Stanford Law School Taps Organizer of Shout-Down Protest To Help Find New Dean

Matthew Coffin is the leader of an LGBT student group that derailed a Federalist Society event featuring Fifth Circuit judge Kyle Duncan

Stanford protesters / Getty Images
October 31, 2023

Stanford Law School has tapped a student involved in the successful effort to shout down a federal judge to serve on a search committee for the law school’s next dean, raising questions about the school’s stated commitment to free speech.

The only student on the law school’s search committee, Matthew Coffin is the co-president of Stanford OutLaw, the LGBT student group that led efforts in March to disrupt a Federalist Society event featuring Fifth Circuit appellate judge Kyle Duncan. Along with nearly a dozen faculty members, Coffin will help identify candidates to replace former Stanford Law dean Jenny Martinez, who was named provost of the university in August.

It is not clear how Stanford chose the committee—the school did not respond to a request for comment—but its members were announced in an October 4 email to the school.

Students say Coffin’s appointment is a betrayal of the promise, made by Martinez in a 10-page memo about the Duncan brouhaha, that the law school would recommit itself to free expression. "It’s really disappointing and seemingly rewards the behavior that the law school rightly rebuked last year," one Stanford Law student said. "It’s like the moment Dean Martinez got one foot out the door, Stanford stopped trying to hide its antipathy to the Federalist Society."

The committee, which also includes the left-wing professor Pamela Karlan, who served as a Democratic impeachment witness against then-president Donald Trump, will present a list of candidates to Martinez and Richard Saller, the university’s interim president, who will then make a final decision about the next dean. Coffin and Martinez did not respond to requests for comment.

Coffin’s elevation comes as universities across the country are facing renewed scrutiny for their response to the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel, which elicited tepid tut-tutting from administrators and, in some cases, fierce support from students and faculty members, several of whom explicitly justified violence against civilians.

That contrast has caused prominent donors to sever ties with Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania over the schools’ temporizing about anti-Semitism. It has also prompted a rush of soul-searching from liberals and progressives wondering how, seemingly overnight, the American campus became a safe space for terror apologia.

The Stanford search committee suggests an answer to that question: Even universities that commit publicly to intellectual diversity are often working behind the scenes to undermine it, stacking decision-making bodies with the most radical students and professors. Many hiring committees, including at the University of California, Berkeley and George Mason University, now include an "equity adviser" who monitors the search process, and schools have long used diversity statements to weed out candidates deemed insufficiently progressive.

At Berkeley, one faculty search in 2019 rejected 75 percent of applicants based solely on their diversity statements, according to an academic paper by Steven Brint and Komi Frey. A September job post at Georgetown sought an economics professor "who aligns with the University's social justice objectives."

Stanford illustrates how this ideological screening can happen without an explicit litmus test. Though Martinez said in March that law school shouldn’t be an "echo chamber," the committee searching for her replacement includes no conservatives or moderates. All of its faculty members are quite far left, four current and former students said, with even liberals friendly to the Federalist Society left off the list.

The committee includes Karlan, hailed as "a new hero for liberal law professors" in the wake of her impeachment testimony, as well as Jayashri Srikantiah, the founder of the law school’s Immigrants' Rights Clinic, and two administrators with roles in the university’s sprawling diversity bureaucracy: Dan Schwartz, the dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, and Stephanie Kalfayan, the university’s vice provost for Academic Affairs.

That bureaucracy came under intense scrutiny this year when Tirien Steinbach, Stanford Law’s former diversity dean, joined the protest of Duncan and, in a now-infamous video, asked if "the juice" was "worth the squeeze." Her intervention drew repeated condemnations from Martinez, who forced Steinbach out of the law school in July.

When Stanford promoted Martinez a month later, it framed her as a free speech warrior and touted her response to the protest, calling it an example of "courageous leadership." Though the ascendant provost had denounced the disruption of Duncan’s talk as a violation of Stanford policy, she refused to discipline the students who participated in it—even those who had been caught on camera hurling invective at the judge.

The Washington Free Beacon could not confirm whether Coffin personally joined the protest, but two students who were present for the event said they saw him in the crowd. OutLaw organized the protest along with the National Lawyers Guild, according to fliers posted around the school and Stanford’s student newspaper, though Coffin’s group later denied responsibility.

The search committee is the second time in recent months that Stanford has cast doubt on its commitment to free expression. Martinez said in March that the law school would host a mandatory half-day session for all law students about free speech and civil discourse. The promised training turned out to be an online program that some students completed in under a minute.