students need to be expelled. But that will never happen.

  2. Of course Steinbach should be fired. Schools cannot allow hothead administrators to embroil them in foolish controversies — remember Oberlin? That is not enough. Stanford needs to “turn back the clock” to the days before it had a DEI commissar. Abolish the position. It’s just a sinecure for activists like Steinbach. Stanford students will learn just as much as ever without that position.

  3. As Bill Jacobson and Josh Blackmun have cogently observed, what happened at Stanford (including the Maoist struggle session protests of Dean Martinez’s class on Monday) is just the logical result of embracing what Josh terms “DEIdeology.” I.e., if you hire a DEI dean, don’t be surprised when she acts like a DEI commissar, because that’s literally what her job description is.

    While I agree that Steinbach (and others) should be getting pink slips over this:

    (1) It’s not going to happen. Whose watch included the creation of the SLS DEI deanship and the hiring of Steinbach to fill it? Why, that of SLS’s own affirmative action dean herself, Jenny Martinez. Note the kid glove treatment she gave Steinbach in her initial Friday night statement. I do not see any way Martinez will support axing Steinbach.

    (2) If Steinbach is fired / reassigned / paid to go away, does anyone think SLS would not fill that DEI dean slot with someone equally “woke,” if not more so?

    (3) While there are apparently a couple of SLS profs that have come out in favor of the Federalist Society students (Judge McConnell for one), the vast, vast majority of faculty either supports what the students did, or are too cowardly to say anything. That doesn’t auger well for SLS taking any sort of meaningful action against either the students or administrators who violated not only Stanford’s rules, but California criminal law as well.

    About all there is left is for federal judges to give Stanford the Judge Ho treatment, and announce that they will not be hiring clerks from SLS in the future. Note that after Judge Ho did that, Yale came groveling for him to take it back, and since then the behavior of YLS students at “unwoke” presentations has been markedly different. Federal clerkships (especially appellate ones) are an extremely valued credential, and being blackballed by even a significant fraction of the federal bench is not something an “elite” law school is going to want to bear.

  4. Alas, equal protection does not apply because this is a private college. However, everyone misses the point. This will continue until people punish Stanford et. al. by taking away their prestige. The only way to do this is to openly treat Stanford law grads as losers who threw away their careers and reputations by going to a second-rate law school. When the time comes to hire a lawyer personally, or recruit a lawyer for a job, and you want a good one, trash-talk the school and mention to someone — anyone — that you prefer a lawyer from a first-rate school. Critics of higher education have been avoiding this tactic for forty years, and everything else doesn’t work.

  5. Steinbach has crossed the line. It’s so sad that she felt she had to perform as she did. Does she really need attention so badly?
    She should be fired immediately.
    What does it say about Stanford that they are doing absolutely nothing?

  6. Not only should Steinbach have been immediately fired, every student who participated in the protest should be made to publicly apologize to the judge and to the students who invited him, be placed on probation given a permanent mark in their academic records. Failure to apologize should result in immediate suspension.

    The problem with a form letter from the SLS Dean and a mere apology from the school president is that neither of these things prevent recurrence.

    This is why I advocate that conservative students do the exact same thing to progressive / leftist speakers invited, even at commencements, until the school actually does something about it. If they get punished differently than the left-wing students, they should file a massive lawsuit over the violation of their equal protection.

    1. ” If they get punished differently than the left-wing students, they should file a massive lawsuit over the violation of their equal protection.”

      What you fail to realize is that the institution will get them for something ELSE and everyone knows this. There are a million different ways for a bureaucracy to screw a student and I’ve seen it done.

    2. I don’t see how we can object to student conduct and expect a forced apology. Compelled speech is not free speech.

      We can however discipline them in accordance to university policies. I don’t expect that to happen but I’m heartened to read the school belatedly sided with freedom of expression.

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