When Stanford Supported Free Speech

by Michael New

Stanford is back in the news again. The decision by the Graduate Student Council to withdraw funding from the Anscombe Society for a conference on traditional marriage has earned the university a great deal of criticism. For Stanford alumni, there is a feeling of déjà vu. During the 1980s and 1990s, the antics of left-wing students and faculty generated national media attention. The faculty senate raised a number of objections to placing the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on campus. Jesse Jackson frequently visited Stanford to rally opposition to Stanford’s Western-culture course requirements. One day, Jackson marched a team of undergraduates around campus chanting, “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Western Culture has got to go!”

However, these campus controversies from the 1980s and early 1990s have an interesting and little known postscript. Close observers of the campus political scene know that during the past 25 years Stanford has actually done a relatively good job of keeping campus political controversies out of the news. In fact, some people have speculated that Stanford has made a deliberate effort to admit a larger number of undergraduates with interests in the hard sciences, engineering, and computer science – hoping these sorts of students would be less likely to engage in political activism or create controversy around campus.

When I was pursuing my doctorate in political science at Stanford between 1997 and 2002, the campus was certainly liberal, but conservative ideas could still receive a hearing. In 1998 I arranged a week-long campus visit by Dinesh D’Souza; he gave a public lecture and engaged in small group discussions in classes, dorms, and even a fraternity. In January 1998 the campus Speakers Bureau invited Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition to campus for an open lecture. In 1999 I brought Olivia Gans of National Right to Life to Stanford and the next day, the director of the campus Women’s Center even hosted an open discussion with her. All of this happened without provoking serious backlash or controversy.

Now I realize that I was the beneficiary of good timing. The late 1990s was the height of the dotcom boom and neither the campus political scene nor the national political one was all that interesting. The reduced interest in politics probably made life somewhat easier for students with dissenting viewpoints. And during this time conservative students still had some legitimate grievances with the University. For instance, the rules governing dormitory distribution of campus newspapers were never clear and writers for the conservative Stanford Review often felt that they were unfairly targeted and punished by University administrators.

That said, Stanford administrators would do well to read Wednesday’s Public Discourse essay by my Witherspoon colleague and Stanford alumna Jennifer Bryson. She describes how in 1989, hostile students shouted down pro-life activist Randall Terry when he came to Stanford for a lecture. However, days later, Stanford administrators met with leaders of Stanford Students for Life and offered to pay for security if they ever brought another controversial speaker to campus. This is in stark contrast to the current demands of Stanford administrators that the Anscombe Society pay $5,600 for security costs during their upcoming conference. “Let the Winds of Freedom Blow” should be more than just Stanford’s unofficial slogan. The University can – and has — done better.

— Michael New is an Assistant Professor at The University of Michigan – Dearborn and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. He was a doctoral student in political science at Stanford between 1997 and 2002. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New

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