Polarization, Academic Freedom, and Inclusion


Publish Date:
February 1, 2023
  • Paul Brest and Norm Spaulding, Report on Polarization, Academic Freedom, and Inclusion, Stanford Law School Policy Lab Practicum Autumn Quarter 2022.

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Intense political, social, cultural, and racial polarization compromise the mission of higher education to promote intellectually rigorous, open, inclusive inquiry; to train a diverse student population to work productively across difference in a pluralistic society; to produce cutting-edge research; and to train leaders capable of creating innovative solutions to major social problems.

Open, inclusive discourse among students and between students and faculty is particularly under threat as a result of self-censorship by students with certain viewpoints and identities, advocacy for suppression of ideas people find repugnant or disturbing, and administrative practices that undermine universities’ commitment to academic freedom. Faculty report similarly chilling effects as a result of the current climate. Although none of these may be caused by coercion in a formal legal sense, critical inquiry is nonetheless inhibited because of fears of criticism, ostracization, or sanctions.

With the urgency of the problem in mind, Stanford’s Office of the President requested the Law School’s Policy Lab to conduct this study of polarization, academic freedom, and inclusion on campus and to explore curricular and co-curricular interventions that have the potential to improve the campus climate. Our goal was to gather research and develop guidance that treats academic freedom, free speech, critical inquiry, diversity, and inclusion as mutually constitutive, rather than as competing principles.

To that end, the report examines two types of intervention to foster deeper commitment to norms of open, inclusive discourse. The first is designed to prepare students individually to engage in productive discourse through skills and practices such as active listening, de-escalation, perspective taking and giving, deliberative dialogue, and self-affirmation. The second identifies well-established pedagogical tools and classroom norms to assist faculty in guiding conversations across differences of ideology and identity. These are not the only conceivable interventions—the ways the university actively supports principles of academic freedom, and the design and implementation of diversity initiatives consistent with those principles, also come to mind. But the focus of the Lab was on the most immediate ways in which the quality of discourse is distorted and can be improved in higher education.

The report concludes with some recommendations for faculty, deans, and other administrators to encourage discourse and inclusion.