Chair of Stanford’s Department of Computer Science sends out woke and confusing email affirming his department’s virtue

December 12, 2021 • 12:30 pm

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and working to try to get colleges and universities—especially mine—to refrain from issuing official political, ideological, or moral statements save under exceptional circumstances.  Freedom of speech is a sine qua non for a decent university, and that goes along with a university not trying to stifle or chill speech by issuing their “own” official positions.  For institutional statements of morality and ideology will necessarily stifle  the speech of those opposed to approved sentiments. We already know that half of college students, and a goodly proportion of professors, are self-censoring lest they incur the wrath of those who have power over them. In colleges, those with power are the Woke. Students and faculty who have issues with wokeness have, by and large decided to keep their mouths shut, and that is not what should be happening in colleges.

It’s for this reason that the University of Chicago not only has the nation’s most respected speech code, the “Chicago Principles of Free Expression“, but also a supporting set of principles to prevent units of the university from establishing official or “approved” political and ideological positions: the Kalven report. Without the latter, the former is toothless, for speech will be chilled and the Chicago Principles will mean nothing. Let me quote the heart of the Kalven Report once again (my emphases):

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

Two caveats: of course individuals may comment as individuals, so long as it’s clear they are not speaking for the university but expressing a personal view (caveats are always useful to that end). And there can be some political statements allowed if they further the mission of the University: to teach, learn, and do research. (One okay statement would be opposing initiatives that may affect foreign students, like a government attempt to rescinding the DACA act.)

By and large, my university observes these principles, but departments are beginning to violate them, for they can’t resist commenting on issues of the day, even if it has no bearing on their department.  This also allows universities, who are increasingly taken over by administrators and hired diversity advocates, to issue statements that show how virtuous they are. Most of these statements, like the one below, are performative wokeness. They accomplish nothing except to call attention to a universty or department as being on the Side of the Angels. (For a similar example from UC Irvine, go here.)

And so the head of Stanford’s highly reputed Department of Computer Science, John Mitchell, in league with Breauna Spencer, the CS Department’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, issued a strongly worded but confusing statement on December 5 connecting the verdicts in the Rittenhouse trial (not guilty) and trial of the McMichaels and William Bryan for murdering Ahmaud Arbery (guilty). I happen to think that these verdicts were both correct and in accordance with the law. But they have little to do with one another save that racial tension (a demonstration in one case, bigotry in the other) was involved.

The Stanford Review, which I gather is the conservative student newspaper, has an article about the email that went out from Mitchell and Spencer to all the students and faculty in the Computer Science Department. It thus has the cachet of an official statement. Moreover, it tells students and faculty how they should be thinking and acting. There’s more to the article, too, but I’ll mention only briefly what I consider an irrelevant bit.

Here’s the email as reprinted in the newspaper:

On Friday, November 19th, a jury found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty on all charges. It was not disputed that Rittenhouse brought a firearm to a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killed Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz. As a department, we bemoan the loss of life.  We are deeply saddened and disappointed by these events and acknowledge the pain and suffering they have caused many members of the community.

On Wednesday, November 24th, Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan were convicted on nine counts, including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt for shooting and killing Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery’s case reflects a longstanding legacy of racial injustice. We offer our heartfelt condolences to Arbery’s family.

We condemn the violence, trauma, and suffering that the Black community has both historically and contemporarily endured. The pervasiveness of anti-Black racism reaffirms our department’s mission to create an equitable, diverse, and inclusive community that centers, affirms, and uplifts everyone and prioritizes an enduring sense of belonging and community for all.

For those personally affected by these events, the Stanford CS Department takes your well-being seriously. We understand that recent and ongoing affronts to the principle of racial equality or the Black Lives Matter Social Movement continue to be distressing, burdensome, and mentally and physically exhausting…

The Rittenhouse and Arbery sequences of events remind us of the work we must continue to do to eradicate anti-Blackness and systemic racism in our society. As Martin Luther King Jr. stated in his “I Have a Dream Speech” on August 28th, 1963, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Therefore, we call for accountability and powerful change. We fiercely and unapologetically ask that each person within our department take a stance against racism and other forms of oppression impacting marginalized communities and that we all educate ourselves on how to become anti-racists. Ibram Kendi writes that “to be antiracist is a radical choice in the face of history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.”

The email had appended to it a link to the “Stanford CS Anti-Racism Resource Toolkit“, a list of suggested readings, some of which are good, others not so good, but you can be sure that there’s nothing on it that would contravene CRT ideology. John McWhorter (who is an anti-racist)? Forget it. But you’ll certainly see the 1619 Project and books by Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo.

Anyway, read the email.  It somehow manages to link the Rittenhouse affair, in which a young white man killed two white people and wounded one (in self-defense, the jury decided) while an anti-racist demonstration was going on, with the acts of three bigots who killed a black man, surely largely because he was black.  There is no connection between these two incidents save that race played a big role in one and a tangential and irrelevant role in the other. Nevertheless, Stanford manages to connect them as both showing that racism is bad, and that Stanford’s Computer Science Department stands strongly against it.

The final paragraph is a call to action for students and faculty, urging them to adhere to CRT’s version of anti-racism, even citing Ibram Kendi. They also cite Dr. King in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but they tellingly leave out other words from that speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  That of course didn’t mean that King thought race was irrelevant—he spent his life fighting for justice for African-Americans—but that it should not be the basis on which people make decisions about individuals.  And making decisions about individuals is precisely what this email is doing by connecting the murderers of Arbery, who were racists, to the actions of Rittenhouse, who is white and implicitly deemed bad, though he was found not guilty.

The upshot is that the Computer Science chair and diversity dean had no business issuing a statement like this. It is empty words, performative, devoid of meaning, and almost surely ineffectual. Those who disagree with Professor Mitchell will be afraid to take issue with his views. Others will simply not want to drop their computer science work and start fighting against racism. In the end, this statement, full of innuendo and debatable points, will chill the speech of people in the department.  If Mitchell wanted to issue his personal opinion, saying that “this is my personal view only and others may disagree”, that’s fine, though his position itself gives the statement an air of official-ness. Were I Mitchell, I would simply have shut up.

The article dwells a lot on one CS-recommended book by Assata Shakur, who fled to Cuba after being imprisoned for murdering a cop in the U.S. The piece decries her being made a heroine by being on the book list (she is a hero to many on the far Left). I don’t agree that she should be admired, but I’m more concerned with free speech in America, as Shakur, who is 74, will be free until she dies in Cuba. Ignore that bit and focus on what’s happening in science departments throughout America, something that I thought would never occur. STEM groups are loci of some of the most ludicrous performative antiracism you can find.  The editorial ends this way:

This debacle should serve as a warning to professors and departmental leaders everywhere, but especially in the sciences and engineering: DEI is poison, and if you let it take hold in your department, prepare to be taken for a ride. Today you’ll be promoting fuzzy concepts like “inclusion” and tomorrow what you’ll be including are terrorist memoirs on departmental reading lists. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

I would qualify the “DEI is poison” statement, for DEI is not poison in itself; it’s what many of its advocates do in practice that is toxic. And what they’re doing is taking the science out of science departments, turning them all into Departments of Social Engineering.

16 thoughts on “Chair of Stanford’s Department of Computer Science sends out woke and confusing email affirming his department’s virtue

  1. I would qualify the “DEI is poison” statement, for DEI is not poison in itself

    When the “E” is “Equity” (= equal outcomes) I think it is poison. Attempting to attain equal outcomes will necessarily become authoritarian. If the “E” is “Equality” (= MLK’s maxim) then, agreed, it is not poison.

    It somehow manages to link the Rittenhouse affair, in which a young white man murdered two white people and wounded one (in self-defense, the jury decided) …

    But if one agrees with the jury that it was justified as “self defense” then it was not murder.

    1. If it really was Diversity, Equ(al)ity and Inclusion, that might be OK.

      But all too often it isn’t. In practice, it ends up as Conformity, Heirarchy and Exclusion. And at the bottom of the Heirarchy pile, in this universe, are straight white (and, dare one add, Jewish) men.

      1. I’m not sure if I understand the difference between equality (of opportunity) and equity. So I googled. And got dozens of charming heartwarming cartoon illustrations, many involving people of various heights trying to watch a baseball game by peering over the outfield fence. The DEI versions illustrate equity as a higher stack of soap boxes for the short people so that all can watch the game. There are, naturally, parodies. My favourite is this one:
        I gather Mr. Cain is a Republican member of the Texas State Legislature but I didn’t know that when I selected his cartoon.

        These parodies seem to annoy the Woke Left enough that they refer to them as tropes. Yay!

        1. The fence cartoon should be seen as ofenceive to blacks. The implication is that black people are inately inferior to white people as defined by the height metaphor. There’s no intrinsic reason why black people should be less good at maths than white people (for example).

          In reality, the Europeans of yore dug a hole and made the black people stand in it and, to an extent, they are still there.

  2. > I would qualify the “DEI is poison” statement, for DEI is not poison in itself

    I’m torn between two metaphors: medicine or hammer. A medicine inappropriately administered is poison. To the main with a hammer, everything is a nail; it is a dumb tool that can be used or abused.

  3. The Stanford Computer Science Department pair, Mitchell and Spencer, should’ve steered clear of this topic. The Stanford Review piece, nevertheless, is a bit hyperbolic and jejune.

  4. I understand that companies such as Google and Twitter, etc have very, very low numbers of Blacks/HIspanics in their technical areas. In fact, I believe that in the most rigorous, technical parts of tech companies, it’s largely Asian (mainly Chinese) and some whites.

    So, maybe at the Stanford CSC its best/better performing students are Asians and some whites.

    Could these things be in no small part for the “wokeness” for these companies and STEM areas in schools?

  5. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say that Rittenhouse killed 2 people rather than”murdered” 2 people since he was not convicted of murder?

  6. The Department’s pronunciamento: “…our department’s mission to create an equitable, diverse, and inclusive community that centers, affirms, and uplifts everyone and prioritizes an enduring sense of belonging and community for all.” That’s strange, I thought a Computer Science Department’s mission
    had something to do with Computer Science. The rhapsody about affirming and uplifting everyone, and prioritizing everyone’s sense of belonging, reveals this assertion’s lineage: the world of day-care, pre-school, helicopter parenting, and group therapy. Needless to point out, nobody could ever fail, or even be second-best, in a department whose mission is to affirm and uplift everyone. Prizes for everyone.

    The pronunciamento also reveals an unstated assumption, common also to many DEI committees: that community is not something that develops organically—e.g., among members and students in a department—but rather something that must be engineered through bureaucracy. In my old department, the DEI Committee boasts of ​ “instituting a weekly “Genome Sciences Community Lunches and Life Stories” aimed at building our community and promoting inclusivity”.

    So: we have the amalgam of the day-care/pre-school mentality together with social engineering through bureaucracy plus an infusion of virtue-flaunting. With all this, one might almost forget Computer Science, Genome Science, or all those other pesky missions that used to be the reasons for the existence of specific STEM departments.

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