Says Who

We live in a world where one person’s disinformation is another person’s truth. But the university’s free exchange of ideas can sharpen the picture.

Kathy Zonana | Stanford Magazine | May 2021

John Etchemendy shakes his head. He unclasps his hands, then clasps them again. “I’m terribly worried,” he finally says. “I think that academia has not been going in a good direction in terms of academic freedom.”

Etchemendy, PhD ’82, should be enjoying himself. After 16 years as provost—the university’s chief academic and budget officer—the philosophy professor has spent the past four years pursuing his intellectual passions, including co-founding Stanford’s Institute on Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. But ever the university citizen, he can’t shake the concern that something is amiss.

The academy, Etchemendy says, is becoming increasingly one-sided—one university’s economics department is liberal; another’s is conservative; these cardiologists think it’s all about cholesterol; those say eat the eggs. “There’s a natural tendency to become more and more homogeneous within a department, within a discipline, within a university as a whole, and less tolerant of people with different perspectives,” he says. And without the ability to pressure-test ideas, scholarship can become less credible and the public trust in the knowledge disseminated by universities can erode. “You know, up until fairly recently—I think it’s fair to say 10 years ago—support for academia was completely bipartisan,” Etchemendy says. “Science was good. That has completely become a partisan issue.”

During recent campus controversies over science, politics and speech, Etchemendy, PhD ’82, has been the center. Not at the center; literally the center. When the Faculty Senate voted in November to condemn the COVID-19-related actions of White House Coronavirus Task Force member Scott Atlas, then on leave from Stanford, Etchemendy was the chief voice objecting to institutional, as opposed to individual, censure. When a group of professors raised concerns about perceived partisanship at the Hoover Institution and asked the senate to form a committee to study the university’s relationship to it, there was Etchemendy again, proposing a compromise: that the policy institute’s new director, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and Stanford provost Persis Drell prepare a report on plans for and progress on increasing the interaction between Hoover and the rest of the university.

His fretting over academic freedom might seem esoteric, the kind of concern only a logician and longtime provost could embrace. But what’s at stake is nothing less than the university’s—and, by extension, society’s—ability to search for truth. And at a time of deep cultural fissures not seen since the Vietnam War, with fundamental disagreements about everything from pandemic policy to the nature of racism to election integrity, there might be nothing more crucial.

Free Thinkers

Academic freedom is the principle that protects faculty members’ right to study what they want and say what they think, to voice unpopular views and question conventional wisdom. “It is vital for both our research and our teaching missions,” says Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “It supports our scholars in their search to advance knowledge and deepen understanding, which requires at times contemplating views that some may consider strange or objectionable. It’s also, we believe, essential for education. It helps prepare students to function in a society where active citizenship and meaningful work require engaging with a broad diversity of individuals, ideas and arguments.”

The university’s Statement on Academic Freedom is expansive by design. “Stanford University’s central functions of teaching, learning, research, and scholarship depend upon an atmosphere in which freedom of inquiry, thought, expression, publication, and peaceable assembly are given the fullest protection,” it begins. “Expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged, free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion.” The statement goes on to say that “the holding of appointments at Stanford University should in no way affect the faculty members’ rights assured by the Constitution of the United States.”

This might suggest that academic freedom is essentially higher education’s version of free speech, and indeed both are grounded in John Stuart Mill’s precepts in On Liberty. The First Amendment, though, protects individuals from government sanction; academic freedom, instead, from employer retaliation. “It extends the rights of faculty members from the public sphere to their place of work, which is not true for all places of work,” says Tessier-Lavigne.

‘In all the academic disciplines, there must be wide room for disagreement: disagreement about the facts, the interpretation of the facts and what constitutes sound evidence.’

In general, at secular universities in the United States, the practice of granting lifetime tenure reinforces that protection for a distinguished portion of the professoriate. It’s not that only tenured scholars have academic freedom—Stanford’s policy, for example, applies to pretenured and many nontenured faculty—but rather that the job security afforded by tenure enables professors to feel secure in pursuing their work. “In a sense, academic freedom fortifies the First Amendment and tenure fortifies academic freedom,” Tessier-Lavigne says.

The First Amendment comparison also underscores that academic freedom protects unpopular expression whether the shoe is on the left foot or the right. “Beware of tinkering with the Statement on Academic Freedom,” Tessier-Lavigne says. “Some people who are concerned that certain types of speech should be either censored or constrained may well find that whatever is put in place then reverberates back on their own speech.”

But academic freedom is, well, academic. “The First Amendment does not say that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech except laws that require you to provide respectable arguments and sound evidence,” says Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution whose areas of expertise include constitutional government and liberal education. “We must immediately add that it’s complicated. In all the academic disciplines, there must be wide room for disagreement: disagreement about the facts, the interpretation of the facts and what constitutes sound evidence.”

Scholars can use strong evidence to challenge established orthodoxy, says history professor Priya Satia, ’95. “Academic freedom was what allowed scientists to disprove the eugenicist assumptions that guided early genetics,” she says. “That’s how knowledge advances, but you can’t just utter it. You’ve got to prove it and back it up. It’s a collaborative, collective process. It’s not just someone saying, ‘I had a thought today in the shower, and since I’m an academic, I’m free to assert that as evidence-based truth.’ ”

Indeed, rare is the academic-freedom controversy that arises from faculty publishing in peer-reviewed journals subject to the standards of their professional societies. Everyone agrees that plagiarism and data falsification are verboten. When firestorms over academic freedom erupt, a scholar who has taken a policy position is almost always at the center of the conflagration. This was true in 1900, when Jane Stanford’s animus toward a professor’s stance on Chinese labor led to his firing—and, indirectly, to the establishment of tenure and academic freedom in the United States (see sidebar). It was true in 1972, when tenured associate professor of English H. Bruce Franklin, PhD ’61, was dismissed from Stanford because of his role in campus antiwar protests that turned violent. And it is true of the questions permeating campus today, from pandemic policy to faculty friction over the Hoover Institution.

Science Says

When former School of Medicine dean Philip Pizzo started hearing from people around the country about misinformation related to COVID-19, he wasn’t sure he had any responsibility to speak up about it. After all, since 2013, he has been focused on establishing Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute rather than practicing medicine. Pizzo’s sense of obligation began to grow, he says, when Hoover senior fellow Scott Atlas, a health policy scholar and the former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford, took a leave from the university to serve on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Being in that role, which Atlas held from August to December 2020, gave prominence to his opinions on mask wearing, herd immunity and risks of the disease to young people—views with which Pizzo, a pediatric oncologist and infectious disease specialist who is also a professor of microbiology and immunology, frequently disagreed. “But it wasn’t just Scott Atlas,” Pizzo says. “There’s a whole bunch of people, including here at Stanford, who had been making statements that have borderline scientific relevance.”

As his inbox continued to fill up—Pizzo characterizes the prevailing sentiment as “How could Stanford allow this to happen?”—he and 104 of his colleagues in infectious diseases, microbiology and immunology, epidemiology and health policy wrote an open letter in early September countering some of Atlas’s statements. It says that “the preponderance of data” supports the use of face masks; that asymptomatic people frequently spread the disease and should be tested when appropriate; that children of all ages can be infected, increasingly with serious consequences; and that herd immunity should be reached through vaccination rather than unchecked transmission.

Pizzo says the group wanted to both respect academic freedom and keep the letter apolitical. “We really wanted to speak only when we felt that the health of the nation was being endangered,” he says.

One week later, the signatories received a letter from an attorney giving them two days to withdraw their letter or face a defamation lawsuit. After a scramble, the faculty were able to retain counsel pro bono, and no lawsuit materialized. But many of them were spooked, says Pizzo. Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences David Spiegel, who was not a signatory to the letter, took objection in academic-freedom terms. “Siccing a lawyer on a group of 105 faculty who raised an issue,” he remarked to the Faculty Senate in February. “That is not welcoming disagreement.”

Atlas did not sit for an interview with Stanford, but at a virtual talk before the Stanford College Republicans in early March, he said, “It is understandable that most professors at Stanford are not experts in health policy—that is my field, my lane—and it’s understandable that most Stanford professors are ignorant of the data about the pandemic. But it is not acceptable to claim that I made recommendations that were ‘falsehoods and misrepresentations of science.’ That is a lie.”

At the event, Atlas questioned the efficacy of government actions such as business and school closures, lockdowns and mask mandates in stemming the spread of COVID-19. “All legitimate policy scholars should today be openly reexamining policies that severely harmed America’s families and children while failing to save the elderly,” he said. “Those who insist that universal mask usage is absolutely proven to be effective at controlling the spread of this virus and is universally recommended by ‘the science’ are ignoring all published evidence to the contrary.”

Although it may seem as though “the science” is at times overwhelmingly settled—Rice, a political scientist, says she’s “envious” of the scientific method—university administrators are agreed that scholars must be able to question its consensus. “I really have to defend a faculty member’s right to pursue ideas, to challenge ideas, to have unorthodox approaches,” says Drell. “I mean, gosh, where would we be if Galileo hadn’t insisted on taking an unorthodox approach to thinking about the solar system?” Moreover, she says, many of Atlas’s statements were based on the work of Stanford professors of medicine Jay Bhattacharya, ’90, MA ’90, MD ’98, PhD ’01, and John Ioannidis, who is also a professor of epidemiology and population health.

‘I mean, gosh, where would we be if Galileo hadn’t insisted on taking an unorthodox approach to thinking about the solar system?’

The essence of the 105 letter writers’ argument is that lives are at stake. “The natural process has been a disaster,” said Pizzo in February. “We’re approaching 500,000 deaths in this country.” The essence of Atlas’s arguments is that lockdowns put livelihoods at stake—not to mention that people forgo needed medical care—and when livelihoods and medical care are at stake, so too are lives. “To determine the best path forward necessarily means admitting social lockdowns and significant restrictions on individuals are deadly and extraordinarily harmful, especially on the working class, minorities and the poor,” Atlas said to the College Republicans.

“So set aside the mask thing,” Etchemendy says. “It’s not obvious to me that we will know what the right policy decisions were until long after the pandemic’s gone and we look back and we have lots of natural experiments where this state did one thing, this country did another thing. And there you do have to weigh the disease, you have to weigh the economic factors, you have to weigh the impact on kids’ education.”

Indeed, say Tessier-Lavigne and Drell, it’s imperative that a university let those scholarly debates play out. They resisted calls to censure Atlas. “Marc and I actually try not to speak all that often,” Drell says, adding that it’s “absolutely appropriate” for individual faculty to voice their disagreements with colleagues.

“When the university is sometimes called upon to speak out against a faculty member, our position is that, as a matter of principle, we do not do that,” says Tessier-Lavigne. “We ask that the faculty member clarify that the position they’re taking is their own and not that of the university. If the university happens to have a position on those issues by virtue of having to have one for its own community, the university can express its position.”

Which is what happened after the “rise up” tweet. When Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced on November 15 that the state would close some schools and businesses for three weeks amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, Atlas tweeted, “The only way this stops is if people rise up. You get what you accept. #FreedomMatters #StepUp.”

Some interpreted this as a call to lawbreaking, even violence. “Critics immediately condemned Atlas’s ‘rise up’ rhetoric,” the Washington Post reported, “which mirrored President Trump’s previous calls to ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN!’ and statements that correlated ‘tyranny’ with the pandemic restrictions put in place by Whitmer, who was the target of an alleged kidnapping plot that was thwarted last month.”