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.”
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.”