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Recreated ‘Conversations’ program forms student committee, sees reduced role for ASSU execs

ALYSSA DIAZ / The Stanford Daily

As administrative control of the Cardinal Conversations program transitions from the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) to the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Susie Brubaker-Cole, three faculty advisors and certain student organizations are set to oversee the renaming and restructuring of the high-profile speaker series in the aftermath of scandal and controversy.

Foremost among the coming changes will be the creation of a new student steering committee with authority over the content and format of programming.

These changes are the continuation of a restructuring process that began in September, when Provost Persis Drell announced in a “Notes from the Quad” post that the program would be rethought in the 2018-2019 academic year, with the leadership structure redesigned and speaker involvement rethought.

The movement of Cardinal Conversations away from the Hoover Institute comes after student concern about the conservative leanings of the Institution, according to Brubaker-Cole.

“I know that [involvement with Hoover] was something that a lot of students objected to because it appeared to be more partisan than [Cardinal Conversations] was intended to be,” she said. “So it’s moving to [the] non-partisan, neutral administrative home of Student Affairs.”

Drell has called for the faculty leaders to convene a new student steering committee with authority over the series’ content and format. The committee will likely include nine to 10 students representing “a broad range of diversity on our campus, from ideological [and] political diversity to diversity in backgrounds [and] identities,” according to Brubaker-Cole.

Brubaker-Cole said her position is intended to be predominantly administrative.

“It’s not my vision,” she told The Daily. “I am a neutral facilitating party in this.”

In an email to The Daily, Brad Hayward, associate vice president for University communications, reiterated that Student Affairs will not be making substantive decisions for the redesigned Conversations program.

“The Provost asked [Brubaker-Cole] to serve as the administrative home for the program to work with the student and faculty committee to provide logistics and facilitation,” Hayward wrote. “Decisions about the membership of the student committee, topics, speakers and program format are the purview of the student/faculty committee.”

 

Student leadership

Last year – the first in which Cardinal Conversations was held – saw FSI’s Michael McFaul and Hoover’s Niall Ferguson working with a steering committee of undergraduate representatives from various student groups and publications, including the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), the Stanford Political Union (SPU), Stanford in Government (SIG), The Stanford Sphere and The Stanford Review.

Accounts vary regarding the distribution of power between the steering committee and faculty leaders. Ferguson said members “kicked around ideas” and were involved in recruiting speakers, while McFaul described his own capacity as “working with students” and “helping to assemble” talks. Stanford News reported that student members “chose the topics” of discussion.

Last year’s student steering committee was criticized by a coalition of student activists over allegations of political bias and inadequate transparency.

“There is … no public knowledge on how the committee was formed,” the coalition wrote in an op-ed. “The leadership of Cardinal Conversations as a whole leans toward the right of the political spectrum, thus the speakers the initiative invites neither represent both sides of the story nor raise the voices of communities that have been historically silenced.”

Moving forward, Brubaker-Cole said SPU, SIG and ASSU have been involved in designing a proposal for this year’s student committee. That proposal is set to be released for community comment, shortly after Thanksgiving Break.

Although Brubaker-Cole said she “provided a forum for those [three] groups to have input” and implied that all three are still involved, the ASSU affirmed that it has been less involved than SPU and SIG.

“We are not the ones designing the new model – our understanding is that this has been primarily SPU [and] SIG,” said ASSU President Shanta Katipamula ’19. “We have provided feedback on the draft proposal that was shared with us. We also suggested that given the harm perpetuated by this program in the past, the entire campus community should be given an opportunity to comment on the proposed structure for the student committee. The faculty committee indicated that they were amenable to that suggestion.”

Katipamula met with Brubaker-Cole and the program’s faculty advisors on Friday, after Katipamula and her vice president, Ph.D. candidate Rosie Nelson, raised “some critical questions of how students would be selected for the committee and how student feedback was being solicited” with Brubaker-Cole.

According to Katipamula, this was the first and only meeting the ASSU had with Brubaker-Cole to discuss the steering committee’s composition. After an ASSU cabinet member met with a member of SPU this past weekend to provide concrete suggestions for the proposal, the ASSU decided to discontinue its involvement with the program.

“It became clear to us that this student group had a very distinct vision of what the program should look like that didn’t address all of our concerns, so we suggested that the students who have been involved much longer than we have [been] be given the opportunity to implement their vision in accordance with the faculty group’s guidance,” Katipamula wrote. “We hope that the next iteration of the proposal does address those concerns and we hope that the ultimate proposal will meet the campus’s needs.”

However, not every branch of student government has stepped back from involvement in rethinking Cardinal Conversations. Last week, the Undergraduate Senate passed a resolution – introduced by Senator Matthew Wigler ’19 – to reform Conversations as a new dialogue series called Deliberative Dinners, built around the six principles of community, conversation, continuity, inclusion, equality and accountability.

Brubaker-Cole confirmed that she will be meeting with Wigler to discuss his alternative vision, but she added that she knows little about the specifics of the proposal.

For its part, SPU – despite being a relatively new student group – was cited as an influence on Cardinal Conversations by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Drell when the program was first formally announced.

SPU co-chairs Zoe Himwich ’19 and Jack Lindsey ’19 said they reached out to McFaul because the Conversations program “had a similar stated mission” to theirs in that it sought “to encourage dialogue on campus between people with different ideologies and viewpoints.”

“We wanted to see if there were ways we could work with the program towards common objectives,” they wrote in an email to The Daily.

Himwich and Lindsey added that they, along with representatives from SIG, have been meeting with Brubaker-Cole to “provide input and suggestions for the new program structure, focusing on ways to make it more accessible to students and representative of diverse viewpoints and interests.”

As of Tuesday night, SIG leadership had not responded to The Daily’s request for comment.

 

Faculty involvement

Drell’s September update also announced three faculty advisors for the program: Thomas Gilligan, director of the Hoover Institution; law professor Deborah Rhode; and Claude Steele, professor emeritus of psychology and dean emeritus of the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Gilligan was first brought onboard at the end of last year, as an interim leader, after Ferguson stepped down following the leak of an email chain revealing that Ferguson had conspired with conservative students to steer the direction of the program and do “opposition research” on a progressive student activist.

“I was asked by the Provost to work with Susie and the Faculty members to support the student leadership of this initiative,” Gillian wrote in an email to The Daily. “I’m happy to do so.”

Steele, meanwhile, was a speaker in last year’s fifth and final Conversation, which was announced significantly later than the other four and just days after Ferguson resigned from the program.

If your psychology department was thinking of inviting Charles Murray I would vote no,” Steele remarked during the talk. “But if some student group invited him, I wouldn’t oppose that.”

His comments were made in reference to an earlier Conversation featuring social scientist Charles Murray, who has been criticized for arguing that disparities in intelligence are tied to race. Murray’s talk was met with student protest outside the venue and with visibly low attendance inside.

However, Steele also said that free speech – which has been a central theme of the Conversations initiative since its inception – is not always entirely positive.

“One can see how free speech, in some [of its] uses, can be incredibly disruptive to people, to their functioning,” Steele remarked during the Conversation. “It can be debilitating enough to make it very difficult for them to take advantage of the opportunities here.”

Facing forward, Steele expressed excitement about the opportunity to “develop a forum for genuinely open discussions of society’s most important challenges.”

“This is an important function of universities, great universities, and I am glad to be part of Stanford’s rising to the challenge,” he wrote in an email to The Daily. “As I join this effort it is clear that the major shift from last year’s effort is to have students play a much more central role in designing and implementing the effort, from speaker selection to format design.”

Steele clarified that faculty are “colleagues,” not directors, of students in the programming discussion.

McFaul is no longer involved. He did not respond to a request for comment on Ferguson’s departure last spring, and as of press time Tuesday night, had not responded to a second request for comment. Rhode also did not respond to a request for comment.

 

Contact Brian Contreras at brianc42 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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