Stanford, Marriage and Abortion Controversies, and the Mission of a University

 
 

Trying to silence others because one fears what they might say is no way to learn. And it is no way for a university to be a university.

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Stanford University is once again facing controversy about freedom of speech on campus. Today, the issue is a student group, the Stanford Anscombe Society, which supports man-woman marriage and plans to hold a conference in early April. Students active in LGBTQ causes would like to prevent this conference from taking place.

Stanford has been through sharp controversy before; in the 1980s, for instance, students favoring legal abortion physically prevented a speaker hosted by Stanford Students for Life from speaking on campus. Back then the university’s response to this was a resounding affirmation of the university’s (unofficial) motto, “The winds of freedom blow” (“Die Luft der Freiheit weht”).

During the 1988-1989 academic year, when I was a senior at Stanford, I was involved in Stanford Students for Life. One evening, we brought pro-life activist Randall Terry to speak at the university.

On the evening of that event, Annenberg auditorium at Stanford was full. It was clear that a significant portion of those attending opposed Randall Terry and Stanford Students for Life. They were welcome to attend the event. Yet problems began when Terry tried to speak and opponents in the audience refused to become quiet. The heckling became progressively louder and more aggressive. After several minutes of this escalation, Terry told the audience that he would do something he normally does not do. He would forgo the talk he had planned to give and would instead make himself available for the entire event to answer questions from the audience.

At this, the heckling only got even louder and more aggressive. Opponents of the event started to stand up and shout, and—as more and more people rose from their seats—they began to spill over into the aisles. Terry was trying to listen to questions from the audience, but they could not be heard. Tensions rose as opponents moved down the aisles, flooding the stage and seizing the microphone out of Terry’s hands. At that point, the event ended.

What happened next is, in my view, a testament to the excellence of Stanford University. An administrator from the university contacted Stanford Students for Life and requested to arrange a meeting about the event. I attended that meeting. This administrator explained that the reason for the meeting was the university’s concern about a speaker not having freedom to speak on campus. It was clear that this administrator, his staff, and the student campus leaders present at that meeting were no fans of Stanford Students for Life, but that did not matter. These were professionals and students who valued learning, and they were seriously committed to making sure Stanford University remained a place for vigorous, robust life of the mind.

This university administrator requested that if, in the future, Stanford Students for Life were to invite another controversial speaker, that we would notify the university in advance. That way, the university could provide security to assure that freedom of speech was protected at Stanford.

Fantastic.

This experience increased my respect for Stanford and has remained strong in my memory. However, that does not mean that Stanford was always an easy environment for me. And that’s okay. Because, let us not forget, the mission of a university is not to coddle its students with homogeneity.

Regarding her opposition to the upcoming Anscombe Society conference, Stanford undergraduate Brianne Huntsman said, “A lot of students who are queer come to Stanford because it’s one of the most LGBT-friendly places in the world.” While this may be one factor in their decision to attend Stanford, the primary reason for students to attend Stanford should be to pursue an education. Stanford is, at its essence, a university. It is not a club. It is not a support group. The mission of Stanford is not to provide a comforting environment for those who have the fortune of spending time there. Rather, as a University, Stanford should challenge students to grow, to explore, to seek what is true, to pursue excellence, and to develop capacities that will enable them to serve the welfare of society and human flourishing.

Huntsman also said, “Stanford is supposed to be a safe space for us.” Certainly, these students should feel that there is security on the Stanford campus, as there should be security from physical harm for every single member of the Stanford community and visitors on campus.

But the university does not owe anyone an emotionally or intellectually comfortable environment. Stanford is, after all, part of the real world.

As a pro-life woman at Stanford, I never experienced Stanford as a “friendly” place, and in many ways I did not experience it to be a “safe” place. Yet instead of trying to get Stanford to silence anyone who opposed me, I felt the best response to this was to seek to become better informed and to take part in public activism to help foster an overarching culture in which women, though they may not be treated in a “friendly” way, could at least feel safe. Huntsman and others may object at this point, claiming that for students who identify as LGBTQ, this is about their internal identity. It is something personal, not an abstract political issue like abortion. Let me explain why my opposition to abortion is not an abstract political issue.

For me, as a woman, abortion is a deeply personal issue. Abortion is about me on many levels, not least of all physically. As a woman, a capacity to become pregnant is part of who I am. Society’s attitude toward pregnancy is about me as a woman and it is about my body, as it is about all women and all women’s bodies. Abortion is an act of violence against a woman’s body. A woman’s body is by design capable of pregnancy; only a physical invasion of force, whether material or chemical, can interrupt an existing pregnancy in a woman.

Abortion is part of a culture in which men come to expect sexual access to women’s bodies, with no heed to the consequences. This culture of sex, which was pervasive at Stanford when I was a student there, is a physical threat to my body. The only man who may ever have intimate access to my body is one who accepts me fully and wholly, and this includes accepting my body’s capacity to become pregnant. I am not available to be used by a man for “casual” sex, only to be tossed aside, alone and potentially pressured to get an abortion should I get pregnant. In a culture like the Stanford campus in the 1980s, where it was expected that women’s bodies would be available for use by men for sex, with abortion as a “way out” in the event of pregnancy, dating was, for the most part, neither a “friendly” nor a “safe” endeavor.

Moreover, in my Stanford experience I deeply resented seeing feminists’ efforts being poured into keeping abortion legal, rather than fostering a healthy sexual culture and building alternatives to the patriarchally structured career world in which job tracks were (and mostly still are) literally designed for bodies that cannot get pregnant. I deeply resented the pervasive sexual culture around me that encouraged me and other young women to view our bodies, with their ability to become pregnant, as a threat to our career, as a threat to having opportunities to put our education to use. This was not a “friendly” nor a “safe” environment for me.

But I loved Stanford. I loved Stanford not because it was easy and comfortable. I loved Stanford because it was an environment filled with challenges and opportunities to learn, filled with people very different from me from whom I learned perhaps more outside the classroom than I did inside.

The world is not an emotionally friendly place. Nor, in many instances, is the world a safe place. This is reality. I loved Stanford because Stanford was a reality-filled environment that pushed me, challenged me, expanded my horizons, and prepared me to engage in the world full-steam-ahead when I left campus.

Had Stanford silenced those who opposed me, because those who opposed me were “unfriendly” to me (and some of them were literally unfriendly to me), the university would have failed in its role as a university. I think the protestors who silenced Randall Terry, rather than listening to what he had to say, failed in this instance in their role as students.

Today, as the Anscombe Society’s conference approaches, Stanford risks a rerun of this twenty-five year-old debacle. The stakes are high, implicating not only this one university, but also our society as a whole, in which tensions over issues of marriage and sex run very high.

The Anscombe Society has invited speakers who seek to address these issues in a thoughtful, civil manner. Listening in a correspondingly thoughtful and civil manner, regardless of one’s views, will accomplish far more to build a culture in which we can live peacefully together than would any effort to silence the Anscombe Society and their invited guests. Mutual understanding is not the same thing as mutual agreement. Agreement is an unlikely outcome of the conference, but let us at least seek to understand each other. Only on a foundation of understanding can we seek a way to move forward, learning to live peacefully and respectfully with our differences.

Trying to silence others because one fears what they might say is no way to learn. And it is no way for a university to be a university. Instead, let the winds of freedom blow.

Jennifer S. Bryson, Ph.D., has a BA from Stanford University (1989), and is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.

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