On March 7, 2023, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) launched the next campaign in its Campus Freedom Initiative™ (CFI) at Stanford University, urging administrators, faculty, and students to take unequivocal steps to restore a vibrant culture of freedom of expression.
Stanford faces a stunning erosion of free speech on campus. A recent survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression indicates that 61% of students believe it is always or sometimes acceptable to shout down or prevent invited guests from speaking on campus. Thirty-three percent of students report censoring themselves. In November 2022, Stanford hosted a two-day conference dedicated to exploring the future of academic freedom in America. Dozens of Stanford faculty protested and demanded that the university dissociate itself from the event. That it nonetheless drew several hundred faculty members, college administrators, and proponents of academic freedom from across the country is witness to a desperate hunger for the free exchange of ideas. A December 19, 2022, article in the Wall Street Journal revealed that Stanford’s IT department had compiled a list of prohibited words and phrases such as, “American,” “ladies,” and “white paper.” The list was mothballed only after public exposure. Investigative reports by the Wall Street Journal and ACTA’s Paul & Karen Levy Fellow in Campus Freedom Dr. Steve McGuire in National Review uncovered disturbing details related to Stanford’s creation and maintenance of a database, called Protected Identity Harm Reporting, which can be used to snitch on fellow students for microaggressions.
ACTA President Michael Poliakoff remarked, “The great Nobel laureate Max Born put it best when he said, ‘Uncompromising, indefatigable pursuit of truth, then, is the hallmark that separates the scientist from the charlatan. It constitutes the indispensable ethic of science.’ The fastest way for a great research university to lapse into mediocrity is to curtail in any way the relentless debate and discussion that alone can bring about scientific and social progress. Unless Stanford wants to take up the retrograde role of the inquisitors who silenced Galileo, it needs a course correction. Now.”
“Stanford is one of America’s great universities, but it is not doing a great job when it comes to maintaining a culture of free expression,” said Dr. McGuire. “Some faculty and students, but especially administrators, are creating an environment in which people with heterodox views are afraid to speak, and those who do are made to feel unwelcome or even intimidated. It is not a good sign, and in fact a grim irony, when many of the faculty protest a conference on academic freedom. It is not possible to have free and open discourse when bureaucrats are trying to ban ‘harmful’ words and encouraging people to report on one another for constitutionally protected speech. In addition to eliminating the Protected Identity Harm Reporting website, Stanford should adopt the Chicago trifecta and begin the long process of restoring its commitment to academic freedom. It is not too late to undo the harm that has been done to its great reputation.”
ACTA’s CFI is centered around the Gold Standard for Freedom of Expression™, a blueprint that offers colleges and universities effective, concrete steps they can take to restore, preserve, and expand a vibrant culture of freedom of expression and intellectual diversity on campus. These steps begin with the adoption of the “Chicago trifecta,” that is, adherence to the 2015 Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression; the 1967 Kalven Report calling on institutions to maintain neutrality and avoid taking official public stands on controversial political and cultural issues; and the 1972 Shils Report, which urge colleges to rely on academic merit alone when making hiring and promotion decisions. ACTA’s Gold Standard also encourage colleges and universities to disband bias incident response teams (like Stanford’s Protected Identity Harm Reporting website) and eliminate mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements in faculty and administrative hiring practices.
Stanford University is the fourth institution of higher education to be the focus of ACTA’s Campus Freedom Initiative™. On September 14, 2022, ACTA debuted CFI at the University of Texas–Austin, followed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on September 21, 2022, and Cornell University on November 1, 2022. The CFI campaigns feature school-specific landing pages as well as short videos detailing what has occurred on each campus to warrant serious concerns about the state of free expression.
In the wake of ACTA’s CFI campaigns, the University of Texas System Board of Regents adopted the Chicago Principles for the entire university system, and several Texas universities have begun to review and eliminate mandatory DEI statements in their hiring practices. The MIT Faculty Senate passed a more robust statement on free expression. The institution’s new president endorsed the statement and, unlike her predecessor, appears to be making freedom of expression a focal point in her first few months in office.
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