What Should Stanford Make of a Closed "Academic Freedom" Conference?

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Stanford, academic freedom

Update (Oct. 21, 2022, 8:00 p.m.): On Friday, after this newsletter had been published online, Iván Marinovic, one of the conference organizers, responded to an inquiry sent two days earlier by The Review. Marinovic wrote that "though we are sold out, we decided to stream the conference via Zoom/Youtube, so that everyone can access the conference, including the media." The newsletter appears below as it was published.

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.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education