September 21, 2018

Rethinking the conversation

Last fall Marc and I launched Cardinal Conversations as an opportunity to advance the university’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas and to fostering an inclusive campus culture. Advancing both ideals together continues to be an imperative and a challenge for our community, and I want to update you on what we are doing for the coming year.

Initially, we appointed two campus leaders to work with students to develop a series of moderated discussions with prominent individuals who represent contrasting views on consequential issues. One of the goals of Cardinal Conversations was to create a forum where thought leaders could engage in civil and intellectually rigorous conversation that could serve as a model for the campus community.

Five programs were held throughout the academic year, and the results were decidedly mixed. Some of the responses from the campus community were positive. Many appreciated the opportunity to listen to and ask questions of leading intellectuals on hot-button issues. Others welcomed the opportunity for dialogue across difference and appreciated the effort that went into the programming.

However, there were several bumps in the road. Early on, many in the community remarked on the lack of diversity in both the speakers and the topics discussed — an issue that we tried to address later in the series. We also struggled to find the appropriate leadership and committee structure for the series that would include the right mix of faculty and student representation.

At the outset of this effort, we acknowledged that Cardinal Conversations was experimental in nature and that the input of the campus community would be vital to its success. We’ve listened to your feedback and are making substantial changes that we think will significantly improve the program in the future. These changes include new faculty leadership and a new, more transparent student committee selection process to ensure broader representation.

Thomas Gilligan, director of the Hoover Institution; Deborah Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law; and Claude Steele, professor emeritus of psychology and dean emeritus of Stanford Graduate School of Education, have agreed to serve as the faculty advisors for Cardinal Conversations. This fall, they will join a group of students representing a wide spectrum of backgrounds and political perspectives to develop programming for the series. This committee will reexamine the program format and structure and aim to present a more diverse group of speakers and topics.

Because student input is critical to Cardinal Conversations, the structure and selection process for the committee will be determined once the fall quarter is under way and students can engage fully in the process. Student Affairs will be assisting the faculty conveners and the students and will keep the campus community apprised on the committee’s work. It’s expected that the first series of programs will begin in early 2019.

Responsibility for Cardinal Conversations will now reside in the Office of the Provost, although the president and I will continue to be uninvolved in the speaker selection.

As we have seen with Cardinal Conversations and on many other occasions, it is extremely difficult to balance the principles of free expression with our ideals of an inclusive community. Marc and I have addressed this topic before in our blog posts Advancing Free Speech and Inclusion and Expression and Inclusion, part 2. We feel strongly that free expression and an inclusive culture can coexist, and are, in fact, integral to the academic life of the university.

There were definitely some missteps and missed opportunities with the inaugural Cardinal Conversations series. We don’t always get everything right at first. However, I think it makes us stronger when we are willing to acknowledge that we tried, it didn’t work the way we wanted, but the goal is so important that we are willing to try again.

I have great faith in the Stanford community’s ability to embrace the challenge of respectful discourse, which surely has become one of the central issues of our times.

One of our greatest strengths is that we comprise a diverse community of people from all over the world, representing a variety of backgrounds, identities, experiences, and modes of thinking. When everyone in our community has a voice and feels empowered to participate, we are enriched immeasurably. We have an extraordinary opportunity here to learn from each other and to model what it means to have thoughtful and respectful debate.