Over 100 faculty sign open letter calling for Faculty Senate to reconsider Hoover Institution’s relationship with Stanford

Sept. 23, 2020, 8:50 p.m.

Over 100 Stanford faculty have signed an open letter calling for the Faculty Senate to discuss the relationship between the Hoover Institution and Stanford. 

Initiated by comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu, the letter comes in light of recent controversial comments about COVID-19 made by members of the Hoover Institution — most notably by senior fellow Scott Atlas — but also addresses long-standing concerns held by some Stanford faculty. For example, the letter notes that Hoover senior fellow Richard Epstein, a “legal scholar with no expertise at all in epidemiology,” published an article on the Hoover Institution’s website in mid-March claiming that U.S. coronavirus deaths should only reach about 500 cases.

The Hoover Institution did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment on the matter.

Hoover senior fellow and comparative literature and German studies professor Russell A. Berman said that a diversity of viewpoints, of which more heterodox ones sometimes come from the Hoover Institution, is valued at Stanford among both students and faculty alike. He said he agreed that people should listen to science but noted that science is experimental and must face multiple alternatives in the experimental process. 

Rather than advocate for a specific course of action the University should take with regard to the Hoover Institution, the letter instead “asks the Faculty Senate to convene a long-overdue discussion about the relationship between the Hoover and Stanford University.”

“It’s one of those conversations that gets postponed for so long that you just want it to happen,” Palumbo-Liu told The Daily. “Just to get people talking about this seriously, that’s really the sole aim of our letter.” 

The letter also contends that the Hoover Institution’s mission statement reveals a “narrow focus and predetermined point of view” of the think tank. Hoover’s mission statement states, “Ours is a system where the Federal Government should undertake no governmental, social or economic action, except where local government, or the people, cannot undertake it for themselves.” 

Palumbo-Liu said that in cases where statements such as Atlas’ are put out under Stanford’s name, “people wonder if [the Hoover Institution] is really a research institution if it’s guided to reach the same conclusion over and over again. When the information is clearly not true, when you state a mis-fact, it is troublesome.”

In August, Atlas was named a senior advisor to President Trump and appointed as a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. A former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford Medical Center, Atlas has no background in epidemiology. His statements on coronavirus have drawn widespread criticism among the scientific community and prompted an earlier open letter by 105 Stanford physicians and researchers denouncing his views.

The information put out by the Hoover Institution is “not research, it’s propaganda, and that’s the opposite of what a university is, and it’s liberal education, diversity, and argumentation,” Palumbo-Liu said. 

Civil and environmental engineering professor Stephen Monismith, who signed the letter and gave feedback on its contents as it was drafted, agrees with Palumbo-Liu that a discussion on the relationship between the Institution and the University is long overdue. 

“It’s a concern because [Hoover fellows] represent Stanford,” Monismith said. “To be appointed as a professor of any kind, there’s a very elaborate vetting process that includes, ultimately, review at the University level by the advisory board. That doesn’t happen with the Hoover appointments.”

Theater and performance studies professor Rush Rehm says that questions about the relationship between the Hoover Institution and Stanford are nothing new, adding that he says he knows faculty who have been at Stanford for the past 30 to 40 years who have found problems with the Hoover Institution’s relation to Stanford. 

Rehm believes that people are upset with the Hoover Institution not only because of issues with academic governance, but also because the Institution uses Stanford’s name when presenting its views. The Hoover Institution has been an official part of Stanford since 1959, when the Stanford Board of Trustees named it “an independent institution within the frame of Stanford University.”

Berman said the Hoover Institution serves an important role on campus as a way to facilitate discussion between people with different views.

“Students’ viewpoints are rarely challenged because there are so few conservative professors, and this petition wants to make that worse,” Berman said. “I think that the effort to censor conservative faculty is indicative of an anxiety that in an open environment, liberal professors might not be able to prevail.”

Contact Evan Cheng at evcheng ‘at’ stanford.edu and Sandi Khine at sandiwkhine ‘at’ gmail.com.

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