Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays. To read this newsletter as soon as it sends, sign up to receive it in your email inbox.
From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Stanford Plans a Conference on Academic Freedom. Our Reporter Isn't Allowed In.
We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When The Chronicle’s Stephanie M. Lee learned about a two-day conference in the beginning of November hosted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business on the topic of “academic freedom,” naturally she hoped to attend. The roster of speakers is a who’s-who of provocative and sometimes controversial thinkers on higher education, as well as luminaries in the free-speech-advocacy sector, and the keynote speaker is slated to be Peter Thiel. But when Lee asked for a press pass, she was told by the organizers that “we are not inviting the media to our conference in order to foment a more open discussion.”
The irony of a closed conference on academic freedom delighted academic Twitter, and the awkward solecism “foment” was a grace note. But the basic point is not illogical; of course certain kinds of free conversation are possible in private that are not in public. The question is whether academic speech — speech reflecting the core functions of the university — ought ever to be private in this way. Why should a gigantic university be in the business of sponsoring essentially private events? What do the canons of academic freedom suggest about this closed conference on academic freedom?
I am convinced they disallow it in principle. In a general way, the Millian premise on which academic freedom rests — that truth is more likely to be achieved via the unfettered interaction of contesting viewpoints — suggests that a closed conference cannot meet academic freedom’s intrinsic demands. More specifically, universities have adjudicated against secretive research agendas in the past. At issue was not debate over dangerous ideas but research into dangerous substances: chemical and biological agents of war, for use in the American invasion of Vietnam.
I first learned about this fascinating history from Steven P. Grant, a student at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, who has become an expert on the topic. He pointed me to a 1986 article by Jonathan Goldstein that reads like a thriller. In 1965, a UPenn student named Robin Maisel, who worked for the college bookstore, noticed something funny while delivering books: Penn’s Institute for Cooperative Research seemed implausibly impregnable. As Goldstein writes, its “barred doors and combination-lock file cabinets ... were unusual even for security-minded West Philadelphians.”
Maisel started digging into the institute’s book orders and discovered a surprising interest in “crop diseases and Vietnamese politics.” He alerted an antiwar history professor, Gabriel Kolko, who helped force a series of revelations about covert research into chemical warfare funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and carried out by Penn faculty members.
Initially, the administration hoped to defend its work with the DoD on the grounds that, as Goldstein summarizes, “to deprive a faculty member of the right to choose his research meant violating his academic freedom, which could be defined as the right to study anything.”
The gambit didn’t work — the story was a scandal for Penn, which eventually had to cancel its defense contracts — but it did occasion some important formal clarifications about what academic freedom means, at least at Penn. The Faculty Senate resolved “that scholars could study anything but the results had to be publishable in the open scholarly literature, not only as classified documents.” In other words, Penn scientists could still explore biological and chemical warfare if they’d like to — but they’d have to do it in public.
Many university scientists, of course, continue to collaborate with the Defense Department, and policies differ greatly from institution to institution. But as the headline of a 2013 Baltimore Sun article — “Universities Balance Secrecy and Academic Freedom in Classified Work” — makes clear, such secrecy is understood now not as a prerogative of academic freedom but as in tension with it, although sometimes justified by competing values, like national security. As Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, told the Sun, “It’s kind of a fundamental belief in American higher education that research is designed to be shared, it’s designed to be disseminated. When you start crossing a line and decide, ‘Well, I’ll hide this and keep that secret,’ the whole fabric begins to unravel.”
What could justify the unraveling of that fabric in the case of Stanford’s academic-freedom conference? It’s worth noting that participants were not aware when invited that the conference would be secret, and at least one of them, Nadine Strossen, told me she has written to the organizers to “argue in favor of openness.” When I asked Jonathan Haidt, a speaker at the conference, what he thought of the media ban, he distinguished between two possible goals: “If the goal includes bringing a set of ideas and discussions out to a wide audience, which is usually the case for academic conferences, then the press should be allowed, and this is the default for academic conferences. But if the goal is to help the attendees at the conference understand a problem, and that requires them to speak freely, at a time when there can be enormous social and career consequences for questioning certain ideas, then I think it makes sense to have a conference where only participants are allowed — no press.”
This is not persuasive. All academic research is meant to help researchers understand a problem — but the criterion of transparency is in place precisely because the problems themselves are held in common both by scholars in general and by the public. Academic freedom, the subject of the conference, is a contract between public and professor, and that contract is violated when the core work of the scholar is kept secret from either other scholars or from the public. Transparency is of course not a requirement in every area of academic life. No one thinks all personnel meetings, just because they happen to involve college faculty members, need to be public. But transparency is, by definition and in every case, a requirement of the properly academic side of academic life: research and disputation about ideas. If the participants wanted to sharpen their minds in private, they could have had a dinner party. A conference on academic freedom to which the uninvited are unfree to attend is a parody.
- “One former Guggenheim colleague told me that she thought about what happened to Spector every day — but that she was too afraid for her future career to speak on the record.” In The Atlantic, Helen Lewis writes about a case of scapegoating in the art world.
- “None of that mattered, and none of it mattered to AG. When push came to shove at the end, he set me on fire and threw me in the garbage and used my reverence for the institution against me.” That’s the opinion editor James Bennet on being fired from the New York Times, as quoted by Ben Smith in Semafor.
- “Given his explicit endorsement of esotericism — and his hard-line stance on the Forced Organ Donation hypothetical — the conclusion that Singer is feigning moderation for the greater good isn’t merely probable. It is all but certain.” In his Substack newsletter, Bryan Caplan suggests that the philosopher Peter Singer is systematically dishonest about his views.
- “Perhaps because he never took himself too seriously, Latour seemed condemned to court confusion wherever he went.” In n+1, Ava Kofman reflects on the life and thought of Bruno Latour, who died this month at age 75.
Write to me at email@example.com.