Stanford University: Stanford Board of Trustees hears panels on civil discourse, deliberative democracy and more

“These matters are a live snapshot of what’s going on at the university right now,” said Board Chair Jerry Yang. “The ideas are constructive, useful and innovative, and there is a tremendous amount of trustee interest in how we can continue this fascinating and eye-opening conversation.”

Much of the work presented is the result of the university’s Long-Range Vision, “which seeks to celebrate the diversity of the students and incorporate important political aspects of citizenship,” Yang said.

The trustees also received the university’s annual financial report, advanced several building projects and heard updates on the Hoover Institution and the recent campus-wide DEI survey, among other matters, during its virtual meeting Dec. 6 and 7.

Advancing civil discourse
Stanford faces the same polarizing dynamics seen across the nation at this time, with many students challenged in having civil disagreement around controversial issues, scholars detailed for the Board of Trustees last week.

Dan Edelstein, the William H. Bonsall Professor of French and professor, by courtesy, of history and political science, is the faculty leader who guided the creation and implementation of the new first-year Civic, Liberal and Global Education (COLLEGE) core curriculum, which seeks to celebrate student diversity and incorporate important political and ethical aspects of citizenship.

In his presentation to trustees, he discussed how Stanford promotes civil discourse in the COLLEGE requirement and noted it was quickly found that establishing a sense of trust is critical to having civil disagreement in the classroom.

Students won’t say anything if they fear they won’t be respected or what they say may end up on social media, Edelstein said. This problem is reported by students of all identities and political viewpoints, said Norman Spaulding, the Nelson Bowman Sweitzer and Marie B. Sweitzer Professor of Law.

Almost nobody is feeling heard, and this mixture of silence and avoidance combined with rapid escalation to high conflict are increasingly the most common modalities, Spaulding added.

However, giving students ownership of creating social contract norms for discussion of controversial matters in the COLLEGE program and skills training provided by the Stanford Law School’s ePluribus Project can help create more vibrant, candid and inclusive dialogue.

The ePluribus Project is an initiative piloted last spring by faculty and students concerned about the effects of polarization on open dialogue and the legal profession. The project is dedicated to pluralism and the rule of law as well as to the idea that lawyers and leaders must have the skills to engage across differences.

At this time, higher education remains one of the few institutions where people from fundamentally different backgrounds in race, class, ideology and other aspects of identity live together and interact in sustained ways, Spaulding told trustees. This draws into relief not only an enormous challenge facing higher education but also a distinctive opportunity for building pluralism skills.

Collin Anthony Chen, associate director for Undergraduate Outreach at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, also detailed the Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership Fellowship, which equips undergraduates from five colleges across the nation, including Stanford, with the skills necessary to navigate and facilitate peer conversations across political differences.

Students in the program are urged toward an orientation of understanding and curiosity about the personal histories and cultural circumstances that underlie each other’s beliefs, as opposed to an approach that prioritizes winning arguments and convincing others they’re wrong, Chen said. The year-long program also provides students sufficient time to form the trust necessary for genuine disagreement to flourish.

Central to these university efforts is a commitment to safeguarding the norms of democracy and fostering trust. As polarization escalates in the political world, the need for students to develop the moral courage to engage with others, even when painful or uncomfortable, is of paramount importance for the success and health of our democracy, Chen said.

Deliberative democracy
Deliberative democracy involves informed and moderated discussions that can cut across the partisan divide and lead to a less polarized and more democratic society.

Stanford scholars James Fishkin and Larry Diamond have been refining Fishkin’s method called Deliberative Polling, which brings together people from different backgrounds for a moderated discussion of key issues and to weigh competing viewpoints. Diamond is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, and Fishkin is director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy and the Janet M. Peck Chair in International Communication in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Fishkin and Diamond presented their work to the Board, detailing how Deliberative Polling has been used worldwide as well as within the “America in One Room” project. In 2019 and again this past September, “America in One Room” brought together representative samples of the American public to deliberate and achieved dramatic reductions in partisan polarization on such issues as the economy, immigration and climate change.

The work drew keen interest from trustees inspired by how the methodology could be applied on broader scales to help people find common ground, question assumptions and improve the art of mutually respectful engagement.

During the panel – which included Ashish Goel, professor of management science and engineering; Alice Siu, associate director for the Center for Deliberative Democracy; and Yasi Khan, a senior studying English and symbolic systems – trustees also learned about several university projects and partnerships created to further discussion around civic responsibility, representation, social media, online deliberation and democracy.

Hoover Institution, campus academic freedom
Hoover Institution Director Condoleezza Rice highlighted the institution’s ongoing work to recruit new senior fellows. This effort, which includes the creation of a hiring committee, will seek to attract the best scholars across a wide variety of fields and diverse backgrounds, in order to produce policy-relevant, data-driven research.

The crossover between technology and policy presents critically important ethical and political challenges representing the frontiers of policy at this time, Rice told trustees. As such, the Hoover Institution is widening its hiring aperture to meet that need; that may include, for example, hiring experts in artificial intelligence or biotech to work in the social sciences.

Rice noted that more collaborative work is being encouraged in the institute, with one area of focus on technology, economy and governance to address issues such as social media and its impact on democracy, while another builds out the policy institute’s state and local practice.

To support students, the Hoover Institution has also developed a program for Stanford interns to come and work with senior fellows and others at the institution, Rice said.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said that the university must be a place that supports diversity of opinion in the search for the truth as students are prepared for a life in which they’ll experience various views.

He’s encouraged by the work of the new COLLEGE program, which provides an environment for students to reflect and learn skills on how to disagree without being disagreeable, he said. The new undergraduate residential neighborhood program, ResX, can also serve as a vehicle for promoting civil discourse as students from different backgrounds get to know each other. Tessier-Lavigne said there are additional opportunities being created for students and faculty to witness eminent thinkers model disagreement around consequential issues of the day.

The university continues to support academic freedom for its faculty but deplores mechanisms that seek to silence others, he told the Board. The university must also refrain from disavowing or endorsing faculty members’ views since it could have a chilling effect on discourse.

Campus updates
In addressing the Board of Trustees, Tessier-Lavigne highlighted the Stanford Science Fellows program, which was launched as part of Stanford’s Long-Range Vision last year and fosters foundational scientific research by a diverse community of top researchers. The program got off to a great start, Tessier-Lavigne said, and two classes have been recruited.

One of the fellows, Caleb Lareau, was recently named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Lareau is a cancer biologist and co-founder of a startup developing precision immunotherapies for cancer. As a fellow, he collaborates with researchers in the School of Medicine to understand genetic relationships among cells in the human body and investigate how cells respond to damage and disease.

Many of the fellows bring enormous energy and interdisciplinary focus, Tessier-Lavigne said, serving as a glue between other scholars working on different projects.

Tessier-Lavigne also detailed Stanford’s ongoing work to support foreign research engagement amid Washington’s heightened concerns about national security and undue foreign influence. It remains a priority due to some resulting xenophobia targeting scholars, particularly of Chinese descent, Tessier-Lavigne said.

In an update on how COVID is impacting campus, Provost Persis Drell provided trustees with an update on the low number of COVID cases in the community, the university’s high compliance rate with the federal vaccine mandate and plans going into the winter closure, including a new requirement for everyone to get tested twice upon return to campus.

And in discussing the results of the first campus-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion survey, Patrick Dunkley, vice provost for institutional equity, access and community, said it was an important step on the journey for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive campus.

The results were concerning but not surprising for those members of the community most affected, indicating widespread issues around harassment, discrimination, microaggressions and marginalization, Dunkley said. He noted that the types of behavior addressed in the survey are prevalent in all schools and units across Stanford.

Going forward, Dunkley said it’s important to educate the community about work that’s underway through the IDEAL initiative and to further review answers to the survey’s open-ended questions, which are being compiled by an outside consultant with sensitivity to protecting the identities of those who wrote them. After receiving this and other information, the university will engage in a community-centered process designed to establish objectives and develop accountability measures on the journey toward achieving its DEI goals.

Building projects
The board approved the design for the Data Science and Computation Complex, which will serve as an interdisciplinary hub for computation and data research at the corner of Jane Stanford Way and Lomita Mall. The project is expected to return to the Board of Trustees for construction approval next year.

Trustees also approved construction of the Bonair Replacement Building that will provide a consolidated facility for LBRE functions and employees in the West Campus Development District. Construction is anticipated to begin in 2022.

The Board of Trustees additionally approved construction for the George P. Shultz Building, which will replace the existing Lou Henry Hoover Building. Construction is planned to be completed by December 2023.

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