Academic Freedom at Stanford

The university is rolling out new initiatives to strengthen the culture of academic freedom on campus.

July 2023

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Portrait of Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Photo: Toni Bird

Over the past several months, there has been an intense focus on academic freedom at universities around the country, including at Stanford. Here on the Farm, we have been thinking hard about the ways in which a strong culture of academic freedom and free expression supports not only our university’s mission, but also our learning environment and our bonds of community.

Stanford’s foundational purpose, and what most binds us together as a community, is learning. Learning is the basis for everything we do—in the classroom, in research, and in countless interactions with one another. 

Learning thrives in an environment of discussion and experimentation. Breakthroughs in understanding, whether in the classroom or in the research lab, come not from thinking through the same familiar ideas but from considering a broad range of ideas, debating new models and viewpoints, and seeing familiar concepts in a new light.  Such an environment requires diversity—diversity of thought, background, identity, and experience—that can be brought to bear on the discussion. 

Learning also requires humility and a recognition that no single person has every answer. It requires our willingness to hear new ideas and reconsider our own preconceptions, and to do so from a place of openness and productive engagement, even over contentious issues. Our goal is an environment where members of our community can engage in reasoned discussion and in constructive debate across difference.

Rather than being in opposition, free expression and a diverse and inclusive culture are two parts of the same whole.

A truly inclusive culture is therefore one in which people from many backgrounds and perspectives feel empowered to participate in the discussion. That’s why, rather than being in opposition, free expression and a diverse and inclusive culture are two parts of the same whole. This type of learning environment is especially important for students, who will graduate from Stanford into a world where they will encounter a broad diversity of viewpoints and need to work with people across the ideological spectrum.

This spring, we announced steps to strengthen Stanford’s culture of academic freedom and free expression. First, we are working to introduce these concepts to prospective undergraduates during the admissions process. This included an Admit Weekend panel this past April, moderated by the provost, on the importance of open and vigorous discussion in and beyond the classroom. The dean of undergraduate admissions is also reviewing admissions materials to help prospective students understand that Stanford is a place where civil discourse and academic freedom are prized. 

Second, we are working to ensure that these concepts are incorporated into programming for first-year students. In fact, this is a major focus of the Civic, Liberal, and Global Education program—also known as COLLEGE—a new first-year requirement that focuses on civic responsibility and establishing a common baseline from which to approach and debate difficult issues. An important goal of the program is to teach our students how to disagree without being disagreeable. Third, we are developing training for staff on free speech on campus, including for staff who support student speaker events, as well as staff who are themselves involved in developing and leading training sessions.

The goal of these steps is to ensure that these ideals are woven throughout our campus culture from the moment an individual joins our community. For Stanford to live up to its potential as a true learning community, we must ensure that our campus is an environment where ideas can flourish and interact—where they can encounter dissent, sharpen, and grow. The work of creating such an environment requires intentional and sustained focus. I’m committed to ensuring that Stanford is a vibrant and inclusive intellectual environment, one in which a diverse range of ideas isn’t just a possibility—it is a reality. 

Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.

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