Academic freedom meeting at Stanford

October 21, 2022 • 12:30 pm

The Stanford Business School is having an academic freedom conference on Friday, November 4, and Saturday, November 5 at the business school’s Knight Management Center at Stanford. The good news is there are a lot of people whom I want to meet, many of them of the “heterodox” stripe. Some of these people I find sympatico, others I don’t care for at all, but I like the idea of the meeting and want to hear some of these folks. Be aware that some speakers have been extensively canceled or demonized, but I refused to be tarred by going to the same meeting with them, so please refrain from that.

The bad news is that the meeting is by invitation only, and I don’t think those who aren’t speaking, or haven’t been invited, can attend. (I think this is the policy of the Classical Liberalism Initiative, which is sponsoring the conference.) I’ll be speaking as part of one panel.

Click on the screenshot to see the details:

The conference description:

Academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of speech are under threat as they have not been for decades. Visibly, academics are “canceled,” fired, or subject to lengthy disciplinary proceedings in response to academic writing or public engagement. Less visibly, funding agencies, university bureaucracies, hiring procedures, promotion committees, professional organizations, and journals censor some kinds of research or demand adherence to political causes. Many parts of universities have become politicized or have turned into ideological monocultures, excluding people, ideas, or kinds of work that challenge their orthodoxy. Younger researchers are afraid to speak and write and don’t investigate promising ideas that they fear will endanger their careers.

The two-day Academic Freedom Conference, arranged by the organizing committee, aims to identify ways to restore academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of speech and expression on campus and in the larger culture and restore the open debate required for new knowledge to flourish. The conference will focus on the organizational structures leading to censorship and stifling debate and how to repair them.

A summary of the events, which are sequential rather than concurrent


Talk by Jon Haidt, “Why it has gotten harder to find the truth.”

Panel: “Academic freedom in STEM” with Anna Krylov, Luana Maroja, Mimi St. Johns, and me

Keynote speech: Peter Thiel

Panel: “Academic freedom: practical solutions” with Richard Lowery, Dorian Abbot, John Hasnas, and Peter Arcidiacano

Lunch talk by Lee Jussim: “The radicalization of the academy”

Panel: “Are the humanities liberal?/How to liberate them” with Solveig Gold, Joseph Manson, John Rose

Panel: “The economics of academic freedom” with Niall Ferguson, John Cochrane, and Tyler Cowan

Panel: “The state of higher ed: USA, UK, Canada” with John Ellis, Gad Saad and Eric Kaurmann


Panel: “Academic freedom applications: climate science and biomedical sciences” with Steve Koonin, Bjorn Lomborg, and Jay Bhattacharya

Talk:  “The war on the West”, Douglas Murray

Panel: “Academic freedom: What is it and what is it for?” with Greg Lukianoff, Nadine Strossman and Richard Shweder.   I’m especially looking forward to this one, as Greg is President of FIRE, Nadine Strossen is past President of the ACLU (now a professor at NYU Law School), and Richard Shweder is my colleague at the Law School here.

Lunch talk by Scott Atlas

Talk by Steve Pinker: “An (unnecessary) defense of reason and a (necessary) defense of universities’ role in advancing it.

Panel: “Academic freedom in law and legal education” with Ilya Shapiro, Michael McConnell, an Eugene Volokh

Panel: “The cost of academic dissent” with Joshua Katz, Frances Widowson, Amy Wax, and Elizabeth Weiss

I’ll take notes and report back on stuff of interest when I return. (I’ll be out of town for about nine days, as I’m visiting friends in Davis beforehand; posting will be light during that time.)

53 thoughts on “Academic freedom meeting at Stanford

  1. That should be very interesting. A business school is about the only place on campus that would have the gonads to host a conference on the controversial topic of academic freedom these days.

  2. Will these talks and panels be recorded and available ? This is critical stuff. We’re in an age that is maybe more dangerous than HUAC.

    1. I was informed today by a member of the conference organizing committee that the talks will be recorded and posted on YouTube.

  3. It sounds terrific. Will the presentations and discussions be published? I expect that might cause some turmoil; but maybe that’s what we need.

  4. This and the previous Pew Studies entry are the most hopeful things I’ve read all week. Will the Worm turn?

  5. I’ve read books, articles, blogs or seen interviews of ~70% of the participants. I’m pretty sure I know their viewpoints. Will the woke, illiberal, anti-freedom party be represented?

    1. CarlW, yes the woke and their friends will be banging pans and shouting through bullhorns to protest the emotional damage the conference might be causing someone somewhere.

  6. That sounds great! I always try to follow the libertarian/classical liberal circuit when I can! I’d love to hear your impressions of Peter Thiel.

      1. He’s a very polarizing figure. I think he aligns more with my value system than with yours. I would definitely be interested in listening to him. That said, I’m having difficulty reconciling my idea of impartial free speech for all with … the Gawker incident (please look it up, as well as whom he has historically supported).

        1. Peter Thiel is polarizing because he enthusiastically supports Trump, opposes democracy, and pumps up scams like bitcoin. The world would be much better off without wealthy sociopaths like Thiel.

        2. Personally, I would never trust anyone who has read the Lord of the Rings trilogy ten times *as an adult*.

          On a more serious note, one would think that someone who calls himself a libertarian would be a strong proponent of free speech, but the actual libertarians at Reason no longer recognize Thiel as one of their own. A couple of years ago, they denounced him for his authoritarianism. I suspect that Thiel is about as committed to free speech as his counterparts in the current Anti-Civil Liberties Union…

      2. You might want to read this by him:

        Quotable quotes:

        “Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

        “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.”

        In a way, he’s refreshingly blunt. If capitalism conflicts with democracy, in his view democracy should be discarded for capitalism. Many people believe that, but don’t say it so directly.

        1. I agree that when I saw Peter Thiel’s name as keynote speaker I was taken aback. He is a far right billionaire, and Trump supporter. He has been funding far right candidates in the coming election. According to Forbes Magazine (about as far from a leftist publication that still has credibility that one can find), he is seeking to become a citizen of Malta.

          Regardless of what other speakers talk about, Thiel’s presence will diminish (unfairly) the credibility of other speakers. I would love to know the rationale of the conference organizers for picking him to give the keynote.

          1. I’m not an organizer but I can already sense that we’ll all be tarred by association with this one person. I’m not saying you’re doing that, but I don’t think this is even an issue that should be discussed.

          2. Thiel and Snodfart (sorry, I was there at Stanford for 30+ years) Biz Skool likely have a shared interest. (Money) He is horrid, of course, but idiotically wealthy and that sin washes out all the others. I’m not opposed to having him speak somewhere, but the organizers do demean themselves with this sad/sick choice. He is not what one would call a scholarly or intellectual Grand Thinker. His only value is his money.

        2. ‘Since 1920, the . . . extension of the franchise to women . . . . [a constituency] notoriously tough for libertarians — [has] rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.’

          I trust that he will hold forth in detail on and justify that statement in his keynote speech. Or if he doesn’t someone will press him during question time. Apparently Thiel’s being a member of the historically oppressed gay constituency is no guarantee of sympathy for women of whatever sexual orientation.

    1. Indeed. IIRC, he wasn’t very keen on Gawker having free speech. (And of course he’s funding a lot of candidates who don’t like the idea of free elections….)

      1. Free speech isn’t the same as free elections. You might well disenfranchise those who don’t own property or pay income tax or serve in the military for political science reasons related to skin in the game. That doesn’t mean you would prevent the disenfranchised from speaking their minds. If the views of those ineligible to vote were sufficiently cogent to change the minds of eligible voters, fine. After all, we allow minors and non-citizens to speak even though we don’t let them vote.

  7. Wish I could be a fly on the wall. I only know some of the presenters through their writings, but not others, so am wondering if any of the participants are from the other side of the house—meaning from among those who advocate for anything less than academic freedom. It might be useful to engage some of them in dialog. (But then again, it might not.)

    1. I love the idea of having speakers against academic freedom putting forth their best persuasive arguments at a conference on academic freedom. Sort of an own goal on their part, but it supports the concept.

      I have a friend who years ago ran a Religious Diversity event for local public and private high schoolers. The idea was to expose teens to the range of options and teach them that religions which disagreed on doctrine could still respect each other. Religious tolerance was vital to a free society. She put together a panel of representatives for an audience Q & A. When I asked who was on it, she ran down a list of liberal denominations like Unity and Baha’i, plus Islam.

      But where were Catholics, Reformed, Lutherans and Pentecostal? It’s religious diversity. Shouldn’t they be there?

      She told me they didn’t fit the theme, so she hadn’t asked them.

  8. The participant list looks like a delightful rogues’ gallery, much like the cast of miscreants queuing at the registration desk in Blazing Saddles for the final assault on Rock Ridge. Glad that you are one of them. This is really important.

    Question: how many speakers have been actually fired from their position, not just cancelled or silenced in some less draconian way? Frances Widdowson and Joshua Katz are the only two I recognize, fired from tenured positions. (In both cases their employers claim the dismissals were for non-academic misconduct.) They can certainly speak to the cost of academic dissent.

    Disclosure: I contribute to Prof. Widdowson’s fund raising campaign for her fight to be reinstated by Mount Royal University. I pretend no neutrality.

    1. Prior to her dismissal, Professor Widdowson was penalized by the MRU administration for the offence of satire. A satirical piece she wrote was designated “harassment”, based on the edict that “attempts to ‘satirize’…degenerates into ridicule and [is] demeaning of others.” You really have to watch your step in Canadian academe, especially in regard to the sacred topic of the Indigenous. South of the border, we accord a similar degree of sanctity to slightly different matters, such as pronouns.

      1. As I recall, and I reiterate I’m not neutral, the satire was directed at her academic colleagues over their virtue signalling about oppression yet being almost entirely of oppressive phenotypes themselves. While she is a well-known critic of the Indigenous agenda of rent-seeking through victim culture, I have never heard or read her say anything that mocks, ridicules, or demeans Indigenous people or their traditional culture. There are some ugly truths that she doesn’t shrink from telling.

        1. Just one more quote from Wikipedia :

          “Rent-seeking is distinguished in theory from profit-seeking, in which entities seek to extract value by engaging in mutually beneficial transactions.[7] Profit-seeking in this sense is the creation of wealth, while rent-seeking is “profiteering” by using social institutions, such as the power of the state, to redistribute wealth among different groups without creating new wealth.[8]”

          8. Conybeare, John A. C. (1982). “The Rent-Seeking State and Revenue Diversification”. World Politics. 35 (1): 25–42.

          (See article for links).

  9. Bjorn Lomborg has made a career out of denying the science of climate change and/or minimizing its effects. He epitomizes bad faith scholarship, but not surprisingly, is championed by the “do nothing” crowd.

    1. He never denied the science of climate change. I read his book Cool it after reading literally the whole of the 3rd (I think) IPCC report, I am probably the only person who ever read a whole report from end to end (not only the summaries for policymakers!). Much of “Cool it” was just those parts of the IPCC working group II and II reports that the activist science crew kept from the public because they might hamper the mitigation effort. It was one-sided, but certainly no more so than the public lectures of Al Gore.

  10. Wow! What an all-star event. I’m jealous. I would particularly love to hear that economics of academic freedom talk. Well, enjoy!

  11. There are a few derogatory remarks here about this or that speaker. Don’t these rather miss the point of the conference?

    1. Well, yes. Only people with the correct opinions ought to be free to express them. After all, with social justice and climate change the stakes are too high to allow cranks to undermine the consensus for headlong pell-mell action.

    2. Stephen, I considered that. I wonder though when I see what looks like the Far Right weaponizing the Center against the Far Left – and vice versa. They usually do it when their side is not in control of the White House. Both sides are toxic.

      I like a LOT of what the speakers are expressly saying, but their actions betray it – as does their financial support. I agree that they do have a point about viewpoints being censored and shut down. As soon as the Right is in power again, I have no doubt that the Left will try to bring us on board and show us how the Right is censoring them (‘Don’t Say Gay’, etc.). They’re working from the same playbook.

      Some of these speakers are libertarians-in-name-only. Real libertarians do exist, but some Republicans only claim to be libertarians when there is a Democrat in the White House. Of course, there are also some real libertarians who have decided to choose the lesser of two evils and work within a two-party framework; they are divided as to whether they should support the Left or the Right. (Yes, I am fully aware of the No True Scotsman implications; sometimes it’s still applicable, though.)

      As someone who wants drastic constitutional change (proportional voting and RCV), I would not mind sharing the stage with political opponents for a common goal, but I’m not sure, hypothetically if I were a scientist, if I would share a stage with a climate change denier. I’d know that they were using me for a sense of political and scientific legitimacy. I agree that denier should be heard, but I don’t want to make it sound like I want anyone to support them. (Feel free to connect that sentiment to Thiel’s comment’s above about democracy…)

    3. Isn’t that one of the points of a meeting like this? To defend everyone’s right to critic people’s statements and actions?

  12. A very illustrious collection of free speech advocates, befitting our gracious host. Leaning very far left myself, I miss figures from the dissident left, like e.g. Matt Taibbi, or maybe I just missed them because I don’t know everybody.

  13. Peter Thiel may not be a great choice to be a keynote speaker for a free speech colloquium.

    “A story that violates privacy and serves no public interest should never be published,” Thiel writes. “It is ridiculous to claim that journalism requires indiscriminate access to private people’s sex lives….It is wrong to expose people’s most intimate moments for no good reason.”

    One can agree with all of these propositions without agreeing that they should be legally enforceable. Giving juries the power to determine what counts as a “public interest” or a “good reason,” not to mention whether a story advances it, poses a threat even to journalism that Peter Thiel would recognize as legitimate, because people commonly disagree about such matters.

  14. Late to chime in here, but I’m mystified by the enthusiasm for this conference. It assembles, along with some serious thinkers, several people who have really controversial ideas but also massive megaphones (afforded by university appointments, book deals, or personal wealth) with which to blare them forth. Especially bizarre is the session on Academic Freedom Applications: Climate Science and Biomedical Sciences: two Covid minimizers and two climate-change minimizers whose ideas are widely deemed (by people with relevant expertise) to be wrong, harmful, or both. The harshest criticism of these men has come from scholarly peers attacking their ideas on their merits. It has to do with “censorship and stifling debate.” And over in the economics session, there are three dudes (Ferguson, Cochrane, Cowen) who have plenty of critics but plenty of acolytes, and absolutely no limits on their academic freedom. Meanwhile, there’s Peter Thiel. Ugh.

    1. Plus, Amy Wax just seems like a truly awful person: What’s striking is that the complaints about her have less to do with ideas expressed in the context of scholarship than with the kind of casual, coarse racism that you would expect to hear at a Trump rally. Totally protected by the first amendment but, damn, this what people want to defend as an example of academic freedom?

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