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Stanford’s Academic Freedom Conference Slammed by Academics

Opponents are angered by the fact that, although the conference will be live-streamed, it is by invitation only and no media are allowed
Peter Thiel

Stanford Business School’s academic freedom conference, starting next week and headlined by tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, is coming under fire. The organizers argue,

Faculty organizers of the conference, from Stanford and several other institutions, promote it as follows: “Academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of speech are under threat as they have not been for decades. Visibly, academics are ‘canceled,’ fired, or subject to lengthy disciplinary proceedings in response to academic writing or public engagement. Less visibly, funding agencies, university bureaucracies, hiring procedures, promotion committees, professional organizations, and journals censor some kinds of research or demand adherence to political causes. Many parts of universities have become politicized or have turned into ideological monocultures, excluding people, ideas, or kinds of work that challenge their orthodoxy. Younger researchers are afraid to speak and write and don’t investigate promising ideas that they fear will endanger their careers.”

Colleen Flaherty, “A Closed Discussion on Academic Freedom?” at Inside Higher Ed (October 25, 2022)

Their critics respond,

“While we respect the rights of free speech and academic freedom, both are meant to encourage debate and discussion that can test those assertions,” more than 30 Stanford professors from a variety of fields said in a statement asking Stanford to distance itself from the conference. “The organizers have in fact gone out of their way to create a hermetically-sealed event, safe from any and all meaningful debate, filled with self-affirmation and self-congratulation, an event where racism is given shelter and immunity.”

Colleen Flaherty, “A Closed Discussion on Academic Freedom?” at Inside Higher Ed (October 25, 2022)


Beyond Thiel and Wax, speakers include Dorian Abbot, associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago; Scott Atlas, Robert Wesson Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and former senior adviser to former president Trump; Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University; Jerry Coyne, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Chicago; Niall Ferguson, Milbank Family Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution; Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University and Heterodox Academy co-founder; Lee Jussim, distinguished professor of psychology at Rutgers University; Joshua Katz, former professor of classics at Princeton University; Richard Lowery, associate professor of finance at the University of Texas at Austin; Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression; Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University; Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute; Nadine Strossen, John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law Emerita at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union; and Elizabeth Weiss, professor of anthropology at San José State University.

Colleen Flaherty, “A Closed Discussion on Academic Freedom?” at Inside Higher Ed (October 25, 2022)

Many of the academics who will speak have had run-ins with Cancel Culture.

The presence of Darwinian evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has seemed like a puzzle to some. He has not been above a bit of Cancel Culture himself when it came to Eric Hedin’s course on intelligent design theory at Ball State University.

However, Coyne has also opposed the teaching of Indigenous “other ways of knowing” in conventional science classes, a current progressive goal in New Zealand and elsewhere. Unlike his stance with ID theory, Coyne does not oppose teaching Indigenous cultural information in any form at all. But in an educational environment that features an approved war on science and war on math, that won’t help him much.

Opponents are angered by the fact that, although the conference will be live-streamed, it is by invitation only and no media are allowed. The invite-only policy may be a pre-emptive strike against disruptive demonstrations. Tomato soup, anyone?

The latter choice (no media) is a sign of the times. Mainstream media’s role has changed over the years in at least two important ways: Once, media were apt to be contrarian gadflies; now, they increasingly tell the world what the establishment thinks. Trust in media is in free fall as result. A political party that took the risk of excluding media this summer is not apparently suffering on that account in the upcoming U.S. mid-term elections, probably because the excluded media aren’t really connecting with many voters anyway.

The other way media have changed is that they can no longer be counted on as defenders of freedom of speech or academic freedom.

It will be most interesting to see what impact these decisions and the conference overall end up having — when its proceedings find their way into print.

Here’s the conference schedule.

Note: The problem with Indigenous “ways of knowing” (IWK) in science class doesn’t stem from the fact that it’s a separate tradition. About life forms known for millennia, IWK may often be right where other traditions are wrong. The problem is more that science today is constructed in such a way that knowledge should always be subject to testing and replacement. The history of science in, for example, western Europe in recent centuries has been characterized by massive shifts in models of nature, as a result of controlled experiment. If Indigenous ways of knowing are presented as a body of knowledge that is not, cannot, or must not be subject to such tests, it simply can’t be incorporated into the study of scientific knowledge without loss to both sides. At any rate, honest conversations about issues like that are likely to be obfuscated, if not outright stifled, by the Cancel Culture that the conferees oppose.

You may also wish to read: Historian supports new anti-Cancel Culture university. Niall Ferguson hopes that the new University of Austin will unite traditional wisdom with new technology in a spirit of free enquiry. At COSM 2021, he noted that proposed faculty had spent the last 48 hours dealing with a tidal wave of Twitter hate. So, he said, they are over the target…

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Stanford’s Academic Freedom Conference Slammed by Academics