What Netflix can teach Universities
A lesson in courage
During the COVID19 pandemic, I looked around for universities to host debates or roundtables on school closure, mask mandates, business closure, lockdown, the varied interpretations of the IFR— in other words: the biggest policy issues of our day. And what did I find?
A single debate for JAMA, a couple of videos from across the pond (BMJ), and a debate for Johns Hopkins hosted by the great humanitarian & thinker Stef Baral. What about Stanford? Nothing; Yale? Crickets. Princeton? Harvard? Zilch.
Why did the most prestigious universities abdicate the responsibility to host debates? And worse: why do they still abdicate it? There are no debates on boosting 5-11 year olds, vaccine mandates for college kids, or the evidence FDA should demand for a yearly COVID shot.
The answer is simple: University administrators are jellyfish (spineless), and they are scared that some fraction of their faculty, staff, or students will label some position as harmful. Ergo, they do not want to host a debate, lest some fraction of their body be offended or hurt by a “harmful” idea.
What does that mean? Our society further slides into the abyss, making bad policy choices, and universities forfeit their position to podcasts and videos, such as Plenary Session, which do push a range of COVID19 ideas and guests.
Enter Netflix. Netflix recently told its employees.
Not everyone will like—or agree with—everything on our service. While every title is different, we approach them based on the same set of principles: we support the artistic expression of the creators we choose to work with; we program for a diversity of audiences and tastes; and we let viewers decide what's appropriate for them, versus having Netflix censor specific artists or voices.
As employees we support the principle that Netflix offers a diversity of stories, even if we find some titles counter to our own personal values. Depending on your role, you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful. If you'd find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you.
“You will want to subscribe to my news letter”—vp
This is exactly the memo that universities should be sending their own faculty, students and staff.
“I know some of you like school closure, and some of you think it is a bad idea. We are going to debate it here. If you'd find it hard to support holding open debates, Stanford may not be the best place for you.”
“I know some of you favor mandatory college boosters, and some of you think it is a bad idea. We are going to debate it here. If you'd find it hard to support holding open debates, Yale may not be the best place for you.”
“I know some of you think boosting a healthy 5 year old who just had omicron is a genius move, and some of you think that only a moron would do it. We are going to debate it here. If you'd find it hard to support holding open debates, Harvard may not be the best place for you.”
University administrators need to marshal the courage to tell their staff, faculty and students to shut up, and hear a range of opinions. So we can make progress as a people. And if they won’t, I have one more letter to send:
“I know some administrators fear confrontation and prefer to avoid making trouble. As such, they capitulate to a noisy group on campus. If this is you, being an administrator may not be the best job for you.”
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