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‘Academic Freedom Conference’ at Stanford to unite big-name conservatives and liberals for free speech

Two-day event, set for early November, has already drawn condemnations, criticisms

An “Academic Freedom Conference” slated for early November at Stanford University will feature venerable scholars from both the left and right who have at least one thing in common — the desire to see freedom of thought and expression flourish at their institutions of higher learning.

The lineup of speakers includes well-known scholars who are either conservative, centrist, liberal or libertarian, but who have established themselves as leading voices against an orthodoxy strangling free speech and dissent on campuses.

The goal of the conference, hosted at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, is to buoy its invitation-only audience of faculty members from across the nation to head back to their campuses ready to stand up for academic freedom, open inquiry and freedom of speech.

With that, the two-day event has already prompted controversy and ad hominem attacks, as more than 30 Stanford professors from a variety of fields asked the university “to distance itself from the conference,” Inside Higher Ed reported Tuesday.

“The organizers have in fact gone out of their way to create a hermetically-sealed event, safe from any and all meaningful debate, filled with self-affirmation and self-congratulation, an event where racism is given shelter and immunity,” the statement reportedly said.

Asked if the furor over the conference is an attempt to get it canceled, UT Austin finance Professor Richard Lowery said it may be.

“I’m reasonably certain that they would very much like the conference to not take place, though it is of course possible they have other motives. But, in general, the philosophy of the campus left is that dissenting ideas should not be allowed to be expressed on campus,” said Lowery, who is scheduled to speak on practical solutions to attain academic freedom.

Organizers also recently decided to livestream the event to quell criticisms and concerns.

But California Association of Scholars Chairman John Ellis called denunciations of the conference “totally dishonest.”

“A large number of progressives were invited, and they all declined to come,” Ellis said. “Having declined to come, they then complain about their absence.”

“There is no diversity viewpoint on campuses,” Ellis added, “and now they come forward with a straight face and criticize this conference for silencing debate?”

The event does include many thinkers who identify as either Democrat, traditionally liberal, or centrist, including New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Greg Lukianoff. The two co-authored “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Another panelist is Jerry Coyne, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Chicago, who maintains the popular blog Why Evolution Is True.

“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,” Coyne wrote on his blog last week.

Additional panelists include Dorian Abbot, a geophysical sciences professor at the University of Chicago who advances a “Merit, Fairness and Equality” philosophy that he hopes replaces the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion dogma that dominates universities in everything from hiring and tenure decisions to curriculum and funding choices.

Abbot was famously canceled from giving a guest science lecture at MIT last year because he is a DEI critic. Abbot developed the merit and equality concept with Stanford accounting Professor Iván Marinovic, lead coordinator of the conference.

Libertarian tech mogul Peter Thiel, who has said “universities today are as corrupt as the Catholic Church of 500 years ago,” will offer his latest thoughts at the conference. Also on tap is law scholar Nadine Strossen, past president of the ACLU, and famed Harvard University psychology Professor Steven Pinker.

Ilya Shapiro, director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute, is scheduled to speak on “Academic Freedom in Law and Legal Education.” Shapiro essentially lost his new job at the Georgetown Center for the Constitution earlier this year after he criticized affirmative action.

Two of the most controversial scholars in America today will also take to the dais at the conference: University of Pennsylvania law Professor Amy Wax and former Princeton University Professor Joshua Katz, both of whom have been victims of cancel culture because of blunt comments regarding race. The two are set to appear on a panel titled “The Cost of Academic Dissent.”

Another scholar set to speak who has faced cancel culture on campus is San Jose State University anthropology Professor Elizabeth Weiss.

“I will be speaking about my own experience that ranges from a near-banning of my book, ‘Repatriation and Erasing the Past,’ to the deplatforming of my talk at the Society for American Archaeology, to being locked out of the curation facility at San José State University,” Weiss told The College Fix via email Tuesday.

“I very much look forward to speaking at this fascinating event and meeting some of the world’s foremost experts on academic freedom,” she added. “It looks like a great combination of those who have gone through cancel culture attacks (like Francis Widdowson, who was fired from her position at Mount Royal University), those who fight for academic freedom (like Greg Lukianoff, the CEO of Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), and those who study the ideology behind cancel culture (like Lee Jussim, distinguished professor of psychology at Rutgers University).”

Weiss dismissed criticisms of the event.

“I’ve seen various howls of protest in the blogosphere, but with wokeism contaminating and discrediting academia an event like this is long overdue and should help redress the balance,” she said.

Some concerned alumni will also be in the audience, such as Carl Neuss of the Cornell Free Speech Alliance.

“A great many faculty members oppose the dogma and intolerance which now dominate U.S. universities – but are afraid of the punishment that may result from sharing their views,” Neuss said. “There exists a silent, centrist majority, which this conference will speak to.”

“Hopefully, efforts like the Stanford conference will encourage faculty members to speak up in support of much needed university reforms.”

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.