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Who We Are

The Stanford Civics Initiative (SCI), home-based in Stanford’s Department of Political Science, is the project of a group of Stanford faculty from the Departments of Political Science, Classics, Philosophy, and Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, working together with the staff of the Zephyr Institute. We are united by our belief that U.S. universities have a responsibility to offer students an education that will promote their flourishing as human beings, their judgment as moral agents, and their participation in society as democratic citizens. A healthy democracy requires that citizens and leaders be conversant with the great ideas of the past and present, ideas that produced and sustain their system of government. Citizens living in a pluralistic society must learn to engage one another in rational discourse. They must find ways to meet new challenges and to promote the common good, together.

The Initiative aims to provide students with a series of superbly taught courses relevant to the ideas and practices of democratic citizenship. The SCI is intended to further Stanford’s mission, as laid out in the University’s  Founding Grant, to prepare students for virtuous and effective citizenship by “teaching the blessings of liberty, regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

Stanford's Commitment to Civic Education

The university has a vitally important role to play in the education of citizens. That role was recognized not only in Stanford’s Founding Grant, but also in Stanford’s first required survey course: “The Problems of Citizenship," introduced in 1923. Now, a century later, the need for addressing problems of citizenship is more pressing than ever. The Initiative serves the needs of all Stanford students who are eager to pursue a curriculum that would enable them to explore in-depth issues of the common good and human flourishing, who seek to debate important ethical and moral issues, and who want a classroom setting that encourages both frankness and civility as they delve into big ideas. We believe that students’ own ethical judgment is improved and their deepest commitments are strengthened when they have the chance to make and to respond to reasoned arguments from all sides of morally challenging issues.

The SCI is also aligned with Stanford's guiding principles today.  In a letter sent to students admitted to the Class of 2028, President Richard Saller and Provost Jenny Martinez emphasized the importance of freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression at Stanford – and encouraged students to engage disagreement “with an open and curious mind.”

April 3, 2024

Congratulations on earning a place in Stanford University’s Class of 2028! This is a moment to celebrate the hard work and determination that have brought you to this moment, and also to reflect on the next stage of your education. Amid all the challenging and polarizing issues being discussed in the world right now, you may be wondering what kind of intellectual community you would be joining at Stanford. And we think this is important to address directly.

Stanford strives to provide its students with a liberal education, which means one that broadens your mind and horizons by exposing you to different fields of study and different ways of thinking. A rigorous liberal education depends on questioning your assumptions and seeing if they hold up. As a member of the Stanford community, you will quickly learn that freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression are core values at Stanford. They animate our central missions of teaching and research. Stanford is also a place that values diversity in its broadest sense – which includes diversity of thought.

This means that every member of the Stanford community is accepted and valued for their unique characteristics and ideals. It is precisely the distinct attributes each community member brings to Stanford that, when openly and constructively shared, create a vibrant educational environment where the search for truth is advanced.

Our Founding Grant commits the university to “teach the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and … the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The “blessings of liberty” are a middle point between mere license (doing whatever you want) and conformity (doing what others want you to do). Liberty to think and say what you believe involves taking responsibility as well. It requires recognizing the freedom and rights of others and helping to create the conditions that make everyone’s freedom possible here on campus and in our broader society.

Freedom of expression does not include the right to threaten or harass others and prevent them from engaging as equal participants in campus life. But the freedom of expression necessary for fulfilling the mission of a university – and for a democracy – does require allowing speech that some may find offensive or wrong. Many of humanity’s greatest advances have come from ideas that offended conventional wisdom and seemed heretical at first. In a university, the remedy for ideas that you think are wrong is not to seek to silence them but to counter them with better ideas, evidence, and arguments.

As a part of your education you should expect, and indeed welcome, disagreement. You will undoubtedly encounter and hear ideas that are contrary to your beliefs and values. Stanford culture will expect and demand that when you face disagreements that you respond with respect for the humanity of those you disagree with, and with an open and curious mind. We aim for an environment where we are tough on ideas, but generous and respectful to one another. Being exposed to the very different views of others will invariably broaden your outlook and may transform some of your beliefs – or at least change your understanding of what they mean and how to defend them.

Your education at Stanford is designed to prepare you for life as a citizen of the communities in which you live. Whether it is your dormitory, your town, or your workplace, and regardless of what career path you eventually choose, you should have the skills to critically and constructively engage with those who are different from you.

Guided by the principles outlined above, we are delighted to welcome you and your unique perspective into this culture of free thought, inquiry, and expression. We hope you’ll seriously embrace the extraordinary opportunities available here.


Richard Saller


Jenny S. Martinez