Stanford University shuts down website that aimed to ‘eliminate harmful language’ in its IT community, after fiercely negative reactions

Stanford University | source: Frank Schulenburg

Stanford University removed its “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” website after strong blowback and concerns of censorship. Initially, the website, launched to target language used by Stanford’s IT community, provided alternatives for “harmful” words in IT communications. 

Key Players

Stanford University, an elite private research university located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the world’s preeminent center for technological innovation, consistently ranks as one of the top institutions to study and employ technology. Surveys indicate that its students tend to lean left politically.

The Stanford CIO Council (CIOC), formed in 2015, informs Stanford’s technology strategy and priorities. Members include senior technical leaders who manage one or more substantial IT enterprises at the university.

People of Color in Technology (POC-IT), a Stanford affinity group, promotes “representation, engagement, and support” for people of color in the Stanford technology community. It is part of a program called Stanford IDEAL IT, which promotes “diversity, inclusion, equity, and access across Stanford IT.”

Further Details

As a private university, Stanford has a wider range in restricting Free Speech than a public one. Per the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, “The Bill of Rights does not apply to actions taken by private institutions. Thus, much of the arguments over the proper scope of First Amendment protection on private campuses are moral or philosophical questions, rather than strictly legal ones.” 

In May 2022, the CIOC and POC-IT started the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) as part of a larger commitment to “stand in solidarity with the Black community at large” and support “transformative measures to increase representation and opportunities across the Stanford IT community for Blacks and other people of color.”

Steve Gallagher, the university chief information officer, said the EHLI website had been “catalyzed by events at the national and campus level during 2020” and was meant to “address racist terms historically used in IT, such as ‘master’ and ‘slave’ to describe aspects of systems.”

The list was “intended as a guide, not a mandate” for the Stanford IT community, Gallagher said. 

The 13-page list has over 150 words that fall into 10 categories: ableist, ageism, colonialism, culturally appropriative, gender-based, imprecise language, institutionalized racism, person-first, violent, and additional considerations. Words in each of these categories had reasons as to why they were considered “harmful,” as well as substitutes. The list was influenced by similar initiatives from Brandeis University, University of Oregon, Wikipedia, The University of Texas at Austin, Indiana University, and the University of San Francisco.

Immediately, many condemned the list. Fox News host Jeanine Pirro called it “leftist absurdity.” Tech mogul Elon Musk tweeted that it was “madness.” Josh Yuter, a prominent New York City rabbi, criticized the list’s claim that the phrase “hip-hip-hooray” should be eliminated due to its alleged usage in Nazi Germany, Inside Higher Ed reported. 

“Until reading the initiative I had no idea that a variant of ‘hip-hip hooray’ was a German rallying cry during the Holocaust, and I suspect few others would as well,” Yutler said. “I cannot speak to traumas experienced by actual survivors, but I would be very surprised if ‘hip-hip hooray’ was passed down as intergenerational trauma to merit inclusion as being ‘harmful’ in any way.” 

Yuter added that the phrase predated Nazi Germany, with its beginnings traceable to 19th-century England.

USA Today columnist Ingrid Jacques called it “political correctness gone wild,” as well as an “alarming” symptom of “wider trends in higher education to coddle students and prevent them from hearing anything that could ‘trigger’ bad feelings.” 

On Dec. 19, The Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized the website for listing “American” as a harmful term that should be replaced with “US citizen.” 

The list stated that “American” as a term “often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries).”


Stanford shuts down website, says it ‘missed the intended mark’

The next day, Stanford hid the website from public view, Insider Higher Ed reported. 

Gallagher also responded to “American” as a listed term. “To be very clear, not only is the use of the term ‘American’ not banned at Stanford, it is absolutely welcomed,” he stated. 

“The intent of this particular entry on the EHLI website was to provide perspective on how the term may be imprecise in some specific uses, and to show that in some cases the alternate term ‘US citizen’ may be more precise and appropriate. But, we clearly missed the mark in this presentation” he added. 

On Jan. 4, 2023, as more criticism piled up, Stanford shut down the website.

“The primary motivation of this initiative was always to promote a more inclusive and welcoming environment where individuals from all backgrounds feel they belong,” Gallagher stated. “The feedback that this work was broadly viewed as counter to inclusivity means we missed the intended mark. It is for this reason that we have taken down the EHLI site.”