Ties That Bind

Academics govern themselves. But sometimes there's a fine line between setting professional standards and violating academic freedom.

March/April 2008

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Ties That Bind

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

At one point last fall the Dallas Morning News called them “a crowd of angry professors.” Certainly it wasn't business as usual when phrases like “perverted” research, “McCarthyism of the Left” and a “contemptible” appointment peppered discussions of the Faculty Senate, Stanford's academic governing body. Or when an emeritus professor speaking to the press went so far as to label Hoover Institution fellows fascists.

Two issues sparked the strong language and sharply divided opinion. The first was a proposal last April to prohibit Stanford researchers from accepting funding from the tobacco industry; then came the Hoover Institution's September appointment of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a distinguished visiting fellow. Alumni, students and the general public joined that fray in letters to editors and administrators, and an online protest bearing more than 4,000 names.

Another potential controversy loomed: the announcement of a $105 million research grant for a joint Army-university computing center prompted 60 faculty to petition the Faculty Senate for an open discussion of the project's ethical implications. The senate's Committee on Research has been reviewing grant documents; at press time it was to report back in April. More heated discussion is likely.

Issues like these bring to the surface an underlying tension between academic freedom and ethical concerns—put another way, between an individual's rights and responsibilities and collective value judgments. The controversies raise questions about whether the quest for knowledge should trump all other considerations, assuming research protocols follow established ethical standards. How unfettered can or should scholars be if colleagues find their work, its applications or its sponsors morally repugnant?

Faculty Senate debates illustrate the difficulty of arriving at answers. Both sides offer compelling arguments. Each may ascribe political motives to the other while insisting its own concern is purely the greater good—for if there's broad consensus among faculty on anything, it's that partisan politics have no place in decisions about research or appointments. Sometimes even faculty senators are unclear about Stanford's policies; and when a contentious issue becomes public, its complexities can get lost in sound bites and buzzwords.

During the past year, all three controversies have prompted re-examination of University principles and procedures. They offer a window into how Stanford handles conflicting ideals, and how policy evolves.

Academic freedom is a mantra in university circles, but what does it mean at Stanford? As stated in the Principles Concerning Research (emphasis added):

Individual scholars should be free to select the subject matter of their research, to seek support from any source for their work, and to form their own findings and conclusions. These findings and conclusions should be available for scrutiny and criticism as required by the University's Policy on Openness in Research. 

Research techniques should not violate established professional ethics pertaining to the health, safety, privacy, and other personal rights of human beings or to the infliction of injury or pain on animals. 

The University should foster an environment conducive to research. Where, because of limited resources, the University cannot support all research demands, it should allocate space, facilities, funds, and other resources for research programs based on the scholarly and educational merits of the proposed research, and not on speculations concerning the political or moral impropriety of the uses which might be made of its results.

Arguably, the “tobacco ban” would violate Stanford's policy. But introducing the resolution at the April 19 Faculty Senate meeting, electrical engineering professor Bernd Girod, then chair of the Committee on Research, explained that the ban would not require rewriting policy. “We think that the general principle [on academic freedom] can be limited in rare and exceptional circumstances. In fact, it already is limited, for example, by the policies on conflict of interest or openness in research.” Current grants would not be affected and could be renewed, and the ban would be revisited in 10 years, giving the industry's research foundations a chance to prove good faith.

A key rationale for the ban was the federal court judgment in 2006 that found industry defendants had “used sponsored research in their scheme to defraud the American public about the hazards of tobacco.” They had “identified, trained, and subsidized 'friendly' scientists” and sponsored symposia globally with those scientists without revealing their financial ties. The defendants also “mounted a comprehensive, coordinated, international effort to undermine and discredit” re-search showing the dangers of secondhand smoke and “continue to deny the full ex-tent” of the harm.

To begin the discussion, law professor Hank Greely was adamant that “if any human endeavor deserves the term 'evil,' I think the tobacco industry probably deserves it. It hurts me that my university gives them cover and sustenance. They are using us to whitewash themselves. . . . We should stop it.” Other arguments supporting a ban: several top U.S. medical schools had taken similar action; it was hypocritical of Stanford to refuse to invest in the tobacco industry yet be willing to accept money from it; and association with the industry clashed with the University's commitment to the advancement of human health.

Many opponents of a ban recounted tobacco-related deaths in their own families. But that didn't shake their conviction that a ban would violate academic freedom and set a dangerous precedent.

“If we're going to start targeting specific industries, it's not a slippery slope, it's actually a precipice that we would be going over,” civil and environmental engineering professor Jeffrey Koseff said. “Who decides next time? If it's tobacco now, fine. Next time it could be alcohol. It could be oil at some point.”

The latter was a nod to ExxonMobil's projected $100 million investment in Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Project. Barely a week after Koseff spoke, civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Jacobson was fending off accusations made in a PR Newswire story that his research on ethanol, not connected with GCEP or the oil industry, was tainted by the ExxonMobil affiliation.

However, drama professor Rush Rehm insisted the real slippery slope “is that corporations and industries like tobacco companies are going to have an excessive influence over universities.”

Vice provost and dean of research Ann Arvin later addressed that concern. “Our research contracts explicitly prohibit any interference with independence of the investigator or any use of the Stanford name for promotional purposes.” She added that Stanford's agreements with tobacco foundations supported “basic open-ended inquiry” and the research “does not support the tobacco industry or its efforts to promote the use of tobacco.”

Provost John Etchemendy, PhD '82, noted that he frequently receives e-mails from faculty requesting that colleagues be prohibited from doing certain research, accepting certain funds or publishing certain views. “It's really quite remarkable how many faculty feel very strongly about different issues and see the publications of our faculty, the research of our faculty, as somehow reflecting on them because they are colleagues.” He later cited stem cell research and animal testing as areas where opinions clash and warned against bringing moral judgments into play.

“I actually find it chilling to consider legislation dictating that a second group cannot engage in legitimate research— research funded by a legal source, conducted and interpreted with impeccable scientific standards—due to a debatable judgment by the first group. If that's not a curtailment of academic freedom, I don't know what is.”

President John Hennessy stressed that the financial aspect of academic freedom was no minor matter. “For people in the sciences, restricting funding essentially restricts the kind of research you can do.” He gave examples during a later discussion. “We receive a large amount of money from the Department of Energy, [which] runs the nuclear weapons labs. Is there a bigger threat to the world than nuclear weapons? Should we divest all of our money from the Department of Energy? We would start by closing SLAC. We would close half of the physics department and several of the engineering departments along the way.

“Right now,” Hennessy continued, “British Petroleum and Exxon together will be funding more projects in alternative energy in universities than the entire amount funded by the U.S. government. They have certainly twisted research periodically with respect to global warming and other environmental issues. Does that mean we shouldn't take their money?”

Etchemendy, a philosophy professor, drew chuckles when he asked the chair's permission to make a point of logic. He noted that tobacco companies could twist research no matter who was funding it—and the spin would have more credibility if the foundations weren't paying for the research.

Arvin warned that the tobacco resolution would mark a major policy change: it would “substitute a collective judgment for the trust in individual conscience that we have relied upon since this [research] policy was written in 1971.” Such a change would introduce “a culture of distrust,” said comparative literature professor Russell Berman. “We should refrain from acting as a virtuous and tyrannical majority that prohibits minorities we oppose.”

Put to a vote, the motion was defeated (10 in favor, 21 opposed). But in some sense, both sides prevailed. The senators had scrupulously avoided naming names—only one Stanford researcher, professor of medicine John P. Cooke, had received funding from the tobacco industry—but the controversy led to his decision not to renew the grant. Cooke's specialty is cardiovascular health, and no one was questioning the integrity of his work. A few weeks later, the senate unanimously approved a clarification of Stanford's policy on the responsibilities of individual researchers (changes in bold):

The above principles [cited above] circumscribe the University's role with respect to University-connected research. They in no way diminish, and indeed they reinforce, the individual researcher's personal responsibility to assure that the conduct of research, the sources of funding for that research, and its perceived applications, are consistent with the individual researcher's judgment and conscience, and with established professional ethics. 

Are the modifications significant? Associate philosophy professor Debra Satz, director of the program on ethics in society, says, “If there's not going to be a University policy prohibiting people from engaging in certain kinds of research, [decisions] shouldn't be seen as only a matter of personal choice but also of the role the person plays and the duties of that role. Most professions have codes of ethics.”

Satz calls for more attention to ethical issues. “It isn't so much about Stanford, but we as a society haven't been that reflective about constraints on the pursuits of individual self-interest and what our responsibilities are to each other. And I'd like to see more of that in the curriculum and in discussion and in the senate. But I think in its practices Stanford has done a pretty good job of balancing issues of social responsibility and academic freedom.”

Reflecting on the tobacco debate, Etchemendy notes that ongoing discussion of issues like this is necessary for a healthy, functioning university “even if the end result is a complete reaffirmation of ex-actly the same policy that we had before.” It's also a valuable way “for people to learn what the policies are—most people don't pay a lot of attention to these policies.”

Some critics of the senate decision seemed uninformed as well. “A lot of alumni thought the University was trying to prevent the ban because we were afraid we would lose a large amount of [tobacco] research money,” Etchemendy says. “They saw it as a sign of—as their letters said—the University's greed.” In fact, the single grant was relatively small—$365,000, or 14 percent of Cooke's $2.65 million budget, and a drop in Stanford's total sponsored re-search funds of $1.058 billion in 2007-08.

Moreover, Stanford has turned down far greater amounts, and for the same reason used to justify accepting tobacco industry money—to uphold academic freedom. The most recent example came in the wake of 9-11, when several foundations, including Ford and Rockefeller, revised the conditions of their grants. “We're happy to sign assurance that we are obeying any and all antiterrorism legislation,” Etchemendy explains, “but the clauses we were not happy about required much more than that.” Recipients had to agree not to use foundation grants or any other funds to “promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state” or to make sub-grants to, or support, any entity that promotes or engages in those activities. Etchemendy points to the impossibility of the University making such a guarantee about its constituents. An example: “We have no idea whether a student on financial aid might also support the Palestinian cause, and in some people's eyes that might be tantamount to supporting terrorism.” The conditions were so broad as to threaten academic freedom, and several universities balked. “When we realized we couldn't sign, we did not accept grants that already had been granted and banned further applications,” Etchemendy explains. His office then replaced the canceled funds. “In one case it was a $500,000 grant—larger than the tobacco money.” It took nearly a year of negotiations to reach a compromise with the Ford Foundation. (It didn't revise its standard requirements but did provide a letter explaining what its terms mean for a university—that it supports academic freedom and lawful speech and activities.) Still, the provost says there is at least one case where “we don't think we're going to get a solution, and we'll have to turn down the grant.”

Defending academic freedom has had even greater financial consequences in the past. A “huge dollar decision” came in 1969, when the Faculty Senate banned classified research, and the following year, when the University divested itself of the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), set up in 1946 to do contract research. The moves came at the height of antiwar activism following disclosure that several Stanford engineering labs and SRI were conducting secret military research, including work on chemical weapons. At the time, SRI's military contracts totaled $28.7 million and the University's $16.4 million.

“That was a decision to not accept a whole kind of funding,” Etchemendy says, because it “doesn't cohere with the university's mission. The purpose of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge, and classification precludes that dissemination.”

Four decades later, again in wartime, military research is an issue with the announcement last April of a five-year, $105 million Defense Department contract. Stanford will lead a consortium of three other universities, a private firm and NASA, operating the Army High-Performance Computing Research Center in Mountain View. The center will employ computer modeling and simulation in basic multidisciplinary research in computational science and engineering. This research is expected to have relevance for the development of lighter materials for military vehicles and equipment, improved battlefield communication, better detection of biological and chemical agents, advanced supercomputing hardware and software, and civilian applications. The grant provides for collaboration in basic research, technology transfer and scientific training for Army researchers, and an educational outreach program promoting math, science and engineering at local schools and in Stanford's distance-learning program for gifted youth.

The consortium's approved proposal hasn't been made public, so faculty protesters have only the Army's program announcement to go on. They question whether the program's protocol might violate Stanford's research principles. “The power of the army's manager in determining the re-search agenda of the center would appear to constitute a form of veto power that seems to contradict the University's own guidelines concerning faculty independence,” their letter to the Faculty Senate says.

More controversially, the petitioners challenge Stanford's participation even in basic research that the Army intends to apply, in the petition's words, “to create more efficient, and ultimately more lethal, methods of waging war.” They argue that the priorities of the “national security state” are “counterproductive to the long-term needs of our University, our country and the global community.” They claim the educational outreach program “may in fact be envisioned as a feeder system, designed to use Stanford's name, prestige and resources to channel gifted students towards interest and experience in military applications, military research, and military research centers.” The letter urges a discussion of these concerns.

Accordingly, the Faculty Senate's Committee on Research is reviewing the project. It's not exactly a welcome task, according to the current committee chair, civil and environmental engineering professor Stephen Monismith. Apart from the time-consuming task of reviewing “a huge volume of material,” Monismith says the committee isn't supposed to be “vetting” research. “We don't really want to be doing this,” he says. “We shouldn't be looking over each other's shoulders. The Office of Research Administration vets very carefully” all research proposals.

Arvin, vice provost and dean of research, explains that three requirements govern any sponsored research contract. The research cannot be classified, students must be able to participate fully in the intellectual activity without regard to their country of origin, and the researchers must be free to publish and disseminate their studies to all. “Faculty may not appreciate how intensive the review process is,” Arvin says. “Every contract is scrutinized by the Office of Sponsored Research. They are extremely diligent in ensuring that those requirements that are fundamental to our policies of openness in research are met.”

Arvin says that the alarm some faculty felt is understandable given the language in the Army's RFP [request for proposal], which describes futuristic weapons systems and battlefield advancements. However, that document articulates what the Army hopes to gain; it doesn't govern the actual research.

How much influence can the Army exert on the research? Arvin says a program officer representing the Army stays in touch with the principal investigator, mechanical engineering professor Charbal Farhat, to “keep track of what work is being done.” But there is no veto power and no privileged access to the research itself.

Scientists at Army labs would determine whether the research might have a military application, Arvin says. “Stanford investigators are not involved in that decision. They're doing basic science and engineering research.”

Monismith appreciates people's urge to take action based on ethical concerns, and he welcomes debate. “In senate there are a lot of interesting viewpoints; that's what we do here, we talk about things. Let's talk this through, see the implications. The University subsidizes all research—so maybe there's some sort of research we shouldn't do.”

He acknowledges, though, that “professional ethics” can collide with subjective concerns. “You could say that classified research that protects the United States—that's easily defined as a social good depending on your perception.” Monismith offers a personal example. “An undergraduate in our dorm who was on the residence staff, when my wife and I were resident fellows, was in the Marine ROTC here—and he was in the invasion of Iraq. I'd have to think twice about opposing research that might save his life.”

The Hoover Institution's appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as a distinguished visiting fellow in September sparked a prolonged controversy. A group of faculty quickly organized an online petition protesting the appointment as “fundamentally incompatible with the ethical values of truthfulness, tolerance, disinterested enquiry, re-spect for national and international laws, and care for the opinions, property and lives of others to which Stanford is inalienably committed.” Art history professor Pamela Lee told the New York Times, “It's extremely important for the Hoover to know that their appointments are not in the mainstream of the Stanford community, as well as to send a very clear signal that this is not what Stanford is about.”

Faculty Senate discussions on this matter echoed the divisions of the tobacco debate. Some saw association with the former defense secretary as an endorsement of his performance record; others considered the protests an intolerant, political challenge to academic freedom and freedom of speech. Still others called for a re-examination of the Hoover-Stanford relationship. All sides could agree that Stanford's reputation was at stake—whether it was judged an intolerant censor or an apologist for the Bush administration.

Reaction to the appointment revealed widespread confusion about the Hoover Institution, and Satz proposed that its director, John Raisian, be invited to explain criteria used for Hoover appointments, particularly Rumsfeld's.

Raisian addressed the senate in early November. He explained that Hoover is part of Stanford; its director reports to President Hennessy. Like other University units, it can make visiting nonteaching appointments independently. “Distinguished visiting fellow” is the standard title Hoover gives to visiting task force members or invited scholars, and Rumsfeld was appointed to a task force on public policy issues related to terrorism. Other University units also use the term “distinguished” without review.

Raisian cited Rumsfeld's long career in areas directly related to the task force. Widespread condemnation of the man didn't “detract from the fact that he's had experiences that could be reviewed by a task force thinking about how to deal with these problems going forward.”

Etchemendy says the title “distinguished” is what bothers most dissenting faculty but adds, “It's a mistake to go down that road and worry about whether association with the University indicates [University] approval. If you start trying to restrict arrangements based on behavior or past performance, it does more damage.”

As an example, he recalls a conference on creationism sponsored by a Christian student group. “We heard objections that allowing this group to hold a conference at the University would indicate that Stanford was endorsing their views, or at least endorsing the legitimacy of the views. My response was: that's not how universities work. The damage that's done by that [mistaken impression] is much less than the damage that would be done if the University decided that we have to vet organizations or the views that will be expressed before we allow them to speak on campus.”

Academic freedom, Etchemendy says, gives faculty the right “by extension” to invite people to campus. “We're private; we don't have to allow anyone to walk on,” he acknowledges. “But if a department invites a person and we say no, that would be a violation of academic freedom.”

Violations of that sort have roiled other campuses lately, prompting the American Association of University Professors to send a letter in September to 3,000 college and university presidents and 350,000 faculty affirming “that the freedom to hear is an essential condition of a university community and an inseparable part of academic freedom” and that “the right to examine issues and seek truth is prejudiced to the extent that the university is open to some but not to others whom members of the university also judge desirable to hear.”

Earlier that month, the UC regents had revoked their invitation to Lawrence Summers to speak at a luncheon after some 300 UC faculty signed a petition denouncing the former Harvard president for his views on women in science and his thorny relations with several minority faculty. UC-Irvine withdrew its offer of the law school deanship to Erwin Chemerinsky because of the liberal views he expressed in an op-ed—then reinstated the offer in the wake of outraged protests. Columbia University drew bouquets and brickbats in equal measure for allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak and for its president speaking out to oppose the guest's views. Several pundits observed that Columbia's approach to bad ideas was to hear them and counter them, while California's was to censor them.

For its part, Stanford officials recently rebuffed a petition signed by thousands protesting the scheduled visit of Juan José Ibarretxe, president of the Basque regional government and advocate of a referendum on independence.

Just as the tobacco issue led to revisiting broader policy, Satz hopes to see the Rumsfeld controversy prompt fuller integration of Stanford and Hoover, and more uniform appointment standards applied to all the institutes “springing up around the campus.” For her, academic freedom is not the issue; academic standards are.

“Stanford has an unbelievably high standard for tenure-line appointments, and then we're completely lax about every other kind of appointment,” Satz says. “If you're going to have people here and using Stanford's name, you have to have some oversight over these appointments. Decentralization makes sense, but then there has to be trust and some sense that we're all on the same page.”

President Hennessy recently wrote that University oversight of appointments like Rumsfeld's “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” (“At Stanford, Speak Freely,” President's Column, November/December). However, Satz says, “some of us in the senate are going to try to have some institutional follow-up.” A resolution to drop the word “distinguished” from all non-Academic Council appointments was defeated at Faculty Senate late in January, but with the understanding it may be incorporated into a pending proposal for a committee to examine consistency in appointment processes at Stanford institutes.

For all the recent debates, protests and blistering commentary from every quarter of the University community, Stanford's policies regarding academic freedom remain intact. What, then, has all the controversy accomplished?

Paradoxically, internal challenges to academic freedom can help ensure its survival. Speaking at a November conference sponsored by the program on ethics in society, Robert Post of Yale Law School reminded his Stanford audience that academic freedom is based on a social contract. Scholars enjoy freedom of research, teaching and speech—and the right to self-regulate according to their own professional standards of scholarship—in exchange for producing knowledge, a social good. However, Post observes a tendency to equate academic freedom with individual rights, akin to First Amendment rights. That might lead some to conclude that faculty should be free from any constraints. That would be a mistake, Post warned, because if standards aren't upheld and the university is seen as not promoting the social good, public pressure to restrict its freedom will grow.

That is why it's important that Faculty Senate take on ethical issues and continually monitor and review standards. The publicity surrounding senators lately may be unwelcome, but it helps ensure that they are seen to be doing so.

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