"The List", Part Deux
So long as they keep playing the hits, so will I: On the Stanford-controversy and why it did and did not go away
[My apologies for devoting a second post to the “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” (EHLI) at Stanford, which made the rounds in conservative media in late 2022. I promise to move on with my next post. But there’s a little bit of follow-up to do, and I think it’s a really interesting case of how people weaponize abstraction in the moral panics around “cancel culture”, “wokeness” and “campus speech”.]
If holders of immense institutional power were incapable of telling themselves stories about how they are the Real Victims (TM) in any situation, well, I suppose they would be less likely to be holders of immense institutional power. I was reminded of this fact reading the account of the recent session of the Faculty Senate of Stanford University, which is summarized here. I am not currently a member of that august body; I am ineligible after a four-year tour of duty, a fact for which I continue to be very grateful. The topic of that particular meeting (and of the meeting after, which took place yesterday) was the leak of a list of a hundred odd words created by the “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” (EHLI), a group of Stanford IT-workers, a list which proposed to … maybe govern, maybe influence, maybe invite reflection on (it’s genuinely unclear) … what language should be avoided as harmful, misleading or racist on Stanford websites.
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The controversy started in late December, most likely with a tweet and an article in a conservative Stanford student newspaper, but then made the usual transit through the international media ecosystem. Wall Street Journal, Fox News and many others picked it up, various Murdoch papers across the globe, and — as usually happens with these kinds of stories — before long it ended up in the nostrums of self-declared concerned liberals and their columns. By late January the story had basically died down, as best as I can tell. Which makes the decision of the Stanford Senate to debate the issue even more telling. For to hear (certain) Senators tell it, Stanford’s good name stood in tatters, Stanford’s students quivered in fear, Stanford’s very existence as an institution of higher learning was at risk due to a story most of us can only vaguely remember clicking on shortly before Christmas.
In my December post about the affair,I wrote about how bizarre I found the fact that EHLI, which I assumed was just going to govern what goes up on Stanford University’s official web representation, was misrepresented by various bad-faith actors as a set of rules what faculty, students or admins could say or write at Stanford University. I learned from the statement of Vice President for Business Affairs and Chief Financial Officer Randy Livingston at the Senate meeting on January 26 that I apparently misjudged that fact: the remit of the list was far more minuscule than even I had conceived. Livingston described the EHLI as “an attempt to adopt different language within our IT coding and the websites within ... Business Affairs, that is under our own control.” In other words, it was supposed to guide what Stanford IT (not Stanford University) put on its own websites, and in its code. It was entirely an internal mission statement. “We never intended that we would scan, without the full support of website owners, anyone else’s website,” Livingston added. “And we never intended that we would expect people to just embrace all of this, ... unless they themselves felt that those were changes they’d want to make.”
Was it well-thought-out, was it misjudged? I feel even less able to assess questions like these. In his remarks, CIO Steve Gallagher seemed to imply that there had been mission creep in the project – but the mission creep seems to have been largely confined to the framing language (above all the word “elimination” and “purge”, I’m guessing, which indeed aren’t great). Still, a simple question to Gallagher and Livingston would have ascertained that while IT habitually scans Stanford websites for vulnerabilities, they are interested in code, not content. After I wrote about the list, several helpful people reached out and explained the kinds of language that might be the intended target (you can find some of their comments beneath my previous text on this topic). Brian Marick wrote:
“Re: ‘master’. In IT work, there's a tradition of using "master" and "slave" when one server (etc.) in some sense takes instruction from another. A database, for example, might run on several computers, each of which has a copy of the data. The master is the computer that receives all the changes (‘writes’), which it then distributes to the slaves. All requests for data go to the slaves. In most cases, this improves responsiveness.”
Michael Roberts wrote:
“The reference to ‘code’ is almost certainly just a warning to people that comments in code have a nasty way of coming to light years later, and maybe you want to look like a human being when they do. Brogrammers can be pretty foul in comments sometimes. I wonder if there was an actual incident behind this.”
And Peter Binkley pointed out:
“The inclusion of "master" in this IT context was no doubt inspired at least in part by the Git community's action a couple of years ago, to change the default name of the principal branch of a code repository from "master" to "main.”
I want to thank all the commenters for supplying this important context. I had a vague sense of some of this – but their insightful addenda made things very clear to me:
(1) The project of EHLI has to be understood as part and parcel of discussions happening in IT communities more broadly. I separately learned from several in-house counsels that similar efforts exist at some Silicon Valley companies. That suggests to me that the fact that this is happening at a university is in a way a red herring. The IT community was drawing on practices established elsewhere and applying them to the university’s self-presentation.
(2) This context could be intuited without too much technical knowledge – in my original post, I guessed some of it, but of course not most of it. What’s telling though is that the people who freaked out about the EHLI list declined to supply or even suppose any context. They were not interested in the specific reasons and practices within a specific professional group that might explain the existence and shape of the list. They were in fact obsessed with twisting it into something it very patently wasn’t: an attempt to censor their speech. This was as true for the people who yelled “AMERICA” at Stanford on Twitter as it was – as it turned out – for certain members of the Stanford Faculty Senate.
(3) In light of the discussion of the Faculty Senate, it is striking to me how readily the commenters on my post dug into the details and thought about actual practice. Because the Faculty Senate’s two marathon debates about this issue consist of one long flight into abstraction: I’m sure there’s a debate to be had about how to think about the code we produce and about the values of the profession that produces it – EHLI likely reflects one contribution to it. But the Faculty Senate’s debate wasn’t that debate: it was about academic freedom, about education, about faculty and their feelings. Not about how maybe the word “tr**ny” might not have a place in the code and content of an official Stanford website; but about a professor who … now is afraid to use the word “tr**ny”? Or something?
I don’t usually find myself coding a lot of university websites, so I find it hard to imagine how a list like the EHLI compendium would impact my day-to-day work. As mentioned, one group that seemed to feel no such constraints on their imaginations were my colleagues on the Faculty Senate. Many senators seem to have plowed ahead and had the debate they would have liked to be having. They wanted to use EHLI to debate a term they never bothered to define: academic freedom. But the supposed impact of EHLI on academic freedom was almost universally lost in the shuffle. So since the facts didn’t seem to suggest that the question of academic freedom was in fact the question raised by them … well, then so much the worse for the facts.
Professor Anna Grzymala-Busse is cited as worrying that faculty “have been marginalized” in the decision-making process around free speech issues, and showed concern about “who gets to decide what faculty can and can’t do.” (Again, this is in reference to a list that governs what goes onto an IT website – Prof. Grzymala-Busse is a brilliant political scientist, but unless she moonlights as a web designer, I doubt EHLI would impact what she can and can’t do.) She and Prof. Juan Santiago proposed an ad hoc committee on “University Speech”: It would study – among other things – “in what ways, and to what extent, if any, have the University or members of the university community taken actions that constrain, intentionally or not, the free exchange of diverse ideas on campus?”
[I should note that after adjourning without a vote in January, the Faculty Senate passed some version of a resolution establishing this committee yesterday (February 9) – it’s possible that the above language, which is clearly about the bizarro-world version of EHLI that these professors are so incensed about, was taken out. I won’t know until I see the meeting minutes.]
Philip Levis, Professor of Electrical Engineering, wanted to know from President Tessier-Levigne: “Under what circumstances can an administrator establish a University policy that restricts or regulates academic freedom?” The question elicited exactly the response Levis intended (“Never”). Levis’s point was that most serious restrictions of our academic freedom are about administrators implementing national policy, not making new policy. The rules around national security and international research cooperation, for instance, are deeply scary and colleagues have run afoul of them seemingly without ill intent. But that policy is set by the federal government, not by the whims of “an administrator”.
But certain faculty members seemed to again find their way to how a list of words meant to govern what goes up on official university websites would impinge on teaching, on classroom communication, etc. etc. – all things that had been repeatedly made clear it was never going to apply to. “It would not take lengthy argumentation,” argued political scientist Stephen Haber, for instance, “to show that many younger colleagues are afraid of the students, and many of the students are afraid of each other.” Why are they afraid? Who are they afraid of? Prof. Michael Boskin helpfully filled that in: “If we start canceling some of these words, we’re also going to cancel history, how they came about, which is something that many minorities feel strongly about. All we hear about is the ones that complain about usage of this word that they’re harmed.”
So to be clear: this argument is about a very specific understanding of campus speech; it may have started as a conversation about administrative overreach – but in an 80s throwback worthy of Stranger Things it morphed immediately into an argument about how straight white conservatives are victimized by racial and sexual minorities on campus. All the speakers seemed intent on not really discussing what EHLI was and what it might have done (and why that might have been bad); they were fixated on, as Boskin put it, the notion “that there’s something ... far deeper, far more disturbing, far more systemic going on.” That something, for those somehow insensate to the quiet part, is cancel culture. As Haber put it, in a conclusion that was shaky when Dinesh D’Souza offered it 33 years ago: “The point, I hope, is clear with the Senate: what you decide to do here today is not about the people in this room; it’s about the future of the institution, not just this one, but the institution of the university, broadly understood.” I can think of a lot of things that imperil the future of “the university, broadly understood.” The IT Department changing how it refers to servers wouldn’t be top of my list, but what do I know.
My friend and colleague Russell Berman — normally more level headed than this — complained that the release of the list had “shaken the faith of faculty and students in the University’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech.” The Daily goes on: “By its logic, faculty would ‘not be able to teach poems by T. S. Eliot,’ because ‘their antisemitism may cause harm,’ Berman said.” Correct: if we applied the same stringent rules that (to repeat myself) our IT department proposed to use in its official Stanford webpages to our teaching of poetry: then yes, that would be a serious restriction of our freedom to teach. Likewise, if we applied the rules we force our students to follow when driving a car in moving around our classrooms, that would likewise unduly restrict their freedom of movement. Berman knows that this is not what the list does; he has just been told that that is not what the list does, did, or was intended to do; he knows that there is no way the work product of an IT department can do what he is describing. But I suppose he enjoys describing it anyway.
The idea that something like EHLI might curtail professors’ speech is laughable on its face, and the colleagues in question know that. There are ways that universities can curtail professors’ speech (see my previous post on this topic), but lists drawn up by the IT department are not among them. Russell Berman also makes a point about “administrators” being in charge of adjudicating too many disagreements between students and faculty on campus. This may well be true — but EHLI is about “administrators” (the about 2000 people in Stanford’s extended IT community who are neither students nor faculty) giving themselves rules. If our grounds crew decides that they will require hopping from one foot to the other for 5 minutes before pruning the campus palm trees, then I would find that bizarre — but I would still be wrong to claim it violated my academic freedom.
Another important clue that something like EHLI was not intended to curtail professors’ speech would have come in the shape of literally everything the administration said at the meeting: President, Provost, Chief Information Officer, and the aforementioned VP for Business Affairs were unanimous on this point. And yet all the questions repeated in the Stanford Daily ignore this claim. The very thing that was apparently never at issue, for them almost obsessively had to be at issue. So what’s the idea here? Did the concerned professors worry that the IT department was lying, and was secretly looking to extend its secret dominion over university classrooms, the Faculty Club, the dorm room bull sessions, by some as yet undiscovered lever of power? Or was (which I think is far more likely) the point of my colleagues rather to ask questions about the EHLI they hoped existed? The one that fit their own sense of melodrama? The one that would oppress their constituents, the people who dominate their world and thinking, the people who alone seem real to them after decades in the ivory tower -- themselves?
Whatever the case: At least when it comes to the EHLI list, none of those fears seem to be real. What I suspect might be at least marginally more real: the implicit threat contained in a faculty committee that will “investigate whether there are similar initiatives elsewhere at Stanford”, singling out specifically “the Anti-Racism Toolkit and Protected Identity Harm Reporting”. (The Daily helpfully noted that this PIH Reporting process “enables community members to report conduct that unfairly targets protected characteristics”, but that Stanford simply “collects data and attempts to help community members affected by them, but does not investigate them or impose sanctions based on them.” Chilling stuff indeed.) Please picture it: a bunch of tenured masters and mistresses of the universe investigating a bunch of administrators in the Title IX office or the Student Affairs Office or the Admissions Office. Sure, it’s also unlikely those folks are gonna be fired; but it’s definitely not as unlikely as Prof. Grzymala-Busse or Juan Santiago suffering under the yoke of EHLI.
I hope Gzymala-Busse and Santiago have their red robes ready, and enjoy the element of surprise, ruthless efficiency, and almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, because at this point I am definitely expecting the Spanish Inquisition. This is how the anti-“woke” panic has tended to play out for over a year now: a narrow community decides (wisely or unwisely, thoughtfully or maladroitly) to hold itself to new standards of equity and inclusion – and people who are in no way intended targets of this decision freak out. In the end it’s usually the speech, freedom and job security of those who are cast as the potential “woke” censors that suffers; and it’s the people who imagine themselves victims of cancel culture who act like, well, censors. In the end the powerful investigate the less powerful, and the less securely employed have to fear they’ll lose their jobs over the charge that they … imperiled jobs that are absurdly secure.
I should also mention that I find the damage control mode of President and Provost a little bit baffling here (I know the Provost subscribes to my Substack — sorry, Persis). They clearly know what this document was and that it was taken out of context. They may be annoyed that there was some mission creep in the compiling of the list, that the framing the group used was ripe for bad faith readings. They nevertheless continue to act as though the misunderstanding of what this list is arose innocently enough, as though the trail of the story — via Wall Street Journal, Fox News through the entire Murdoch Press digestive tract — did not suggest powerfully that this is in fact a deliberate mis-framing for clicks and eyeballs. Which is merely baffling until such a point that a bunch of at-will employees (the folks at IT) are thrown under the proverbial bus to make a bunch of tenured professors feel better about themselves.
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