Faculty Senate debates undoing Scott Atlas censure

Jonathan Levin ’94 made his first remarks as incoming president to the Faculty Senate on Thursday, at a meeting where the Senate continued to debate reversing the 2020 censure of Scott Atlas, a Hoover Institution senior fellow.

Levin thanked the Presidential Search Committee, President Richard Saller and the Senate. “Every single day I get to walk on the campus and I still feel that same sense of possibility that I felt the first time I walked into this campus when I was 17,” he said.

Looking ahead to his term, Stanford faced “challenges on campus, nationally and around the world” that required focus to maintain the University’s level of excellence, Levin said.

Provost Jenny Martinez and Saller welcomed Levin. They sought nominations of faculty in the Graduate School of Business (GSB) to serve on a search committee for the next dean of the GSB, following Levin’s departure.

The Senate also continued to deliberate undoing the censure of Hoover fellow Scott Atlas, who made inflammatory remarks during the COVID-19 pandemic as an advisor on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The new deadline to potentially vote on the motion is October.

Atlas advocated for herd immunity, abstaining from testing in absence of symptoms and the reopening of schools and the economy at the height of the pandemic. Almost 100 faculty members condemned Atlas in an open letter to the Stanford University School of Medicine faculty in September 2020.

The 2020 Faculty Senate cited Atlas’s discredited views about the pandemic, as well as his tweets calling on followers to “rise up” against Michigan’s COVID-19 restrictions, as reasons for his censure.

GSB banking and finance professor Johnathon Berk proposed rescinding a Faculty Senate resolution from Nov. 19, 2020 that condemned Atlas.

“There was no advance notice,” Berk said. “[The motion to censure] was added to the agenda 24 hours before the meeting. No notice to Atlas was given. No opportunity to defend himself, no mechanisms for appeal.”

The motion was seconded by three professors and moved forward to a discussion.

The Steering Committee offered its own motion to defer the rescinding motion to the Planning and Policy Board (PPB) for deliberation, which would review the motion and censure procedures before the final vote by the Senate.

Vice Chair of the Steering Committee and classics professor Grant Parker said the committee had previously discussed the motion to rescind the censure and reached a “consensus that the Faculty Senate should develop a forward-looking approach to address procedural issues, controversies, topics and crises.”

The motion was seconded by the Steering Committee and moved to discussion.

Former President John Etchemendy said the Senate should consider the vote, rather than sending the motion to the PPB, to avoid delaying the issue.

“In what possible world can a committee say, ‘We should be able to censure and we should be able to do it without telling the object of the censure?’” he said.

Amid the discussion, GSB finance professor Jeffrey Zwiebel voiced his concerns about the bureaucratic process. “To avoid a vote on this — by arguing whether we need a committee to analyze whether the first motion was appropriate, and whether rescinding that motion is appropriate — is peak Stanford bureaucracy,” he said.

Engineering professor Jeffrey R. Koseff said that to vote on rescinding without further judgment would repeat the mistake initially made with the rushed censure of Atlas.

Chemical and systems biology professor James Ferrell agreed. “Atlas was censured because he was distorting the factual record, it was distorting the science that underpinned the policy recommendations that he was supporting,” he said.

Other reasons faculty cited for voting on rescinding the censure included delay tactics, lack of due process, lessening of the Senate’s legitimacy and the exclusion of Stanford’s foundational basis of expression.

The motion to send the rescinding motion to the PPB for deliberation before voting on the motion to rescind the censure was passed by majority vote. 

The Faculty Senate also debated a motion proposed by Philip Levis, chair of the Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems (C-ACIS), to change the default access setting of Canvas course material to public, which would allow anyone on the Internet to access the pages.

There are three levels of visibility on Canvas: “course” for those who are enrolled for the course, “institution” for Stanford affiliates and “public” for access by anybody. While the course instructor can manually change these settings, the default visibility setting is “institution” for the syllabus and “course” for all other material.

“Institution access to the material means that future employers or people who graduate from Stanford can’t see the syllabi of the classes they took,” Levis said. He said that it would also “serve our research community and academic community” through the action of “sharing material with faculty at other institutions.”

English professor Gavin Jones raised concerns regarding copyright of books that might be published as course material.

Political science professor Kenneth Schultz supported institutional visibility and said he felt “really sympathetic to the goal of letting students who weren’t enrolled in the course and other faculty members at Stanford to see the course material.”

However, Schultz refused to support making material visible to the public by default.

“I think this policy creates unnecessary risks for instructors who have good reasons to keep their material private, either for copyright reasons, but also because we teach sensitive topics,” Schultz said. “It imposes a burden on those who want an alternative option, and there’s the risk of mistakenly leaving the default in place.”

ASSU Executive President Sophia Danielpour ’24 said setting the default to “institution” would better serve students by allowing all affiliates to view course syllabi. “It’s often really hard to think what classes you want to take, and I think students would really appreciate that,” she said.

The motion failed, with one abstaining and all others against. Mudgett and Levis said they would take Danielpour’s thoughts into consideration regarding setting the default to “institution” instead.

Two new groups were also formed at the Senate meeting: A group chaired by Stanford Law School professor Diego Zambrano will oversee and recommend changes to the Protected Identity Harm Reporting (PIHR) system. Another chaired by bioengineering professor Russ Altman will advise on AI issues and assess areas where the development of guidelines and support to faculty members may be necessary.

The Senate also offered resolutions in memory of the late William H. Northway, Jr., professor emeritus of radiology and pediatrics, and Winslow R. Briggs, professor emeritus of biological sciences. The Senate stood for a moment of silence.