Hoover must re-evaluate the academic merit of its fellows

Opinion by Terence Zhao
March 1, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

Stanford is renowned for being the home of some of the world’s most brilliant minds, and these minds are undoubtedly one of the University’s greatest assets. As students here, we often witness firsthand the unrivaled intellectual caliber of our professors, and, less often but still occasionally, the difficulty of obtaining and keeping those professorial positions here. We also hear of cases where top-notch scholars don’t receive tenure, a fate shared by half of all the assistant professors here.

Compared to the world-class faculty we find in other parts of the University — and the stringent processes by which they are selected to be here — some of the folks the Hoover Institution has among its ranks ought to raise eyebrows. In a Feb. 8 op-ed, a group of distinguished professors stated that their main objection towards the Hoover “is a matter of the mission of the Hoover potentially conflicting with the mission of Stanford University, or indeed, any university.” While this particular op-ed criticizes Hoover’s ideological bias, I think we can look to something even more fundamental: the University’s mission as a place for teaching, learning and the pursuit of knowledge.

If Hoover is truly committed to this goal, it has a funny way of showing it with some of its hires. Indeed, while it certainly also has its fair share of brilliant Stanford scholars, Hoover houses figures whose presence at this institution seems baffling, and whose relationships with the advancement of learning and knowledge are dubious at best.

For starters, not all of Hoover’s fellows are who we might consider scholars or academics, which is itself not a problem at all: Many academic departments and programs here will hire professionals in their respective industries as teachers and researchers, and the field of politics is no exception. However, in the same way that we expect our professors to be some of the world’s most brilliant academics, these non-academics are also supposed to be the top of their respective fields.

Not so at Hoover. To paraphrase President Trump, a man some at Hoover seem all too happy to defend: Oftentimes, when Hoover sends its people, they’re not sending their best. Hoover fellows are convicted felons, racists who call President Obama things like “ghetto boy” and “grown-up Trayvon,” and tweet hashtags like “#BurnTheJews” — and that’s just Dinesh D’Souza (who, yes, was once a Hoover fellow).

As much as certain Hoover fellows have mocked millennials as “crybabies” and decried the “participation trophy,” it is ironic that Hoover may be the biggest participation trophy of them all for failed conservatives who, even after their failed careers have finally come to an inglorious end, can still expect to find a safe space at Hoover. Stanford’s reputation is strong, and being able to claim an affiliation with Stanford like this confers a great deal of social capital, legitimacy and prestige. Conferring these things on folks whose success in their fields is debatable at best is highly questionable, and it points to why the Hoover’s practices are so problematic and antithetical to the values of a University that seeks to gather the best and brightest minds. It is not simply that Hoover is disliked for being conservative or hiring conservatives: It is disliked because it provides free passes to conservatives with dubious records who are not up to par.

For example, what exactly makes former California governor Pete Wilson qualified to be at Stanford? His deregulation of the state’s energy grid arguably single-handedly caused one of the biggest and longest power outages in American history, and his divisive policies on immigration made the California GOP a permanent minority party in a previously reliable red state.

What exactly makes former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne qualified to be at Stanford? His austerity policies have now put one in three British children in grinding poverty, and have created an economic situation so bad that even The New York Times, hardly a hotbed of Marxist thought, had to put out a front-page story about how these conditions have driven young Britons towards socialism.

And, of course, what exactly makes Henry Kissinger, called “a war criminal whose offenses rival those of the most heinous dictators in recent history” by none other than a fellow colleague at the Hoover, qualified to be at Stanford? His disastrous foray into foreign policy included championing a secret, never-authorized bombing campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War that killed upwards of a half million people; support for the Pakistani genocide of up to three million people during the Bangladesh Liberation War; and deposition of democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende and subsequent installation of brutal tyrant Augusto Pinochet.

This is not a matter of ideology — it’s about merit. People like Wilson and Osborne are not academics; they are politicians and policymakers, and their merits and deservedness to be at Hoover need to be based on their records in those capacities (in the same way that a professor up for tenure should have that decision be based on their ability to teach and do good research), and frankly, their records just aren’t up to par, even by conservative standards. For example, even conservatives can’t deny the cold hard fact that Pete Wilson became governor in a red state but left it a blue one: Since Wilson’s departure, the GOP has never held majorities in the state house, and has won an electoral majority on just one statewide office (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial reelection bid) in two decades.

And the disparity is stark: Whereas most of the University will only hire the best and brightest — whether they be academics or industry professionals — to share this intellectual space, the Hoover is instead allowed to bring in some of the worst-regarded men (and it is, for the most part, just men: Women make up just eight percent of Hoover’s fellows) in politics in living memory. Frankly, there are just better, more effective political figures out there, both on the left and right. Among Hoover’s own ranks, George Schultz and HR McMaster, both Republicans, and Michael McFaul, a Democrat, are just some among many people at Hoover with whom I and many others might not necessarily agree, but who — I imagine almost all can agree — are nonetheless competent, successful public servants.

So why, then, is Hoover hiring and retaining these people? If what we want are successful, real-life policymakers who can teach their experiences, these folks certainly aren’t it. I suppose one reason might be that there is still plenty to be learned from failed experiences in public policy — which is certainly true. However, if this is the goal, these folks, again, aren’t it, because they have not examined their legacies in an honest, fair-handed way, nor have they recognized their failures. Osborne still steadfastly defends his austerity policies. Wilson says that he still supports Prop. 187, the unconstitutional, anti-immigrant law he championed, even as the pushback from the law has sent the California GOP into third-party status in a state that only has two major political parties. If the goal is to learn from the mistakes of the past, it would be pretty strange to try to do it from people who refuse to even acknowledge them.

It is the rest of Stanford and, importantly, the rest of Hoover, that foots the metaphorical bill. Because again, this is by no means a blanket statement on the Hoover as a whole. There is no shortage of smart people and good people at the Hoover, and they deserve their fair share of recognition just like any other brilliant scholars on campus. But they must also realize that their less-than-stellar colleagues at the Hoover are making that recognition difficult to come by. In other words, by inviting these devastatingly unqualified people on as so-called fellows, the Hoover is making itself and the entire campus look worse and is doing a great disservice to its fellows who actually do research and students at Stanford who actually want to learn. As much as each individual at Hoover deserves to be judged on their own merits, the reputation of the institution they belong to matters. And until the Hoover can wean itself of its habit of hiring its conservative friends who are not qualified to be there, that reputation will remain quite sordid indeed.


Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Terence Zhao '19 originally hails from Beijing, China, before immigrating to the US and settling in Arcadia, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. He is majoring in Urban Studies, and promotes the major with cult-like zeal. In his spare time, he likes to explore cities and make pointless maps.

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