A Tragic Day at the Senate

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As reported in the Stanford Daily, yesterday the Stanford Faculty Senate rejected a resolution requesting that the Senate convene an impartial Ad Hoc committee to find facts about the relationship between the Hoover Institution and Stanford University. Here is our original resolution:

Whereas the Hoover Institution has been an important part of Stanford University for over a century;

Whereas the both the University and the Hoover have expressed an interest in integrating their missions more;

Whereas there are issues that must be understood better in order for the processes and protocols of integration to be as mutually beneficial and least obstructive to each of these entities’ individual activities as possible;

Be it resolved that the Faculty Senate request the Committee on Committees to convene an Ad Hoc Committee to do a thorough and comprehensive review of the current relationship between Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, and report its findings to the Faculty Senate for a full and comprehensive discussion.

We felt it was important to be as collegial and open-minded as possible. We did not stipulate the Committee look into anything in particular – we asked that the committee simply decide on its own what needed to be researched, and proceed. As with all Senate actions, whatever recommendations it would have come up with would have been non-binding. As I said at the meeting, we essentially wrote the Stanford Faculty Senate a blank check.

Yet the fear and trembling our tepid resolution produced was astounding.  So much so that Director Condoleezza Rice, a former United States Secretary of State, uttered a revealing Freudian slip – she referred to our resolution as a “revolution.” Others said that it sowed discord, that it was partisan, that it was “uncivil.” I would ask you to look carefully to find any of that in our resolution.

Former provost John Etchemendy proposed an amendment that erased the idea of a faculty committee and instead charged the Director of Hoover and Provost Persis Drell to carry out the research and to report back to the Senate. Only after Senator Stephen Monismith introduced another amendment was the faculty brought back into the picture, but only in a consultative role. That is, an ultimately passive role. That seemed to satisfy the Senate.

Is there something wrong with this picture? The Director of the Hoover Institution and a person who has publicly said (in the Faculty Senate) that “The Hoover is Us,” are now replacing an impartial body of members of the faculty in looking into this relationship. It is also strange that Professor Etchemendy, Provost Drell and Director Rice, who made the argument that we must tolerate all points of view, offered an amendment that effectively removed all faculty voices, except ones asked for by Rice and Drell.

Let me give a wider perspective.

As a former elected chair of the Faculty Senate, I write this with much more sadness than anger. I want to recall that the Stanford Faculty Senate was founded in 1968—the year that Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. On its 50th anniversary, the Faculty Senate noted, “Central to the issues that divided the campus in the latter half of the 1960s was the Vietnam War. Opposition to the war by students and faculty focused on several aspects of University life. These included Stanford’s ROTC programs, classified research on campus, and interviews on campus by the CIA.”

The Faculty Senate was founded in large part to create a forum and mechanism for faculty governance, and to moderate debates on issues of faculty concern. As it says on the Senate website, it is “the centerpiece of academic governance at Stanford and the main instrument for faculty participation…” As chair of the Senate, I discovered that none of our peer institutions have such a body. Commitment to serious, formal, faculty input is thus part of Stanford’s distinction. This is one reason why the Senate’s handing over its responsibilities to administrators is so disappointing.

In the 1960s one of the most urgent questions was the role that universities were playing in supporting what we later found out, through the Pentagon Papers and other sources, was a concerted program of misinformation being promulgated by the US government. We found that the consequences of these lies were profound and lasting, as we saw many of our generation die needlessly and under the spell of an illusion, or come home traumatized, broken of spirit and body.

Today as well, we find that our government has lied to us, and helped bring about the deaths of nearly half a million Americans. Then, as now, we find a connection between university silence and death. And then, as now, we found the very principles of democracy challenged, and little if any action by college administrators—not to advocate political positions, but to be guardians of the established truth.

As Patricia McGuire writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Colleges Share the Blame for Assault on Democracy: 

Higher education should be the great counterweight to government, the reliable steward of truth and knowledge against the corrupting tendency of politics to manipulate facts and tell outright lies as a means to gain and secure public support. Truth was one of the earliest victims of the Trump administration, with the president racking up more than 20,000 documentable lies across four years, according to The Washington Post.

Silence is the enemy of truth, and yet few college presidents dared to challenge this tsunami of official lies. Whether about immigrants or climate change or white supremacy or the Covid-19 pandemic, the president and his allies lied with abandon, and higher education remained largely silent. So, in the face of the president’s acutely manipulative lies about the presidential election, it was no surprise that colleges remained on the sidelines, raising no voice in defense of democracy in a timely way, saying nothing about voter suppression, allowing the corrosive effects of the repeated lies to inflame those Americans who are especially susceptible to demagoguery. The mob gained its energy by coalescing around the lies.

Most ironically, when a tenured faculty member did speak truth to power at Stanford, he was fired – this makes our colleagues’ protestations that our resolution might stifle free speech seem not a little suspect. Professor H. Bruce Franklin did not help spread lies, or misinformation. He acted and spoke in moral outrage on how precisely lies and misinformation were circulating across campus and across our nation, unimpeded by administrators, or Presidents. And make no mistake, Bruce is not a pacifist nor is he anti-American – before he became a graduate student in the English department at Stanford, he flew for three years in the United States Air Force as a Strategic Air Command navigator and intelligence officer – he was an antifascist from that era as well as now. 

Every opportunity we have to exercise our right to speak is precious. But with that right comes a responsibility as well. When you all graduate, like every other president before him, ours will bestow upon you the “rights, privileges, and responsibilities” of a Stanford graduate. As President John Hennessy said in 2003: “At Stanford, we believe that the rights and privileges of education bring a responsibility to make good use of your knowledge, to change the world for the better and to help ensure that succeeding generations have the same opportunities you have had here at Stanford.”

When we cited those words yesterday, we questioned whether all Hoover fellows were making good uses of their knowledge, or posing as experts in epidemiology or electoral politics or history in order to make partisan statements that still sit beneath the Stanford University logo. We asked the assembled senators to let Director Rice and Provost Drell do what they wished about the Hoover-Stanford relationship, but to please take on their responsibilities to do what we faculty do as part of our jobs – do independent research.

In closing, let me say this – my colleagues and I had no expectation our resolution would necessarily pass – we were asked to water it down, to take out parts, to be even more conciliatory in order that it might pass. We declined – our choices were moral and ethical, not political. However, they were practical. How?

Not unlike what is happening in the second impeachment hearing (and the first, where Sen. Mitch McConnell said publicly in advance that there was “no way the President will be convicted in the Senate”), we felt that it was important to have our facts come to light, and also for everyone in that Senate meeting to demonstrate how they would act. We gave over 300 people watching the livestream a bird’s-eye view into how things can work, or not work, and why. In that, we more than succeeded, and with probably more effect than any Senate committee.

In my opinion, and mine alone, the Senate’s failure to take on the task of independent research, their ready acquiescence to power, their timidity before peer pressure and, worst of all, their deployment of the most illogical, unfactual and bad faith arguments, is a stain on the Faculty Senate and an abrogation of duty. 

I am under no illusion that Stanford or any other university is a democracy.  Of course not. But faculty and students have fought, under desperate conditions, for one tiny sliver of democracy on this campus. I am committed to help all those who still find this a worthy project. But for me, regrettably, the Faculty Senate is no longer such a place.  

David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com. 

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