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A Report From the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference

The urgency of our mission was reflected in the list of attendees—many of whom had been laid off, mobbed, or ostracized because of their research.

· 14 min read
A Report From the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference
Wikimedia Commons photo of Hoover Tower at Stanford University.

In early November, I participated in the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference—a two-day event run by John Cochrane and Iván Marinovic, Stanford economics and business professors respectively. The organizers’ goal, announced at the outset, was to find strategies that would serve to protect the “core mission” of the scholarly community: “to debate and refine knowledge, to pass on knowledge to the next generation, and more importantly to pass on the habits and norms of critical inquiry and scholarly debate that produce true knowledge.”

The need for academics to recommit to these principles was reflected in the list of attendees, many of whom had suffered job loss, punitive disciplinary proceedings, ideologically motivated censorship, or social ostracism within their professional milieus. These included Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University whose research questioned the efficacy of COVID lockdowns. For over two years, Bhattacharya told us, he faced hostility in the workplace and challenges to his funding sources. You only learn how much academic freedom you really have, he told us, once you take a controversial position.

But at least Bhattacharya kept his job. The same wasn’t true of conference speaker Joshua Katz, who was fired by Princeton University after he’d criticized an open letter, which had been signed by numerous fellow faculty members, demanding anti-racism policies that would compromise academic freedom. More tragic is the case of Mike Adams, a conservative University of North Carolina Wilmington professor who killed himself after being forced out of his job for offensive tweets. His place at the conference was represented by an empty chair that was placed in memoriam during the closing panel.

Prior to the conference, Inside Higher Ed writer Colleen Flaherty described concerns that this would be a “hermitically sealed event.” And it is true that organizers, presumably fearful that remarks delivered at the conference would lead to the same sort of cancel campaigns being discussed by participants, initially closed the proceedings to the press. Stephanie M. Lee, a writer for Chronicle of Higher Education who’d unsuccessfully asked permission to attend the conference, detailed a letter of complaint signed by over 50 Stanford faculty members, which described the meet-up as an attempt to “protect racist lies and other mistruths.”

To be fair, the conference did include several genuinely controversial figures, such as University of Pennsylvania law Professor Amy Wax, who proudly trumpets the “superiority” of “countries ruled by white Europeans.” Also in attendance was conservative entrepreneur Peter Thiel; and Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, whose Twitter fusillades target all manner of sacred cows. Perhaps the most controversial moment at the conference itself was when former Mount Royal University Professor Frances Widdowson used the full, uncensored English title of Marxist Quebec historian Pierre Vallières’s famous (in Canada, at least) 1972 book, Nègres blancs d'Amérique, N-word and all.

Another dissenter was Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, who assured us that all was well in climate studies at his university and in key journals, such as Geophysical Research Letters, which he used to edit. He read a few negative reviews that he’d received in regard to his own journal submissions, to illustrate the fact that not all criticism represents a threat to academic freedom.

On the other hand, the point of the conference was not about whether attendees and participants agreed with the substance of the speakers’ views, but rather what means could be used to protect academics’ general right to speak and write freely. And notwithstanding the suggestion by Flaherty and others that the conference would comprise a unified choral group singing from the same hymn book, several participants challenged the crowd by declaring that academic freedom wasn’t really in peril.

This included Hollis Robbins of the University of Utah, the only university dean to speak at the conference, who echoed Diffenbaugh’s appraisal: “I think things are going pretty well,” she told us, while responding to University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot, who’d been hounded by students and colleagues in 2020 after he’d criticized Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. (Robbins compared DEI training modules to heatstroke training. But heatstroke training is about learning technical skills, while DEI indoctrination—the word I would use—is about communicating a preferred ideological viewpoint.)

As a general rule, this is true, of course. But as my own case illustrates, there is often a blurry line between legitimate scholarly criticism of one’s ideas and ideologically motivated campaigns aimed at specific individuals. As I wrote in Quillette last year, those who disagree with my stated belief that modern Indigenous groups should not be given veto power over ongoing research into ancient Paleoindian populations have sought to ban my co-authored 2020 book, Repatriation and Erasing the Past. (They also deplatformed me from a Society for American Archaeology conference in 2021.)

In the normal course of my academic work, I recently submitted a case study regarding an anomaly on a Californian Indian skull to an academic journal. The reviewers recommended publication, but the editors overturned this decision, an unprecedented occurrence in my own career. Although I cannot prove that my manuscript was rejected because of my views regarding the repatriation of ancient human remains, it is notable that the editors who rejected the manuscript were among those who wrote to the University of Florida Press in late 2020, demanding the “retraction” of my book on the basis that my ideas are “actively harmful to Indigenous people.”

Obviously, the journal editors should have recused themselves in regard to my (reviewer-approved) article, and should have found a neutral party to complete the editing. But I wonder who would have had the courage to step in to perform this task, given that he or she might then have been accused of abetting my supposed campaign to “harm” Indigenous people. If all this had happened earlier in my career, I would have been denied tenure, fired, and effectively drummed out of the profession, since I would have had no way to establish a publication record in peer-reviewed journals. I’d be unemployed, and more than a decade of specialized education would be wasted.

In response to Diffenbaugh and Robbins, Greg Lukianoff, CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), noted that “there have been twenty-one attempts to get professors fired at Stanford [alone] since just 2014 … Three [of these campaigns] resulted in people getting fired.”

FIRE now maintains a Scholars Under Fire Database, which tracks controversies on American campuses “involving efforts to investigate, penalize or otherwise professionally sanction a scholar for engaging in constitutionally protected forms of speech.” Over the last eight years, Lukianoff told the conference, there have been about 800 reported attempts to get professors fired, with the number of targeted students being much higher.

In some cases, professors are listed for multiple incidents. (I am featured in three of the database entries. Here, for instance, is the entry pertaining to the above-described attempt to cancel my book.) And so the total number of targeted professors is only about 650. Yet even that number is high by comparison to previous spasms of social panic that have gripped the academy. “The numbers during McCarthyism—[as] best we can tell—are about 100 to 130 professors fired between 1947 and 1957 for pro-communist sympathies,” Lukianoff told his audience. “We [now] see way more than that, and we’re not in a national-security crisis.”

The National Association of Scholars maintains its own database, which tracks academic cancellations not just in the United States, but in Canada as well. However, there are many cases that haven’t made it into either catalogue because the targeted individuals in question were too intimidated to seek protection or redress. Frances Widdowson—who was fired from Mount Royal University (MRU) in Canada for, among other thoughtcrimes, satirical tweets about the ever-expanding list of categories covered under Canada’s now official “LGBTQI2S” umbrella—says she knows of two cases in which professors were quietly pushed out of MRU for ideological reasons. I know of two such hush-hush cases at my university as well. One resulted in a lecturer being fired outright. The other resulted in a professor being forced to take leave without pay. In both cases, the victims apparently hoped that accepting punishment without raising a fuss offered them the best hope of rehabilitation.

Throughout the conference, there was a running debate about the relative share of blame that should be heaped on the left and right sides of the political spectrum: While the threat from puritanical progressives dominated the discussion, some noted, there are certainly prominent instances in which academics have lost their jobs for espousing radically leftist ideas.

Lee Jussim, a Rutgers University psychology professor whose areas of interest include cancel culture, attempted to cast some light on this question with data regarding the political imbalance at elite US liberal arts colleges. Citing 2018 survey results collected by Brooklyn College business-management professor Mitchell Langbert, Jussim noted that even in the field of chemistry, which one typically wouldn’t associate with political wokeness, there’s only one registered Republican for every five registered Democrats. (Langbert’s survey sample consisted of 8,688 tenure-track, PhD-holding professors teaching at 51 highly ranked US institutions.)

Number of Democratic faculty members for every Republican faculty member at elite U.S. liberal arts colleges, for 25 academic fields, as reported by Mitchell Langbert in 2018.

“Faculty political affiliations at 39 percent of the colleges in my sample are Republican free—having zero Republicans,” Langbert reported. “The political registration in most of the remaining 61 percent, with a few important exceptions, is slightly more than zero percent but nevertheless absurdly skewed against Republican affiliation and in favor of Democratic affiliation. Thus, 78.2 percent of the academic departments in my sample have either zero Republicans, or so few as to make no difference.” (My own area of study, anthropology, was one in which Langbert found not a single registered Republican.)

Making matters worse, there is little indication that left-wing professors are expected to firewall their politics from their academic work. As Jussim pointed out in one of his slides, research suggests that about 40 percent of faculty in the social sciences identify as “radicals, activists, or other types of extremists—such as Marxists.” Among graduate students, the number is closer to 60 percent.

Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Chicago and author of the popular blog Why Evolution is True, speaks with some authority on the left-right cancel-culture divide, as he has spent much of his career battling right-wing social conservatives who promote creationism (or “intelligent design”) as an alternative to evolution. But in recent years, he noted, four popular false ideas (what he calls “ideological pollution”) now originate with the progressive side of the political spectrum: (1) that sex is not binary, but rather a spectrum; (2) that males and females are “biologically identical on average in behavior, mentality and choices”; (3) that “the fundamental premises of evolutionary psychology are false”; and (4) that “race is a purely social construct with no biological value.” In every case, he noted, there was a parallel with Marxism, which imagines people as being “infinitely malleable” according to their social environment.

Coyne, who is now retired from day-to-day academic life, expressed less concern than other speakers in regard to the formal repercussions inflicted on academics who violate these taboos (though he did describe the case of a professor in Maine who faced severe backlash after stating that there are only two sexes). Rather, he emphasized the manner by which this ideological system encouraged self-censorship:

What I’m worried about is being demonized, ostracized, simply for saying that there’s something like biological meaningfulness in ethnic groups. It is enough to get you called a racist, which I have been. If you say that the sexes are bimodal or even just binary, you get called a transphobe … And, to any good liberal, and I’m a good liberal … the moniker of racist or transphobe is horrifying and makes you just shut up and so this kind of demonization occurs fairly regularly.

Like Coyne, I have observed threats to academic freedom from both left and right sources. But a major difference is that, except in very rare cases, attacks from the right pose no threat to one’s academic livelihood. Just the opposite, in fact: An academic who is targeted by a right-wing vilification campaign can generally count on the support and solidarity of his or her colleagues, who will see conservative enmity as an indicator of progressive doctrinal purity.

By way of example, consider my own case. I have always taken the view that science should trump religion when it comes to allowing anthropological researchers access to the unearthed skeletons of North American Paleoindians who lived thousands of years ago. The fact that my viewpoint is opposed by religious conservatives (who believe the world was created 6,000 years ago, and so tend to see little point in studying Clovis-era populations dating back more than 13,000 years) has been immaterial to my career. But when modern Indigenous groups denounce my research, and insist on the repatriation of skeletons and other research artifacts, in the name of their own (non-Christian) creationist myths, many of my progressive-minded colleagues reflexively rally against me. This has led to a bizarre situation in which self-identified progressive scientists are essentially doing the bidding of religious Christians. This is reflected in a coalition of 80 religious groups seeking to rebury skeletal remains that are not identified with any particular tribe, through what supporters call the “Return to the Earth” project.

For her part, Widdowson said that she sees the whole concept of “progressive” cancel culture as inherently incoherent, since the tendency to attack academic freedom is authoritarian, even fascistic, in nature. Nadine Strossen, a past national president of the American Civil Liberties Union, similarly sought to distance academic cancel culture from mainstream progressivism, noting that the ranks of cancel culture’s victims include many progressives. (After her talk, however, she conceded to me that these attacks typically are launched by even more left-leaning colleagues—a fact that’s consistent with the modelling of academic cancel culture as a “purity spiral” that allows radicalized enforcers within the progressive movement an outsized role in dictating its norms.)

Along with addressing questions about the relative role of progressives and conservatives, conference participants also looked at the share of blame that can be accorded to administrators versus academics, and professors versus students. A common pattern that was described (of which my own case is typical) involves a campaign that is initiated by academic ideologues, but then passively abetted by conflict-averse deans and university functionaries who see ideological surrender as the path of least resistance.

One audience member—picking up on the statement from Stanford computer-science major Mimi St. Johns to the effect that one can get the “benefits of being an engineer without doing engineering” by declaring oneself an expert (or activist) in regard to enhancing DEI within the field—pointedly asked how much of the problem was associated with cynical careerists and charlatans. In a field such as, say, physics, for instance, it’s hard to become a famous, widely-quoted expert by making historic discoveries about the nature of sub-atomic particles. It’s much easier to acquire such fame by denouncing your field as a bastion of sexism, racism, and all the rest.

When it comes to possible solutions, Dorian Abbot called for the widespread adoption of his university’s 2014 Chicago Principles (and its much more venerable Kalven Report), which explicitly uphold academic freedom and serve to de-politicize the university’s mission. The Chicago Principles state that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” They also dictate that while people should be free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, “they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”

Sometimes, Abbot noted hopefully, going through official channels can be a (surprisingly) effective strategy. During a panel entitled “Academic Freedom: Practical Solutions,” he described how he’d initiated no fewer than eight complaints in the last year against programs at his university that involved illegally discriminating on the basis of sex or race. The result was an almost perfect sweep:

I filed them to the [University of Chicago] Title IX co-ordinator, who was not particularly receptive to these complaints—there were things like physics graduate student fellowship only for women, as an example. But after a year of pressing her and emailing again and again, it went through university council. And they admitted that seven out of eight had to be removed, and they were discontinued.

Another suggestion was litigation—an avenue that is more likely to be fruitful when it comes to state universities, since they are bound by the First Amendment. (In this regard, Tyler Cowen of George Mason University told the conference, public institutions are more welcoming to free speech than their private counterparts.) As someone who is suing her own (public) university, I can attest that this is sometimes a viable option—though it can be financially impractical unless one has support from institutional allies (as in my case, with the Pacific Legal Foundation).

Perhaps the most idealistic suggestion came from Peter Arcidiacono, a professor of Economics at Duke University who also appeared on the “Practical Solutions” panel:

I think that I have been able to survive given the views that I have, given the research that I’ve done, is because of my relationships with people who disagree with me, and I’ve got plenty of those people who I love and care about … I have faculty members who are warned before they come to join our faculty that I’m a racist. And that sucks … But I’m committed to having a relationship with these people and so they know that that’s not the case, right? That requires me not just sticking to demonization of the other side, but to put up with being called those things and engage anyway and to love them anyway.

This turn-the-other-cheek approach is certainly a noble one. But as Arcidiacono noted, it’s only viable if you have retained “compassion” for your inquisitors and see them as “redeemable.” In my experience, that sort of Christian attitude is hard to maintain when you are weathering an onslaught of vicious invective from people you once considered your friends. Bhattacharya, similarly, looked quite defeated as he described how friends of more than three decades refused to so much as say hello to him. Stanford professor of medicine John Ioannidis said that even his mother was now facing harassment following a controversy over his research on COVID. It isn’t clear to me that the mob leaders behind these campaigns are “redeemable,” since it often seems a case of them showing their true stripes rather than being momentarily caught up in a well-intentioned progressive movement.

Perhaps the most constructive element of the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference wasn’t any particular panel, debate, or argument; but rather the fact of the conference itself. Humans are social creatures who can easily be made to feel isolated and intimidated if we are ganged up upon by those around us. Attendees at the conference, being in the company of other liberal-minded academics, were able to get a respite from this sort of gaslighting. And I hope that not a few of them came away with the strength required to stick to their principles.

Even when we are no longer among allies, I think, it’s possible to gird oneself simply by retaining one’s sense of humor. Many of today’s attacks on academic freedom are beyond absurd, and seeing one’s own travails through the lens of tragicomedy can provide a useful shield.

The latest chapter of my own ordeal began, in part, because I took a photo while holding skeletal remains, to celebrate my return to research after a 17-month hiatus due to COVID restrictions. A colleague rebuked me, suggesting that the only bones that should be photographed are those belonging to people who have given permission, in writing, for their public display. This is a problem given that humans (and the bones they’ve left behind) have been around for many millennia, while cameras have been with us for barely two centuries.

Not to be outdone, my university president barred any photography of the school’s Native American collections—not only of skeletal remains, but even of the boxes containing them. The university buildings containing those boxes are presumably fair game for photographers, I’d like to think. But these days, one never knows.

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