Yesterday, I published a column on the disgraceful actions taken by students and Stanford DEI Dean Tirien Steinbach in an event featuring Judge Kyle Duncan of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Steinbach’s condemnation of Judge Duncan was chilling but hardly surprising. It is part of a sweeping environment of intolerance and orthodoxy in our institutions of higher education. Last night, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Law School Dean Jenny Martinez issued a joint apology that is commendable in its words of regret, but conspicuous in its failure to promise any action against those who shutdown this event. It is like expressing regret over the sinking of the Titanic without addressing the design flaw.
To briefly recap the controversy. Judge Duncan was invited to speak at an event hosted by the Stanford Federalist Society. Students, however, came with the clear intent to shout down the judge and prevent him from speaking. Unable to speak, Duncan asked for an administrator to intervene and Steinbach stepped forward.
Steinbach promptly declared that “I had to write something down because I am so uncomfortable up here. And I don’t say that for sympathy, I just say that I am deeply, deeply uncomfortable.”
One would expect that the next line would be a condemnation of those who refused to let opposing views to be heard in the law school. Instead, it turns out that it was the free speech itself that was so stressful and painful for the law dean.
Steinbach: I’m also uncomfortable because it is my job to say: You are invited into this space. You are absolutely welcome in this space. In this space where people learn and, again, live. I really do, wholeheartedly welcome you. Because me and many people in this administration do absolutely believe in free speech. We believe that it is necessary. We believe that the way to address speech that feels abhorrent, that feels harmful, that literally denies the humanity of people, that one way to do that is with more speech and not less. And not to shut you down or censor you or censor the student group that invited you here. That is hard. That is uncomfortable. And that is a policy and a principle that I think is worthy of defending, even in this time. Even in this time. And again I still ask: Is the juice worth the squeeze?
Duncan: What does that mean? I don’t understand…
Judge Duncan was right to be confused. A law school dean was legitimating an attack on free speech and supporting the claim that hearing opposing legal views on issues like the Second Amendment is harmful to students.
Later, Duncan told the Washington Free Beacon he was concerned that “if enough of these kids get into the legal profession, the rule of law will descend into barbarism.” He added that he was most concerned for how conservative, libertarian, and independent students were treated: “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m a life-tenured federal judge. What outrages me is that these kids are being treated like dogs**t by fellow students and administrators.”
What he saw in that room was all too familiar for many of us. I have had conservative students ask me if they could speak freely in classes at George Washington. Conservative and Republican students routinely sit quietly as professors and students abuse conservatives and their values out of fear of retaliation. A poll at the University of North Carolina found that conservative students are 300 times more likely to self-censor themselves due to the intolerance of opposing views on our campuses.
Another recently discussed poll showed roughly 60 percent of students say that they fear speaking openly in class. That percentage is consistent with other polls taken across the country.
Consider the survey on the state of free speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The newly released Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) survey shows a growing fear among faculty over their ability to speak freely in classes or other forums on campus. Conversely, a majority of students believe that it is acceptable to shout down or block speakers who hold opposing views.
The earlier Buckley annual survey shows a sharp increase with 63% reporting feeling intimidated in sharing opinions different than their peers. That is almost identical to the 65 percent found in other polls.
None of these issues, of course, are addressed in the letter of Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Law School Dean Jenny Martinez in their joint apology. However, there was a more concerning omission. This event was videotaped and shows students shouting down Judge Duncan to prevent others from hearing his views. It is called “deplatforming” or silencing those with opposing views. Yet, neither Tessier-Lavigne nor Martinez promise to hold these students accountable or to sanction Steinbach. They merely express regret 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.”
We have seen this type of meaningless harrumphing before.
Years ago, I wrote about an incident at Northwestern University. Like Stanford, Northwestern embraced the idea of harmful speech as an excuse to limit viewpoints on campus. Indeed, former President Morton Schapiro was an early advocate of “safe zones” and other speech-phobic policies.
I discussed an incident involving a Sociology 201 class by Professor Beth Redbird. The class examined “inequality in American society with an emphasis on race, class and gender.” Redbird came up with an interesting comparison for her students by inviting both an undocumented person and a spokesperson for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to separate classes. Members of MEChA de Northwestern, Black Lives Matter NU, the Immigrant Justice Project, the Asian Pacific American Coalition, NU Queer Trans Intersex People of Color and Rainbow Alliance organized to stop other students from hearing from the ICE representative. However, they could not have succeeded without the help of Northwestern administrators (including Dean of Students Todd Adams). The protesters were screaming “F**k ICE” outside of the hall. Adams and the other administrators then said that the protesters screaming profanities would be allowed into the class if they promised not to disrupt the class. They promised not to disrupt the class. As soon as the protesters were allowed into the classroom, they prevented the ICE representative from speaking. The ICE representative eventually left; Redbird then canceled the class to discuss the issue with the protesters who just prevented her students from hearing an opposing view.
The comments of the Northwestern students were predictable after being told by people like Schapiro that some offensive speech should be treated as a form of assault. SESP sophomore April Navarro rejected that faculty should be allowed to invite such speakers to their classrooms for a “good, nice conversation with ICE.” She insisted such speakers needed to be silenced because they “terrorize communities” and profit from detainee labor:
“We’re not interested in having those types of conversations that would be like, ‘Oh, let’s listen to their side of it’ because that’s making them passive rule-followers rather than active proponents of violence. We’re not engaging in those kinds of things; it legitimizes ICE’s violence, it makes Northwestern complicit in this. There’s an unequal power balance that happens when you deal with state apparatuses.”
These students were identified in interviews by name. They had no fear of any consequences in stopping a professor from teaching a class at Northwestern. They were right. The official response to students shutting down a class to silence an opposing view resulted in a statement that the actions of the students were “disappointing that the speakers were not allowed to speak.”
Stanford is repeating that pattern by hand-wringing over the loss of free speech while refusing to make the difficult decision to hold students and this administrator accountable. To paraphrase Steinbach, there will be no “squeeze” coming from Stanford on the denial of free speech.
Of course, the letter also does not address the environment of intolerance at Stanford or the loss of diversity of viewpoints. The intolerance is reflected in the overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal makeup of faculties. A new survey of 65 departments in various states found that 33 do not have a single registered Republican. For these departments, the systemic elimination of Republican faculty has finally reached zero, but there is still little recognition of the crushing bias reflected in these numbers. Others, as discussed below, have defended the elimination of conservative or Republican faculty as entirely justified and commendable. Overall, registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by a margin of over 10-1.
The survey found 61 Republican professors across 65 departments at seven universities while it also found 667 professors identified as Democrats based on their political party registration or voting history.
That is why I am less than impressed by this letter. After all, Dean Martinez’s first response was to make excuses for her DEI dean. Martinez explained that Steinbach’s condemnation of the judge for trying to speak publicly was a “well-intentioned” “attempt at managing the room” that just “went awry.”
Much has gone “awry” in higher education but it is not a question of managing a room but managing free speech.