". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Stanford Law Parts Ways with DEI Dean Who Berated Judge

July 21, 2023

Stanford Law School’s (SLS) Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), Tirien Steinbach, has left the school “to pursue another opportunity,” SLS Dean Jenny Martinez informed students in a Friday email. Steinbach was suspended after public outcry in March for her role in heckling and derailing a March 9 event sponsored by The Federalist Society’s campus chapter featuring U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan. “Associate Dean Steinbach and I both hope that SLS can move forward as a community from the divisions caused by the March 9 event,” wrote Martinez.

When Duncan tried to deliver prepared remarks on “COVID, Guns, and Twitter,” hostile law students repeatedly heckled him, waved protest signs, and shouted that they hoped his daughters would be raped. When Duncan asked school administrators to restore order, Steinbach came up to the lectern. But instead of rebuking the disruptive students, Steinbach launched into a six-minute tirade against Duncan, accusing him of causing “harm” to the campus community by his rulings and making her “uncomfortable” to be in the same room as an event “tearing at the fabric of this community.”

That weekend, Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Martinez wrote a letter of apology to Duncan. A majority of SLS students then launched a silent protest against Dean Martinez for issuing an apology. Meanwhile, a minority of students called for Dean Steinbach to be fired. Four months later, Steinbach has now parted ways with the school.

“We are thrilled to see Dean Tirien Steinbach is being held accountable for her actions. She made it clear she does not believe in such principles as open discourse and free speech,” said Cherise Trump, executive director of Speech First, a campus free speech advocacy group (and no relation to Donald). “The day Steinbach violated campus free speech policies and led an angry mob to shout down a sitting judge simply because she did not like his views, was the day she told the country that Stanford Law School has a much lower hiring standard than we knew.”

But the larger question is whether Stanford has done enough to appease federal appellate judges who have boycotted the school. Federal Judges James Ho and Elizabeth Branch (on the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits, respectively) announced in April that they would “not hire any student who chooses to attend Stanford Law School in the future” after they deemed the school’s corrective actions (including Steinbach’s suspension) to be insufficient.

“Administrators who promote intolerance don’t belong in legal education. And students who practice intolerance don’t belong in the legal profession,” wrote Ho and Branch.

In a March 22 letter, Martinez announced four steps SLS would take after the conduct of the students and Steinbach violated the school’s own free speech policy. These included 1) placing Steinbach on leave, 2) implementing additional free speech training for staff, 3) adding “mandatory educational programming” on free speech to the academic calendar, and 4) adopting and educating students on an even “more detailed and explicit” free speech policy.

Ho offered three reasons why he was unsatisfied with the SLS administration’s response. “First, it’s not enough to have a policy. You have to enforce it. Rules aren’t rules without consequences.” Law schools could suspend or expel students, or issue a negative report to state bar officials, he said. “Second, at a minimum, law schools should identify disruptive students, so that future employers will know who they’re hiring. … Without that information, employers won’t know if the person they’re hiring is in one category or another.” Yet SLS made no effort to punish or even identify the disruptive students.

“Third, it’s not enough to just promise freedom of speech” without acting accordingly, Ho said. He argued that SLS undermined its verbal commitment to intellectual diversity by the intellectual conformity among the faculty it hired. “What message does it send when you say you believe in diverse viewpoints — but it’s so obviously a lie?”

In the letter announcing Steinbach’s departure, Martinez made one final defense of the DEI dean’s behavior, “As I previously noted, tempers flared along multiple dimensions. Although Associate Dean Steinbach intended to de-escalate the tense situation when she spoke at the March 9 event, she recognizes that the impact of her statements was not as she hoped or intended,” she said. “Both Dean Steinbach and Stanford recognize ways they could have done better in addressing the very challenging situation, including preparing for protests, ensuring university protocols are understood, and helping administrators navigate tensions when they arise.”

This description of events contrasts with that offered in Martinez’s letter of apology to Duncan: “Staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so, and instead intervened in inappropriate ways that are not aligned with the university’s commitment to free speech.”

The announcement concluded with “appreciation for Associate Dean Steinbach’s many contributions to the Law School during her time here.”

Steinbach leaving SLS is unlikely to cause Ho and Branch to end their boycott against employing SLS students. They made it clear that the university must show systematic change and a deeper commitment to free speech, which can only be demonstrated with time. But if Steinbach was forced out over her conduct at the March 9 event, then one of the judges’ concerns — that SLS imposed “zero consequences” — is at least partially addressed.

However, just as SLS began the long process of rebuilding trust in its faculty and academic integrity, the entire university found itself embroiled in another scandal. Tessier-Lavigne announced he would resign this week after an investigation found doctored data produced by his neuroscience lab which he took insufficient action to correct.

This additional incident may complicate SLS’s efforts to restore its reputation; meanwhile, the future of free speech at Stanford Law School remains unwritten.

Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.