From the Community | Thought police or moral integrity?

It’s been an exciting year in the Faculty Senate. A brief overview for those who have missed the most recent kerfuffle: Professor Jakovljevic and Professor Lipsick, who sits on the Faculty Senate Steering Committee, brought forward a motion requesting that Rebekah Mercer and Rupert Murdoch be terminated from all association with Stanford. Ms. Mercer and Mr. Murdoch are on the Board of Overseers at the Hoover Institution. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne responded with some prepared remarks, which included the claim that if the Faculty Senate voted in favor of this motion, it “would be setting itself up as a thought police.”


I think I’d probably vote against the motion. Ms. Mercer’s and Mr. Murdoch’s indirect support and amplification of prejudice, anti-semitism and white nationalism are immoral and distasteful. I don’t like their association with Stanford. But at the same time, Ms. Mercer has publicly stated that she doesn’t personally believe in such hateful rubbish. While I think most of President Tessier-Lavigne’s prepared remarks are mistaken (more on that in a bit), he makes one point I do agree with: it is important that different groups within the University have a freedom of association. The Hoover Institution has decided that the benefits of association with Ms. Mercer and Mr. Murdoch outweigh the drawbacks, and I want to respect that decision.

But while I’m inclined to agree with President Tessier-Lavigne that we should not terminate association with Ms. Mercer or Mr. Murdoch, his prepared remarks are misguided, inaccurate and illogical. His defense of the Hoover Institution’s judgment is couched in wild claims of the collapse of the University and jingoistic dog whistles: “thought police,” “orthodoxy” and “autonomy.” By falling back on such emotional absolutes, the statement misses the real challenges and the difficult questions we must face. 

My deference to the Hoover Institution’s judgment on Ms. Mercer and Mr. Murdoch is conditional, as everyone’s should be. Stanford’s principles of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas are not absolute. We do consider certain ideas or behavior so unacceptable that we disassociate from them: we removed David Starr Jordan’s name from campus spaces, in part due to his promotion of eugenics, and I hope we would not have accepted post-conviction donations from Jeffrey Epstein, as MIT did then said it was a mistake to do so. 

Furthermore, in an academic setting, not all ideas are created equal. As scholars, our primary responsibility is to decide which ideas are good and worth consideration, and which are not. As the Political Science department’s webpage on Academic Freedom articulates well, “Of course, scholars have constitutional rights to express outlandish views as private citizens or in public discourse. They do not have the same protections if they propagate such views in their position as scholars… Although the First Amendment would prohibit government sanctioning an editorialist for the New York Times if he were inclined to write that [the astrological signs of world leaders explain the incidence of inter-state wars], no [political science] department could survive if it were unable to deny tenure to a young scholar similarly convinced.” 

There is a line; there are people Stanford will not associate with. Jordan and Epstein are clearly on one side, while George Soros and the Koch brothers (despite all of the controversies around them) are clearly on the other. The Faculty Senate has actively debated particularly challenging cases that are close to the line, such as the tobacco industry. Such debates are critical, for us to actively explore, define and defend our values and principles when they are in tension. Perhaps Ms. Mercer and Mr. Murdoch are close to the line. Perhaps they are far. Having a named position of authority, rather than only funding research, might move where the line is. We won’t know unless we debate the matter and consider the facts. 

We all want what is best for Stanford. While I currently don’t support Professor Lipsick and Professor Jakovljevic’s motion, I wholly support their raising it for debate. I respect that their moral compasses tell them that the negative association of Ms. Mercer and Mr. Murdoch with Stanford so greatly outweighs any benefit. I respect that they have the moral integrity to argue so. I want to hear their arguments and consider them. As a reply, I would hope to hear a defense of the Hoover’s Institution’s decision on the merits of the case. But by instead responding with a hyperbolic set of predictions on the downfall of Stanford, President Tessier-Lavigne’s statement does exactly what it says we shouldn’t do: it argues we cannot even ask the question.

Philip Levis serves on the Faculty Senate and is a Professor in the Departments of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. He adores excellent engineering and has a self-destructive aversion to low-hanging fruit.

Originally posted 2023-05-23 16:30:27.