By Matt Larson
The Hoover Institution has long been a controversial presence on Stanford’s campus because of the infamous figures that it employs. Hoover has been defended on the grounds of academic freedom, but that is missing the point. Hoover is not notorious for the research its fellows produce, but rather for their improper behavior.
Hoover employs a cast of characters that seems more interested in making money and promoting right-wing politics than in doing actual academic research. Some, I assume, are good scholars. But there have been more than enough examples of Hoover fellows lining their pockets, spreading disinformation and committing misconduct to show that Hoover needs some adult supervision.
The New York Times has reported that senior members of the Trump administration briefed the Hoover Board in February on the danger the pandemic posed to the economy. At the time, the Trump administration was claiming that COVID-19 was unlikely to seriously affect the United States. As a result of the briefing, financier William Callanan, who was on the Hoover Board of Overseers, was able to warn his friends and clients about the impending danger to the US economy.
It’s hard to imagine a legitimate reason for the board of an academic institution to receive a secret government briefing on the future of the economy. As the board meeting does not appear to have been specifically planned to get inside information about the pandemic, this raises the question of whether it is a common occurrence for Hoover board members to receive non-public information from government officials.
This is not the first time that Hoover affiliates have profited from their position in an unseemly way. Several Hoover affiliates were on the board of Theranos, the blood testing company that proved to be a massive fraud. Hoover fellows Henry Kissinger, Jim Mattis, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Schultz were all on the board of Theranos. Schultz was a key defender of Theranos as journalists exposed its ventures as fraudulent. Schultz even pressured his grandson, a whistleblower at the company, to stop talking to journalists.
Former defense secretary Mattis was also a key figure in the rise of Theranos. In 2012, when Mattis was still a general, he personally advocated for the use of Theranos’ untested technology in the military. Mattis has no apparent expertise in blood testing. After Mattis retired from the military in 2013, he joined the board of Theranos. According to the SEC complaint against Theranos, the company falsely claimed that their blood-testing product was being used on medevac helicopters in Afghanistan. Mattis said nothing. He stayed on the board of Theranos until the beginning of 2017, earning $150,000 for his service.
Unfortunately, Hoover fellows don’t restrict themselves to merely profiting from the platform that Stanford gives them. Scott Atlas, a Hoover fellow who has no apparent expertise in epidemiology, has pushed the Trump administration to embrace a “herd immunity” strategy. Experts say that this strategy would lead to many preventable deaths. He has also called on people to “rise up” against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer just a month after she was the target of a kidnapping plot. Atlas even threatened to sue faculty members at the Stanford School of Medicine over their open letter denouncing his response to the pandemic. Lawsuits have no place in the academic community.
Hoover fellows have also attempted to undermine the results of the 2020 election. On Nov. 9, Hoover Senior Fellow Victor Davis Hanson went on Tucker Carlson Tonight and complained about the “new concept of early voting and mail-in balloting,” saying that “we had never heard those words before.” One would think that a military historian would be aware that postal voting was already in use during the Civil War, or at least he would have been able to Google it before spreading disinformation on national TV. Early in-person voting is also not a new phenomenon: President Obama cast his vote early in 2012.
In the same interview, Hanson spread baseless and implausible conspiracy theories. For example, he suggested that Democrats like Hillary Clinton intentionally created the COVID-19 pandemic. Hanson also falsely claimed that there were widespread irregularities in the 2020 election. Hanson’s incessant spreading of nonsensical conspiracy theories is contrary to the very idea of the University as a source of knowledge.
Finally, Hoover affiliates have acted inappropriately on campus. Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at Hoover, was caught conspiring to conduct “opposition research” on a student activist at Stanford. Ferguson encouraged other students to “unite against the [social justice warriors]” and “intimidate them.” While Ferguson resigned from his role in a program promoting free speech at Stanford, he has kept his position at Hoover.
Hoover fellows constitute a veritable wall of shame. They have been involved in just about every type of skeezy behavior imaginable. Stanford should not allow Hoover to continue dragging its name through the mud. Stanford must exert some control over who Hoover hires as fellows and establish some baseline standard of behavior. Or at least force Hoover to disambiguate itself from the fine scholarship that goes on at Stanford; perhaps it could call itself “Stanford Total Landscaping.”
Contact Matt Larson at mwlarson ‘at’ stanford.edu.