Frankly Speaking: Stanford and the Hoover Institution

Nov. 17, 2020, 8:38 p.m.

A few weeks ago, Frankly Speaking asked the Stanford community to weigh in on the question: “What should the relationship between the Hoover Institution and Stanford look like going forward?” We received many thoughtful replies. Nine of them are published below.

Some context: The Hoover Institution has been cropping up in the news quite often. In a September letter, almost 100 School of Medicine faculty wrote a letter criticizing Hoover fellow and senior Trump advisor Scott Atlas’s controversial views on the coronavirus pandemic. Atlas threatened a defamation suit in response, and he has since been in the news for his public statements and role in the Trump administration‘s pandemic response. In October, we learned that Trump officials reportedly briefed Hoover board members on the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic in February. 

Outside of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hoover Institution has long had a fraught relationship with the Stanford community. In September, over 100 faculty signed a letter urging the Faculty Senate to discuss the Hoover Institution’s relationship to the University. In the past, faculty and students have criticized Hoover for its alleged ideological bias, controversial scholarship and lack of diversity; scrutiny of the think tank seems to be particularly resonant across campus in this current moment. 

In an October Faculty Senate meeting, responding to concerns over the Hoover Institution’s recent press, Provost Persis Drell said that “over the past decade, Hoover has become much more integrated into Stanford … In a very real sense, and I think this is important to keep in mind, they are, in fact, us.”

I think it’s clearly time for Stanford to divorce itself from the Hoover Institution. As the heart of Silicon Valley, and one of the most progressive places on Earth, much less the country, it’s a shame that the University sponsors an institution which more and more typifies the ‘conservative’ agenda — economic totalitarianism and fear mongering among the less educated. This is no more clearly indicated than by the recent exposé of wealthy board members being warned to protect their investments on the eve of a pandemic. At a time when millions of regular Americans would shortly be losing their jobs and businesses, Hoover Institution members profited on human misery…

“I understand the need for alternate viewpoints, especially in a university known for rigorous intellectual discussion. But at what point does supporting an alternate viewpoint simply become funding and supporting a group whose very mission is to undermine those principles? I think we’ve reached that point. And it’s well-past time for Stanford to remove this institution from the University.

—Anonymous staff member 

The scholars at the Hoover Institute are a large part of what drew me to Stanford. If the university were to separate from or put distance between itself and voices from Hoover, all it would mean to me is that ideological diversity can’t exist at our university.

—Anonymous undergraduate ’23

The Hoover Institution has become one of the largest sources of bad press for Stanford, doing the University severe reputational harm in the past year for its high-profile promulgation of partisan, potentially lethal junk science. Stanford needs to distance itself from Hoover in numerous ways, probably removing it from its prominent building on campus. As long as Hoover conducts work that conflicts with Stanford’s mission, the University should charge a licensing fee for using the Stanford name (as Stanford does for many other enterprises). If Hoover remains a part of the Stanford community (based on campus, using the Stanford name, receiving any tangible benefits from Stanford), it would also be a no-brainer for Stanford to establish clear ethical ground rules that Hoover board members and fellows must follow to remain in good standing; these include, among other things, (1) tough rules against insider trading and financial conflicts of interest (comparable to what government employees are held to), (2) guidelines about the amount of time that Hoover affiliates can spend consulting or otherwise working outside the Institute, (3) requirements that Hoover affiliates receive approvals for and fully report all interactions with government personnel, and (4) threats of dismissal for any Hoover personnel who conduct smear campaigns against Stanford students (this actually happened recently). The director of Hoover should serve under the direct leadership of (and can be fired without cause by) the provost, so that he or she is made more accountable to the University community. The University should reconsider whether it wants a bona fide war criminal leading this Institution. Hoover’s finances should face extra scrutiny from the University because of the recent appearance of corruption and Hoover’s close integration with the U.S. Government. Finally, the easiest steps for Stanford to take regarding the ‘Hoover problem’ would simply be for the president and provost to stop publicly supporting Hoover affiliates and taking sides against Stanford faculty who speak out against dangerous, immoral or shoddy work by Hoover affiliates. Those of us who further Stanford’s mission should not continue to be insulted and undermined by an institution that takes a wrecking ball to our hard work.

—Anonymous graduate student

I think the Hoover Institution offers a valuable service to both the University and the United States. The Hoover Institution is not a political organization, although it could be seen like that if you disagree with some of their analysis. Thinking, debating and differences of opinion are all good things. Isn’t that what a university is all about? The Hoover Institution should remain a part of the University and aim to get intellectual thinkers who can discuss together and try to make meaningful change in the United States.

—Anonymous staff member

It’s far from surprising that a prestigious university is unsettled by the presence of a conservative think tank on its campus. Since the Hoover Institution’s inception, it has had an uneasy relationship with Stanford and its constituents. In the present moment however, the relationship is especially strained by conservatism’s backslide into divisive anti-science rhetoric.

“Stanford serves as a beacon of trustworthy scientific research, research that is not apolitical — in fact it is often at odds with the opinions of policymakers. Dr. Atlas’ prominent position in the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 response puts these differences on full display for the national media and the members of our campus.

“Hoover has just as much responsibility to endorse verifiable science-backed messaging as Stanford has to offer a place at the table for Hoover’s political perspectives. Just as any laboratory or research group on campus, the Institution bears the Stanford name and is therefore subject to the same scrutiny in its publications or public opinions of its fellows.

“While it is fundamentally important to encourage discourse from a variety of schools of thought, it is not worth sacrificing the credibility of Stanford by legitimizing scientifically illiterate and dangerous commentary. In this situation, I believe the impetus is on the Hoover Institution to ensure its fellows have credible, research-based viewpoints rather than on Stanford to threaten a loss of affiliation.

—Halen Mattison, graduate student

I think The Daily, like the rest of liberal Stanford, has a bias against Hoover without knowing all the different voices there who have competing points of view. A world class university requires competing voices.

—Anonymous faculty member

As an environmental scientist under the age of 30, I have never known a world in which my chosen field was uncontroversial. While there are many reasons for this, I would argue part of the problem is a tolerance of private foundations buying credibility for their political ideas.

“To keep the public engaged with and trusting research institutions, academics go through grueling rounds of peer review for both their research and their job performance. While that process is far from perfect, the ideal it pursues is a noble one of discovery, collaboration and humility. Differences of opinion are necessary but not sufficient for innovative research.

“The debate around the standing of the Hoover Institution is not a question of evil people or bad values, it is a question of power and institutional trust. Stanford and other universities are typically very careful about whom they allow to speak with their name and influence. It is time they take that same care in evaluating what institutions they house on campus and how they wield their increased credibility. Unaccountable opinionated voices sponsored by the Hoover Institution pose too great a risk to the credibility of our institution and the services it seeks to provide to the public to be allowed to share our influence and reputation.

—Stephen Galdi, graduate student

The Hoover Institution has made Stanford feel like an acutely hostile environment I must defend myself from. Withholding essential information about COVID-19 is only their most recent show of bare-faced cruelty, and it constitutes reckless endangerment. Their misinformation campaigns; the reactionary, public views of their fellows; their cooperation with Stanford College Republicans (SCR) and their collaboration with the current occupant of the White House are individually abhorrent, and Stanford should be embarrassed for the association. Hoover collaborated with SCR to conduct ‘opposition research’ against a student for their political views. Clearly, the Stanford-Hoover association has already had disturbing consequences for our student culture. Hoover has suggested that students should sacrifice our health in the name of a debunked path to herd immunity. Hoover fellows have called for an end to public health procedures, including lockdowns — these fellows have advised the President. The harm is obvious, and it’s been known for far too long. (The New York Times published an article back in 1983 about student opposition to Hoover). Enough is enough.

—Jessica Femenias, undergraduate

Stanford has stated at least twice in its recent communications with students and families that the school values free speech and urged its students to be open minded to all viewpoints on campus. We were happy to see that and expect the school to hold firm to its commitment. It is important for leading institutions like Stanford to continue to protect free speech and allow all viewpoints and opinions, however unpopular at the time, to be allowed on campus. Open communications and free debates on our college campuses are especially important in these times of increasing big tech and media censorship and accusations of ‘fake news’ from both sides. 

“The Hoover Institution and the Stanford Review are two of the major reasons why we agreed to allow our child to attend Stanford, at a significant financial burden to us. We feel that it is important for our child to listen to all viewpoints and not just enter into an ideological echo chamber while on campus. We wish for both institutions to remain affiliated with Stanford. In addition, we wish to see significantly more engagement and teaching of classes from Hoover Institution fellows at Stanford, with guaranteed protection from the school allowing them to express their opinions freely and teach courses that offer an ideological contrast to those currently on offer, especially with regards to race, gender and equity. Let the students decide for themselves which of these classes they wish to take.

“Stanford has always been a leader on many fronts, from scientific to cultural advancement. It did not become a leader by being timid and following the herd. In this climate of increasing intolerance, it is especially important for Stanford to take the lead and show the country the way forward — by pledging a firm commitment to free speech and encouraging free debate of all ideas on campus. It is only when we can all express our opinions freely that we can find that common ground to exist as one nation, one people.

—Anonymous parent ’24

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