On Wednesday night, former Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ’82 joined former Dean for the School of Education Claude Steele and Vice President of Diversity, Integrity and Governance in Google’s People Operations Danielle Brown to discuss the challenges of balancing free speech with inclusion during the last Cardinal Conversations event of the year, entitled “When Free Expression and Inclusion Collide: A Dilemma of the Times.”
The panel, moderated by Provost Persis Drell, served as a metadiscourse about the purpose of the Cardinal Conversations event series, which started this January. According to Drell, the four Cardinal Conversations events from earlier this year — with themes such as “Inequality and Populism” and “Real and Fake News” — sought to reaffirm the ideal of free expression while maintaining commitment to including people of diverse backgrounds.
“We are only successful as an intellectual community when discussion benefits from the entire range of diverse perspectives present,” Drell said. “There could be no more fitting end to our first season of Cardinal Conversations than by simply confronting this issue head-on.”
It is no secret that college campuses across the country are grappling with the tensions between expression and inclusion. In the past year alone at Stanford, the invitation of conservative writer Robert Spencer by the Stanford College Republicans and political scientist Charles Murray — controversial for his remarks on racial difference — for a Cardinal Conversations event ignited debates about free speech at the cost of inclusivity.
Etchemendy said he believes the greatest threat to universities today comes from within, through the narrowing of political and intellectual opinions among both faculty and students. According to Etchemendy, attacks on free and rational discourse hinder the University’s dual mission of research and teaching.
“We take in high school students, and our goal is to produce adults,” he said. “Students don’t get a store of opinions out of university but a critical thinking ability.”
“Universities are not committed to a certain set of doctrines,” Etchemendy added. “What the university is committed to is methodology.”
Etchemendy added that, through rational discourse, a clash of views will eventually lead to the best-supported view becoming accepted as the truth. He affirmed the importance of protecting free speech even in instances where rational discourse descends into uncivil disagreement.
“When push comes to shove, you need to protect the right of the speaker to speak rather than buy civility by silencing some members of the community,” he said.
In response, Steele discussed Murray.
“I am a psychologist, and psychology has this history in pseudoscience that originated in the 19th century by rationalizing slavery by intelligence being rooted in genetics,” Steele said. “Charles Murray casually talks about the inferiority of your race. If your psychology department was thinking of inviting Charles Murray I would vote no. But if some student group invited him, I wouldn’t oppose that.”
Steele provided the audience context for the issue, highlighting statistics that reveal society’s demographic transition. In 1970, about 81 percent of America’s population was white; by 2040, whites are projected to become a minority in the country. As a result, he said, universities and other institutions include people of greater ethnic diversity than they were originally designed to serve.
“One can see how free speech, in some [of its] uses, can be incredibly disruptive to people, to their functioning,” Steele said. “It can be debilitating enough as to make it very difficult for them to take advantage of the opportunities here … It can affect their performance … even the decisions they make about the courses of their lives.”
When asked about so-called “safe spaces” during the Q&A session, Brown said, “Before we assume that people can’t handle something, let’s think that maybe people just want support.”
Discussing Google, she said that inclusion and free speech are important, “but we also have a business to run. We need to think of which conversations are productive.” She stressed that the values most important for the Google community are empathy, respect and resilience.
Etchemendy also stressed the value of empathy, saying, “One of the things that people need to understand is that very few people in the world are evil. And if they have views that look so contrary to your deeply held views and you can’t understand why, maybe you need to understand them better.”
Many in the audience emphasized the importance of tackling the sorts of discussions the talk highlighted. One alum, Liz Marks ’88, said she came from an hour and a half away and wasn’t let down: “I am really happy that Stanford is doing these types of events,” she said.
“I think it’s really important to have these types of conversations on campus,” echoed Emily Morton, a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Education.
However, others felt that there was not enough debate and that the speakers failed to address practical issues. Cardinal Conversations is billed as a forum to bring different views into dialogue.
“I thought it was lacking clash and disagreement, and more specific examples that have affected our campus should have been brought up or examples that have affected other campuses where people are forced to make real decisions rather than speak purely theoretically,” said audience member Isaac Kipust ’20.
Chapman Caddell ’20 was similarly underwhelmed, remarking, “On the whole: boring.”
Students were in the minority at the talk, which filled about half of its seats.
University President Marc Tessier Lavigne disagreed that the talk was overly theoretical, saying he thought it tackled practical issues — particularly when it came to race during the event’s Q&A session.
“[The speakers] highlighted the difficulty of reconciling two values,” Tessier-Lavigne said.