Widgets Magazine


Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Persis Drell: A response to students’ letter on Charles Murray

We read with appreciation the op-ed in The Daily yesterday from students concerned about the upcoming Cardinal Conversation next week.

Last fall we asked two faculty members to bring together students from across the political spectrum to create a series of moderated discussions with public intellectuals who hold contrasting views on consequential subjects. The goal was to help promote discussion of a diversity of perspectives on our campus and to highlight speakers who, while debating substantive issues, might model the respectful disagreement that is important in a university community.

We chose not to be involved in the speaker selection because we did not wish to be seen as endorsing any particular speaker. However, we anticipated that the organizers might bring to campus individuals who were controversial, in one way or another, in the eyes of many members of our community.

The first Cardinal Conversation last month brought together two alumni with strikingly different political views, Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel, for a discussion of technology and politics. Other Cardinal Conversations scheduled in the coming months will bring a variety of prominent individuals from across the political spectrum, including Anne Applebaum, Claude Steele, Andrew Sullivan and Cornel West.

The second Cardinal Conversation, scheduled for next week, has elicited a strong response from students who are affronted by the invitation of one of the two speakers, Charles Murray. The students’ concern, as they have conveyed it to us, is not principally about the topic of the session (populism and inequality) but about Murray’s previous work on race.

Senior university leaders and the faculty organizers have met with students this week to hear their concerns directly. This discussion has produced constructive next steps.

We all have agreed that Cardinal Conversations will have more diverse speakers in the months ahead. Some are already scheduled, as noted, but the organizers will be redoubling their efforts to ensure that a broad array of voices and backgrounds are represented this spring and fall. In addition, we have agreed that there should be even more ideologically diverse student representation on the organizing committee for Cardinal Conversations. Organizers and students are now working on adding student and faculty representatives to the group.

As one of the faculty organizers stated at the first Cardinal Conversation, this effort is experimental in nature – a work in progress – and the input of the community is truly welcomed. We’re getting that input now and working to improve the program.

With respect to next week’s session, it is fair for students to ask why Murray was selected to discuss the topic at hand. The organizers’ conception of the discussion and their rationale for inviting the speakers is explained on the website for the session.

We do not intend to rescind anyone’s invitation. As we said in our blog post last fall, if a legitimate campus group genuinely wants to hear an outside speaker, the university will allow the speaker to come, provided that university policies and procedures are followed. Members of the campus community are free to question the speaker, protest the event or ignore it entirely; disruption of the speech is not permitted.

However, we believe it also is critical to emphasize the following.

Students have expressed concern to us that some of Murray’s work has been used to justify and give credence to white supremacist viewpoints. We have noted, as have many others, what appears to be a growing presence of the symbols of white supremacist ideology on college campuses, including ours. We are concerned that this incursion may make students, faculty and staff of color and people from other marginalized identities question whether they can be safe and truly belong.

We want to be absolutely clear that no action of the university should be taken as an endorsement of abhorrent white supremacist viewpoints. Stanford firmly rejects the bigotry and hatred of this ideology and its incursions onto college campuses. When it appeared in Charlottesville last summer, we denounced it. When it has appeared on our own campus in the form of swastikas or racist fliers, we have again denounced it.

Our belief in our campus community is strong, as is our commitment to advancing both intellectual debate and a truly inclusive campus culture. We celebrate the broad diversity of our community, as it is essential to the fabric of the institution. Everyone in our community must have a place and a voice. We greatly appreciate the committed work of students, and so many others, to advance these important principles.


Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President

Persis Drell, Provost