At Stanford, Speak Freely

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

One of the most cherished traditions of modern universities is freedom of speech. As Stanford’s president, this has always had particular resonance for me because the University’s first president, David Starr Jordan, chose a motto that enshrined the concept of a broadly construed academic freedom in the new university’s motto: Die Luft der Freiheit weht or “the wind of freedom blows.”

Jordan’s choice of these words—drawn from the writings of the German humanist Ulrich von Hutten nearly 500 years ago—was no coincidence. He was keenly aware that one of the most important roles of the young university would be to encourage the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and open discourse on a wide range of subjects.

As my predecessor Gerhard Casper noted in a speech he gave shortly after coming to Stanford, Hutten was concerned with freedom from the Inquisition and church orthodoxy. Freedom for Hutten also included “intellectual freedom, the freedom to engage in fearless inquiry and the freedom to speak your mind robustly and without inhibition.”

These thoughts have been much on my mind in the last several weeks as university campuses across the country have become embroiled in heated debates on the meaning of academic freedom in general and freedom of speech in particular.

  • At UC-Irvine, the appointment of a prominent law professor and legal scholar as the university’s law dean was revoked after publication of an op-ed he authored urging that the appeals process for the death penalty not be curtailed. (The offer was extended again and accepted.)

  • The University of California regents withdrew a speaking invitation to Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president, after several hundred faculty and students signed a petition protesting the symbolic impact of his appearance because of comments Summers made several years ago about women and science.

  • At Columbia, an invitation to and appearance by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caused uproar on campus and throughout the country. The flap initially focused on whether he should be allowed to speak and subsequently on the confrontational introduction by Columbia President Lee Bollinger.

  • An appointment of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to a visiting position at our Hoover Institution stirred extensive campus debate and a petition signed by thousands of students, faculty and alumni opposing the appointment.

I think the kind of open debate these situations prompted—especially in the case of the appearance by the Iranian president—is exactly what distinguishes our country from closed societies. Universities have a critical role in this kind of discourse because they often are the playing fields for the most contentious of these debates.

The right to express one’s ideas freely is accepted easily when the ideas are in the center of the political spectrum. It is the difficult and extreme circumstances that try our principles and put the strength of our commitment to free and open dialogue to test. The university is one of the few institutions left in modern political culture where such difficult debates are not immediately reduced to talk-show insults but instead carried out in a civil dialogue.

The appointment of Rumsfeld to a visiting fellowship certainly created controversy. Many individuals opposed to the appointment have argued that this is not a question of free speech, but rather a question of the academic suitability of the appointment and the appropriateness of the title. The University, however, does not oversee such temporary visiting appointments, and doing so would be unnecessarily intrusive, as well as raise questions of exactly what standards should govern the large number of short-term visitors that come to campus each year.

If the University had called on Hoover to rescind its invitation, we certainly would have been accused of an attempt at censorship. Furthermore, exercising such authority on behalf of one constituency surely would raise expectations in others that such authority could be used in the future to prevent appointments they found offensive. This would be an untenable situation for Stanford.

So many constituencies comprise a university that it is unwise for the president or other leaders to speak for the institution as a whole except on issues that are core principles, such as the right to pursue research or the right to make independent decisions about the students we admit and faculty we appoint. I certainly don’t feel able to speak for the 25,000 students, faculty and staff and more than 195,000 alumni that make up the Stanford community.

The debate on campus this fall has been passionate but reasoned, lively but respectful. These are difficult issues, but I am always heartened by the commitment of the Stanford community to the founding principles espoused by David Starr Jordan more than a century ago.

The wind of freedom is still strong at Stanford.