As student antiwar activists work to make their case against war persuasive to ambivalent classmates, the leaders of a Stanford University peace group have launched a different kind of campaign–to reform a conservative think tank on campus with dubious ties to the Bush Administration.
The 84-year-old, Stanford-based Hoover Institution, long famous for its influence over national Republican policy, currently wields substantial power at the Pentagon, with eight Hoover fellows sitting on the Defense Policy Board advising Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the war in Iraq. But the institution makes an impact, albeit of a different sort, at its home in California, too. A generous sum of Stanford’s endowment goes to Hoover each year (the university donates $1 million in general funds to Hoover’s library and archive annually) and some of the institution’s right-leaning fellows teach in Stanford’s economics and political science departments. Additionally, the two are linked in name and through shared property, and Hoover’s director reports directly to Stanford’s president.
The student-run Stanford Community for Peace and Justice (SCPJ) says that such formal ties are a violation of the university’s code of academic freedom. The group, about fifty students working for nonviolence, charges that the Hoover Institution is guided by a politically charged mission statement that factors into the hiring of Hoover fellows, some of whom end up in the university’s classrooms. That statement declares, in part, that Hoover seeks to “limit government intrusion into the lives of individuals.” In the past it has also defined its mission as “to demonstrate the evils of the doctrines of Karl Marx,” and previous director W. Glenn Campbell (who led Hoover from 1960 to 1989) had a fundraising strategy that focused on fighting communism abroad and on campus.
John Raisian, Hoover’s director, contends that the mission statement is not partisan, but a historical statement: “It enunciates constitutional principles relating to freedom,” he says. But activists counter that an institution with such a philosophy is taking a job candidate’s political views into account when hiring decisions are made and has no place at a university where academic freedom is guaranteed.
To make their point, in February SCPJ presented to Stanford president John Hennessy a petition signed by more than 600 students protesting the discrepancy between Stanford’s academic freedom policy and Hoover’s mission statement. SCPJ is calling for Hoover to alter its mission statement; barring that, they want Stanford to sever ties with the institution. “Our basic idea was that as student activists, we need to organize students not just to go to rallies but to empower them to see that they can create concrete changes in their own lives, their own campus and the structures that connect them to war policy,” says Calvin Miaw, a senior and SCPJ co-coordinator.
The group set out to publicize their campaign and gain support by canvassing the campus with their petitions. Kate Skolnick, a sophomore and SCPJ co-coordinator, said that the hours she spent circling the dining hall gave her a chance to try her arguments out on people. “Overwhelmingly, people were very hesitant to sign the petition, to put their name on something,” she said. And though some students were dismissive, she was encouraged by their interest in debating the issue. “It sounded like people were really thinking about things.”
After acquiring about 600 signatures, representatives of five student groups presented the petition to Hennessy in a private meeting. In addition to SCPJ, the coalition included members from the Muslim Student Awareness Newtwork, the Young Communist League, the Stanford Labor Action Coalition and Students for Environmental Action. Both Hennessy and Raisian maintain that neither the mission statement nor the university’s relationship with Hoover will change. “I don’t see reason to do either one,” Hennessy said. “I don’t think they stand a chance,” Raisian agreed, calling the campaign “an interesting intellectual exercise.”
In response to such blithe dismissal, organizers have decided on a new target to get officials’ attention: Stanford’s pocketbook. They are urging parents and alumni to set aside their planned donation to Stanford in order to urge the university to act to reform Hoover. They’ve only recently started publicizing this effort through fliers and the SCPJ website (www.stanford.edu/group/peace/ ); it remains to be seen whether this will be more effective than the petition. “A lot of the reason this is going to be such a challenge for us is he [President Hennessy] is beholden to a lot of conservative, wealthy donors who are very happy to have Hoover here on campus,” Skolnick said.
But it isn’t just money that stands in the way of SCPJ’s objectives. Activists are also facing resistance from students and others who claim the group is only charging a violation of academic freedom because the accused violator is conservative rather than liberal. “Some people think we’re the ones suppressing opposing viewpoints, which is a misinterpretation of our intents,” Skolnick said. “It’s not excluding conservative opinion on campus. We just don’t want it to be an institutionalized ideology.”
The group freely admits that it is Hoover fellows’ involvement in the Bush Administration that prompted their investigation into academic freedom and Hoover’s mission statement. Had Hoover fellows been involved in, say, peace advocacy rather than defense strategy, the SCPJ would probably not have sought reform on the basis of violating academic integrity. Still, activists don’t think their partisanship dilutes their campaign. “I don’t think our motivation destroys the legitimacy of our argument,” Miaw said.
Indeed, the argument has been made before–most recently by faculty. During the Reagan presidency, close links between the Administration and Hoover prompted Stanford faculty to draft a petition demanding investigation into the relationship between the university and the think tank. A committee was appointed, but little else was accomplished besides a “rubber-stamping of Hoover,” said Ron Rebholz, a professor emeritus of English at Stanford who was closely involved in the Hoover battle during the 1980s.
Faculty also battled the planned construction of the Hoover-backed Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Reagan Center for Public Policy on campus. In 1985 Stanford’s trustees, led by chairman Warren Christopher, agreed that the library and a small museum could be built in the foothills overlooking campus but that the Hoover-run policy center would have to go elsewhere. “It was the only victory in my political career at Stanford,” Rebholz said. “We had hoped for a divorce between Stanford and Hoover. And that would be very difficult to achieve.”
Rebholz, who has met with some of the students, is happy to see them taking up the cause of Hoover again, but he is skeptical that Hennessy or the board of trustees can be convinced. “The trustees are not progressive,” he said. “No president has ever supported divorce.”
Still, Miaw and Skolnick remain upbeat. “It doesn’t matter how he [Hennessy] feels personally, it matters how much pressure we can apply,” Miaw said. “We’re transforming the power relationship between students and the president.”