Spread out over 8, 000 acres (hence ‘the Farm’), Stanford University’s campus is an impressive sight. Palms line the triumphant main drive. Sleek modern buildings ring a historic core of sandstone quads. Sprinklers soothe the manicured lawns.
I was lucky enough to spend six years at Stanford, and a couple of weeks ago I got the chance to go back for a conference. The campus seems as serene as ever.
But all has not been well on the Farm.
In March, Trump-appointed judge Kyle Duncan was shouted down by students at Stanford Law School as he tried to give a talk. The students were encouraged by Tirien Steinbach, an Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, who told the students that Duncan had ‘caused harm.’
The episode seemed to encapsulate the threat posed by powerful DEI administrators sceptical of free speech.
Then, though, there was something of a wind-change. After national and even international outrage over the deplatforming, Dean Jenny Martinez sent a 10-page memorandum to students in which she mounted a robust defence of free speech.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution did not, Martinez reminded students, cover heckling or shouting down. The Federalist Society, which organized Duncan’s visit, had the same rights of free association as any other student group.
For some, Martinez’ statement did not go far enough. No students were disciplined for their role in deplatforming Duncan, even though their actions clearly crossed the line established by Stanford’s own policies as well as First Amendment law.
Martinez did, though, announce a half-day training session on free speech that would be mandatory for all law students. Steinbach was suspended.
Given the dire straits in which academic freedom currently finds itself, that in itself represents a significant turnaround.
What’s more, there are signs that Stanford isn’t the only college that’s finally finding its nerve. The same month as Duncan’s deplatforming, Cornell’s President Martha Pollock vetoed a student attempt to mandate trigger-warnings. Meanwhile at Harvard, 90 professors co-founded a new Academic Freedom Council.
Opulent American colleges like Stanford may seem a world away from New Zealand’s public universities. But prestigious institutions often make the weather when it comes to the attitudes that hold sway on campuses – not only in the US, but across the Anglophone world.
And that might just mean sunnier days ahead for academic freedom not only in the US, but in New Zealand too.