Nestled in the heart of what is now Silicon Valley, the Leland Stanford Junior University was, for much of its hundred-plus-year history, lightly regarded as a playground for the idle rich. To the extent that Stanford bore any resemblance to its aspirational cousins on the East Coast, it was to their previous incarnations as polite finishing schools for those who made their money the old-fashioned way — that is, by inheriting it.
All of this began to change during the 1960s with the advent of the modern semiconductor industry. Although this development was largely a fortuitous coincidence, some combination of luck and shrewd decision-making soon tied Stanford’s fortunes to the trajectory of its now-prosperous environs. The results, of course, are nothing short of breathtaking. The undergraduate college regularly boasts the nation’s lowest acceptance rates, and both the graduate business school and the law school likewise rank at the very top of their respective fields.
But all is not well on a campus where many T-shirts bear Stanford’s unofficial mantra that “Life Is Good!” Last year, former provost John Etchemendy warned publicly of a threat from within — a “growing intolerance” that has manifested as a sort of “political one-sidedness.” His admonition was, predictably, politely ignored. However, my experience at Stanford Law School suggests that, if anything, Etchemendy has understated the scope and the scale of the challenge that elite universities now face.
At Stanford Law School, no more than three of approximately 110 full-time faculty publicly identify as conservative or libertarian. (By way of contrast, Stanford Law School touts on its webpage 23 full-time faculty under the inartful rubric of “minority.”) As a consequence, many of my classmates will graduate having never engaged with a law professor whose worldview and convictions track those of nearly half the voting public.
It would require nothing less than willful blindness to presume this state of play does not affect the education that students receive. Probably for obvious reasons, my classmates demonstrate little willingness to identify publicly with anything associated with conservatism or, God forbid, President Trump, no matter how trivial. By way of extraordinary example, the Law School Republicans will soon cease to exist as a student organization because — after a campaign of intimidation and opprobrium — not one underclassman would volunteer to serve on its board next academic year.
An almost unspoken agreement seems to exist among many students that all of us will soon be fabulously successful, so long as everyone remains a “team player” and nobody rocks the boat too earnestly. Political, moral, and religious convictions are, for the most part, accessories best deployed for instrumental purposes, rather than values to be espoused or explored for their own sake. In much the same manner that all respectable people may speak or dress or eat a certain way, students at Stanford Law School have come to believe — and not entirely without reason, given their surroundings — that all respectable people should think the same way.
Of course, it would be a mistake to regard this critique as entirely new or revelatory. Václav Havel once famously asked why the greengrocer in Prague places in his window a sign bearing the words Workers of the World Unite! The answer, we are told, is simple — because everyone does so. Because he’s declaring his loyalty to the regime by accepting the prescribed ritual and the given rules of the game. Because slogans like this one are the principal instrument of ritual communication within the system of power. And one need not squint too hard to see the family resemblance between the “pivots” and the “disruptions” of Silicon Valley on the one hand and the “consumer totalitarianism” of Havel’s Czechoslovakia on the other. We just have nicer stuff, and a good deal more of it.
Whether we should rue this sorry state of affairs may well be the rare question that elicits genuine disagreement at Stanford Law School. On the infrequent occasion that anyone asks, academic administrators will dutifully and feebly pay lip service to all the “right” talking points. Stanford is committed to viewpoint diversity, in much the same way that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia. But the farce of these administrators’ much-vaunted commitment to pluralism is betrayed by their steadfast refusal to combat the acts of viewpoint intolerance, both large and small, that have come to define life at places like Stanford Law School.
For the past two years, I have repeatedly beseeched the dean of Stanford Law School to follow the example set by the leaders of my undergraduate alma mater — the University of Chicago — and publicly affirm the centrality of viewpoint diversity to the aims of education. Each time, she has refused, citing squeamishness at the prospect of overstepping her portfolio. Yet during that same period, she has nonetheless offered schoolwide commentary on public topics as diverse as the violence in Charlottesville, the rescission of DACA, and the Trump administration’s efforts to ban transgender individuals from military service.
Beyond the Office of the Dean, Stanford Law School has staged programs aimed at helping students to #resist more effectively, celebrating International Workers’ Day and offering advice on “progressive lawyering” in the Trump era. Professors have sent schoolwide emails condemning anyone who supported President Trump as either an outright racist or an enabler who is #complicit. One professor even saw fit to join a discussion on a student/alumni Facebook group for the purposes of criticizing the Law School Republicans.
So, it comes as little surprise when — after unnamed parties tore down posters advertising a recent program on abortion, which was sponsored by the Stanford Federalist Society — the associate dean of student affairs helpfully suggested that perhaps the custodial staff could be to blame. Given that the majority of these posters were left where they fell, one might fairly wonder why academic administrators would stretch to impugn the professional competence of chronically underappreciated maintenance staffers.
Particularly when experience suggests that unmasking the identity of the true culprit would hardly have mattered. After all, another student — presumably taking her cues from professors and administrators — recently removed a number of “Make America Great Again” posters from the law school and saw fit to document her efforts with a schoolwide email headlined “Racist Posters Found at Law School Last Night.” But when pressed to remedy these and other acts of intolerance, academic administrators demur, almost without exception.
They sympathetically explain that they cannot control the behavior of others — particularly other tenured faculty — and that it’s not their job to do so, in any event. Longtime observers could be forgiven for wondering what, if anything, we pay these administrators to accomplish. Especially given their professed inability to wade into waters any more controversial than a cautious endorsement of flame-retardant pajamas.
Whether or not their job descriptions require the leaders of Stanford Law School to care that the campus now resembles the captive polity best depicted by Václav Havel, self-interest — among the most potent of forces in Silicon Valley — should nonetheless compel their solicitude. Setting aside the possibility that heterodox perspectives might lay claim to any independent intellectual merit, it cannot be disputed that a textured pluralism will also serve instrumental liberal ends.
To the extent that the market may eventually address this problem, it will not have been because the gutless bureaucrats who run institutions like Stanford Law School started listening to hard men like me.
Stanford Law School is organized, at least theoretically, as a professional school. And students gamely pay nearly $100,000 per year for the promise that they’ll receive an education that ensures their place within the ranks of America’s finest advocates. Of course, they actually receive something closer to three years of self-affirmation, navel-gazing, and a variety of more or less amusing games played by consenting intellectual adults. Genuine advocacy, by contrast, requires resolution of conflicts through adversarial engagement with mutually exclusive perspectives.
In a contrived world where nobody will publicly embrace any number of otherwise mainstream arguments — even if only for the sake of argument — it is, in point of fact, the liberal students who may suffer most. This is because the so-called “real world” will not abide by the niceties of Queensberry Rules. Young lawyers hitherto protected from “unsafe” perspectives are likely to confront a decidedly hazardous world. Opposing counsel will, for instance, zealously represent all their best arguments, regardless of how unpalatable these claims may prove to the respectable sensibilities of the kombucha cartel.
Furthermore, many judges whom graduates encounter will have been chosen by Republican presidents, governors, and voters. And regardless of who chose them, most judges — on account of life tenure — are unlikely to satisfy the fast-evolving standards set forth by the arbiters of modern political correctness. The vast majority of courtrooms are probably not, in fact, “safe” spaces. Of course, many lawyers will also have little say in choosing their clients, who may have acted outrageously yet now command, per the profession’s ethical standards, zealous representation.
To the extent that the market may eventually address this problem, it will not have been because the gutless bureaucrats who run institutions such as Stanford Law School started listening to hard men like me. Rather, the principal employers of young lawyers — especially federal judges, who, by virtue of the prestige associated with judicial clerkships, exercise outsized influence — might speed this resolution by exerting unsubtle pressure on elite law schools to teach something more substantive than kumbaya.
Ditto America’s largest, most prestigious law firms, whose paying clients would likely be horrified to kibitz an hour of classroom discussion at any “top” law school. But such are the knock-on effects of the closing of the American mind in what appear to be its agonal moments. Decades of willfully conflating appearances with reality have conspired to render uncertain whether even the basest of motivations may now save us from our universities. What does seem certain is that — until we learn the answer — Stanford and other institutions like it should be now, as they once were, lightly regarded.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its original posting, to clarify the context of a professor’s Facebook post.