Stanford Law dean who stood up to professor-deplatforming students is named Provost of the University

August 25, 2023 • 11:45 am

I’m sure you remember the fracas at Stanford Law School last spring, when federal judge Kyle Duncan, a conservative, was deplatformed (shouted down and forced to terminate his talk) by Stanford Law Students. The students’ deplatforming was egged on by SLS DEI dean Tirien Steinbach, who interrupted the disruption to give Duncan a lecture about how hurtful his judicial decisions had been.

Things happened quickly.  In a joint letter, SLS Dean Jenny Martinez and Stanford’s soon-to-be-ex-President Marc Tessier-Lavigne (he resigned after falsified data was found in papers he authored) apologized to the judge on behalf of SLS, and Steinbach was put on leave and then fired. Martinez (whose classes were also disrupted after she criticized the deplatforming) wrote a long (10-page) letter again criticizing the students and, above all, defending free speech at Stanford, saying that the school will abide by the First Amendment and will develop a program for educating SLS students about free speech and specifying how  with disruptive protestors will be dealt with. Have a look at the letter; it’s good.

Now the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Martinez has been named Provost of Stanford University—the school’s highest academic officer. It’s good news for the school and for freedom of speech there.

An excerpt:

Months after her lengthy missive defending free speech made national headlines, Jenny S. Martinez has been named provost of Stanford University.

As dean of Stanford’s law school, Martinez saw the campus through controversy after a student protest of a federal judge in March turned into a cultural flashpoint.

“As dean, she has been a champion of inclusion, and a clear and reasoned voice for academic freedom,” Richard Saller, Stanford’s interim president, wrote in his announcement of Martinez’s promotion. She will take office on October 1.

. . .As leaders across higher ed question how to respond to free-speech flaps, Martinez has served as an example.

National commentaries hailed her memo as a watershed moment, signaling that college leaders were becoming more open to issuing forceful defenses of academic freedom and free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, for instance, called Martinez’s letter a “tour de force.”

That stance often clashes with students, who increasingly say that colleges shouldn’t invite speakers to campuses if their views might be offensive to students of color and LGBTQ students, among other groups.

The only fly in the ointment I see is that Martinez explicitly said that no student who protested would be singled out and punished, and I wonder if that philosophy will be applied in the future. For if there’s no punishment specified for disrupting speech (Chicago has one), then there’s no impetus not to disrupt.

Even so, I think this is an important development, and we’ll see how Stanford deals with disruptions in the future. It hasn’t had a particularly good record on free speech. FIRE puts it at #107 in its college free-speech rankings, gives it a “yellow” light (green is best), and rates its speech climate as “average”.  The rankings include 203 colleges, and of course the University of Chicago is #1. Stanford is below the median.

Martinez’s job will be to improve Stanford’s ratings.

As The Chronicle notes:

By elevating Martinez to its top academic post, Stanford is making a statement in the continuing free-speech debate. Leaders across the country will look to Martinez to uphold that stance, particularly as she assumes jurisdiction over not only the law school but also Stanford’s entire student body.

She’ll also be second in command to [Richard] Saller, an interim president who will take the job after Tessier-Lavigne resigned. An investigation found that while Tessier-Lavigne hadn’t personally engaged in research misconduct, he had “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record.” His resignation is effective September 1.

h/t: Wayne

8 thoughts on “Stanford Law dean who stood up to professor-deplatforming students is named Provost of the University

  1. I thought Martinez was correct not to sanction or punish the student protestors. An argument can be made that, given the general climate at other universities and in other instances at Stanford, the students would have reasonably expected their actions to be supported by Martinez and other administrators and not punished. I don’t think that’s a very good argument, but Martinez’ decision might help pour oil on the water. Disappointing everyone involved is a good administrative goal sometimes.

    [edit to say: Now that everyone at the law school knows about 1A expectations etc. then sanctions & punishment would be reasonable after future disruptions like this.]

  2. >For if there’s no punishment specified for disrupting speech (Chicago has one), then there’s no impetus not to disrupt.

    Yes, students and everyone else at the university should feel the general deterrent incentive that comes from a policy of certain punishment of those who don’t get the message or let their righteous passions get away with them.

    Re the amnesty, retribution might not be necessary if the risk of re-offending is low and the so-far non-offenders now have clear expectations put on them. Stanford’s low ranking on freedom of speech suggests the students had reasonable expectation that the university would condone their behaviour, which undermines the justness of retribution. Unlike after the Civil War, (say), amnesty was probably not necessary for a higher purpose as to bind up the nation’s wounds. I suspect Stanford just judged it unlikely it could make retribution stick given prior connivance and condonement.

    No matter, the elevation of Prof. Martinez to Provost is really encouraging that good conduct is rewarded.

  3. By elevating Martinez to its top academic post, Stanford is making a statement in the continuing free-speech debate.

    That’s how I’d read it.

  4. I think students should not be punished in the sense of retribution. Also, deterrence seems to be the weakest aspect of justice. But perhaps a bit of rehabilitation might be in order, some extra classes/essays on the positive aspects of free and respectful speech.

  5. Martinez’s promotion is a rare example of strong and principled leadership being reinforced. Universities need to reestablish their role in promoting scholarship and debate unfettered by ideology. Stanford is here setting the right example. So many other colleges and universities have lost their way. Since they no longer have the legitimacy to lead, they would do well to follow.

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