Faculty Senate condemns COVID-19 actions of Hoover’s Scott Atlas

At its Nov. 19 meeting, the Faculty Senate condemned the COVID-19-related action

At its Nov. 19 meeting, the Faculty Senate condemned the COVID-19-related actions of Scott Atlas and heard presentations on academic continuity and open access. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

In its last meeting of the autumn quarter, the Stanford Faculty Senate condemned the COVID-19-related actions of Hoover senior fellow and presidential adviser Scott Atlas. The Faculty Senate also approved a new policy on Open Access to make scholarly works more widely available.

The Stanford Faculty Senate on Thursday condemned the COVID-19-related actions of Scott Atlas, a Hoover Institution senior fellow serving as a special assistant to President Donald Trump for coronavirus issues.

A resolution, introduced by members of the Faculty Senate Steering Committee and approved by 85 percent of the senate membership, specified six actions that Atlas has taken that "promote a view of COVID-19 that contradicts medical science."

Among the actions cited are: discouraging the use of masks and other protective measures, misrepresenting knowledge and opinion regarding the management of pandemics, endangering citizens and public officials, showing disdain for established medical knowledge and damaging Stanford’s reputation and academic standing. The resolution states that Atlas’ behavior is "anathema to our community, our values and our belief that we should use knowledge for good."

The resolution singles out for criticism Atlas’ recent Twitter call to the people of Michigan to "rise up" against new public health measures introduced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to curb disease spread.

"As elected representatives of the Stanford faculty, we strongly condemn his behavior," the resolution states. "It violates the core values of our faculty and the expectations under the Stanford Code of Conduct, which states that we all ’are responsible for sustaining the high ethical standards of this institution.’ "

In approving the resolution, members of the senate called on university leadership to "forcefully disavow Atlas’ actions as objectionable on the basis of the university’s core values and at odds with our own policies and guidelines concerning COVID-19 and campus life."

In discussion, David Spiegel, the Jack, Samuel and Lulu Willson Professor in Medicine, who has been among Atlas’ most vocal critics, reiterated his belief that the university has an obligation to act because Atlas has inappropriately used his position at the Hoover Institution to give credibility to his COVID-19 positions.

"What Atlas has done is an embarrassment to the university," Spiegel said. "He is using his real affiliation with Hoover to provide credibility in issues he has no professional expertise to discuss in a professional way."

The senate, however, stopped short of asking university leadership to investigate possible sanctions against Atlas, including dismissal. Concern was expressed that such a request could have a chilling effect not only on freedom of speech and academic freedom but also on the willingness of faculty members to pursue government service.

Stanford Report requested a response from Atlas but had not received one at publication time.

’Deeply troubled’

In his comments on the issue, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he was "deeply troubled by the views by Dr. Atlas, including his call to ’rise up’ in Michigan." Tessier-Lavigne noted that Atlas later clarified his statements, but he said that the tweet "was widely interpreted as an undermining of local health authorities, and even a call to violence."

Tessier-Lavigne reiterated Stanford’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom. Atlas, he asserted, remains free to express his opinions.

"But we also believe that inflammatory remarks of the kind at issue here by someone with the prominence and influence of Dr. Atlas have no place in the context of the current global health emergency," he said. "We’re therefore compelled to distance the university from Dr. Atlas’s views in the strongest possible terms."

Atlas was also criticized by Condoleezza Rice, the Tad and Dianne Taube Director of the Hoover Institution. During senate discussion, she called Atlas’ recent tweet "offensive and well beyond the boundaries of what is appropriate for someone in a position of authority, such as the one he holds."

The Hoover Institution, she said, does not endorse or comment on the views of its fellows. But in this case, she said Atlas’ views are inconsistent and at odds with the Hoover Institutions’ adoption of county and university guidelines in terms of masks, social distancing and conducting surveillance and diagnostic testing.

The discussion of Atlas’ actions raised issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech, as it has in the past. Among those expressing concern about the resolution’s effect on freedom of speech and academic freedom was John Etchemendy, former provost, the Patrick Suppes Family Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Denning Family Co-Director of HAI.

Etchemendy said that the resolution could be interpreted as suggesting Stanford faculty members have less freedom of speech rights than members of society in general.

But Etchemendy said, "As far as the statements that have been made by Atlas, as a private citizen he has the right to make those statements. I am troubled by the idea that a person who has those rights to speak and to assert certain things - however outrageous - have fewer rights to speak, given that they are Stanford faculty. I find that to be contrary to what is, I think, the highest value of the university, which is the value and promotion of free speech and open dialogue."

But Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said she believes the resolution has reminded the university of the importance of leading with its values.

"In our messaging, we have sometimes been more focused on the legal issues rather than the value issues," she said. "This brings the value issues front and center. We have been pretty good at pointing to the value of freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry, which I believe are central. But there are other values at stake. As a university, we have a commitment to push back against the undermining of - and pursuit of - knowledge. That is one of the great threats to our democracy at the moment."

The Faculty Senate also approved a new Open Access Policy that allows Academic Council faculty to grant nonexclusive rights over future scholarly articles to Stanford so that those articles can be made publicly available.

As a result of the Faculty Senate approval, Stanford can now make articles available to the public in the Stanford Digital Repository under an open license. The policy does not apply to all scholarly works, excluding, for instance, books, monographs, commissioned articles, fiction, poetry and lecture notes, videos and case studies. Stanford faculty members will be able to request a waiver from the policy.

The new policy, proposed by the Committee on Libraries and presented by Caroline Hoxby, chair of the Committee on Libraries and the Scott and Donya Bommer Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, is designed to end what committee members have described as the exploitation of scholars, especially by for-profit publishers.

Currently, faculty members at Stanford and elsewhere submit scholarly articles and reports for publication to academic journals - or provide peer-review services - without compensation. Yet, once published, the work can generally only be accessed through journal subscriptions that must be acquired by the Stanford Libraries. The open-access policies being adopted worldwide are designed to make research and scholarly work available without the complex permissions and sometimes prohibitive costs that have characterized academic publishing to date.

"Open access has a very basic goal," Hoxby said, "It is the goal of all universities, which is the create, disseminate and preserve knowledge. At Stanford, a lot of our knowledge is of global significance, giving us an essential responsibility to try to distribute the fruits of our scholarship as widely as possible."

She added, "The basic idea of open access is very simple. It’s just to make scholarly literature available online without any price barriers and without most of the permission barriers that currently exist."

The Stanford resolution, however, is narrower in its ambitions, Hoxby said.

"We’re going to be talking about scholarly articles," she said. "These scholarly articles are typically presented in the context of academic journals or conference proceedings."

Stanford’s new policy language relies on model policies that use as a foundation the Harvard Model Policy and is similar to language already adopted by many peer institutions. It also is also consistent with an Open Access Policy already in place at the Graduate School of Education (GSE). The GSE, under the leadership of John Willinsky, professor of education, has been at the forefront of the Open Access movement, having established one of the first open archives, enabling faculty and graduate students to provide free copies of their peer-reviews journal articles to the public.

"So we are not diving in here," Hoxby said, "without the benefit of a lot of experience."

The new policy also is consistent with the open-access policies favored by virtually all federal funding agencies and many private research foundations. As a result, almost all publishers now have Open Access programs to support the requirements. Those open-access policies have recently proven valuable as experts in various fields have sought immediate access to research involving COVID-19.

"This is very positive for the university and positive long-term for the scholarly community outside the university," Hoxby said. "We can help promote Open Access throughout the world."

The resolution also recommends the establishment of an Office of Scholarly Communications under the auspices of the Office of the Provost. The office would promote, enforce and support the implementation of the Open Access Policy.

Other issues

Provost Persis Drell reported that starting in January, Stanford plans to begin requiring COVID-19 testing for faculty, staff and postdocs who are working regularly on campus. The testing has previously been voluntary.

Drell said that the university will use the same testing system currently used and that the testing will be done on a weekly basis for those who are coming to campus at least one day a week.

"As you know, COVID cases are increasing around the country," she said. "In our community, we are trying to take prudent steps at Stanford that protect our people who are on campus, as well as their families and the broader community."

She added, "We believe this is an important step in keeping our community safe and healthy, particularly with the COVID-19 surge we are now seeing in California and around the county."

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