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Former Stanford provost on ‘the threat from within’ to intellectual tolerance

Last week, Stanford University’s news site published an excerpt from a recent speech by former Stanford University provost John Etchemendy to Stanford’s board of trustees. Titled “The threat from within,” the speech discusses a number of threats Etchemendy sees to the success of the university in America today, first listing those he believes are coming from outside, including cuts in funding, taxing of endowments, and travel restrictions on scholars. He then goes on to say:

“But I’m actually more worried about the threat from within. Over the years, I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country—not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines—there, we have made laudable progress. Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for. It manifests itself in many ways: in the intellectual monocultures that have taken over certain disciplines; in the demands to disinvite speakers and outlaw groups whose views we find offensive; in constant calls for the university itself to take political stands. We decry certain news outlets as echo chambers, while we fail to notice the echo chamber we’ve built around ourselves.

This results in a kind of intellectual blindness that will, in the long run, be more damaging to universities than cuts in federal funding or ill-conceived constraints on immigration. It will be more damaging because we won’t even see it: We will write off those with opposing views as evil or ignorant or stupid, rather than as interlocutors worthy of consideration. We succumb to the all-purpose ad hominem because it is easier and more comforting than rational argument. But when we do, we abandon what is great about this institution we serve.”

It should be noted that, from FIRE’s perspective, Stanford has not exactly covered itself in glory, including during Etchemendy’s tenure, and especially on due process issues. (In fact, I began my short book, Twisting Title IX, with a truly appalling story of an accused student’s treatment at Stanford’s hands.) But it’s valuable to see someone who was so highly placed at a top university acknowledge some of the problems of campus intolerance that FIRE often tackles, such as disinvitation attempts.

If the university is to continue to hold its cherished place in our society, those in academia must not give into the temptation to, as Etchemendy says, “succumb to the all-purpose ad hominem because it is easier and more comforting than rational argument.”

Engaging in the marketplace of ideas is harder than simply declaring the beliefs of those with whom you disagree to be out of bounds—but it’s a responsibility that university community members in a free society must bear.

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