Mr. Rumsfeld Goes to Stanford

University's professors take to the (virtual) streets after the Hoover Institution announces its newest distinguished visiting fellow, the former secretary of defense.
September 21, 2007

It's safe to say that Stanford University expected some opposition to the latest appointment at its affiliated Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace: former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

In addition to noting his duties heading the Pentagon under President Bush, the September 7 announcement from Hoover emphasizes Rumsfeld's credentials as a two-time Fortune 500 CEO, member of Congress, U.S. ambassador to NATO and former White House chief of staff. Perhaps illustrating the affiliated-yet-independent nature of the institutions' relationship, the (much shorter) announcement from Stanford several days later begins: "Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who resigned from the position last year after coming under increasing fire for his management of the war in Iraq, has been appointed a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution."

The contrasting approaches highlight key questions raised by a growing faculty protest against the appointment: What should be the institution's relationship with Stanford? What is the process by which it selects visiting fellows?

This isn't the first time such questions have been raised. The Hoover Institution, founded in 1919 by the former president whose name it bears, is a highly visible part of the campus with a director who reports directly to Stanford's president. Still, it maintains a separate endowment and enjoys considerable autonomy from traditional university governance as a public-policy think tank with a conservative reputation.

The uproar against Rumsfeld's appointment began as a series of e-mails fired over the "Faculty Against the War" listserv and has evolved into an online petition with more than 2,100 signatures from students, professors and alumni, which states in part: "We view the appointment as fundamentally incompatible with the ethical values of truthfulness, tolerance, disinterested enquiry [sic], respect for national and international laws, and care for the opinions, property and lives of others to which Stanford is inalienably committed."

The movement includes heavyweights such as Philip Zimbardo, the social psychologist who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, and has started to trickle down to the student body, most of whom have not yet returned to campus for the new academic year. On Facebook, a more modest protest group (free account required) has nearly 250 members.

Faculty have contacted the president's office to lodge criticisms as they prepare for more formal action: Debra Satz, director of the Program in Ethics in Society at Stanford, will introduce a resolution at the first Faculty Senate meeting next month to call for discussions on how appointments at Hoover are made -- a measure she said she already has the votes for.

As a general rule, Stanford doesn't second-guess appointments made by institutes or centers on its campus. "The fundamental issue here is that we ... give autonomy to the departments," said Jeff Wachtel, the special assistant to Stanford President John Hennessy. "How do you choose which ones to step in on? Our practice is to not get involved," he said, short of an incitement to violence.

The Hoover Institution is not commenting on the opposition to Rumsfeld's appointment, which is temporary and will entail few, if any, appearances on the campus, according to Michele Horaney, the center's public affairs manager. In his capacity as distinguished visiting fellow, Rumsfeld will participate in a task force on issues "pertaining to ideology and terror," although the exact name and makeup of the group have not been finalized. Some faculty members have speculated that the task force -- whose other members have not been named -- was created as a pretext to bestow an honorary appointment to Rumsfeld, a charge that Horaney said wasn't true.

"The task force model here at Hoover is still kind of under development," she said, noting that at least seven were planned. The first of these, the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, has held one panel debate this year featuring the former Harvard professor Caroline M. Hoxby, a senior fellow, as well as the educator E. D. Hirsch. The terrorism task force, which Rumsfeld will not chair, will probably meet about twice a year on campus, Horaney said.

The announcement emphasized Rumsfeld's history with the institution, including membership on Hoover's Board of Overseers and "significant" support (presumably donations), as a factor in his appointment. The visiting fellowship will cover travel expenses and possibly a "small stipend," Horaney said.

Rumsfeld's appointment isn't the first time the institution has met controversy, but both Horaney and Wachtel said they couldn't recall a comparable level of opposition to a single person. Unlike visitors, senior fellows go through a process of peer review akin to that for tenure-track faculty members.

While secretary of defense under Bush, Rumsfeld was a chief architect of the war in Iraq, advocating an invasion strategy -- since discredited -- that relied on fewer troops than traditionally thought necessary to stabilize the country. He later came under fire for allowing interrogation methods many consider to be torture to be practiced at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp -- tactics later emulated at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. As the target of withering criticisms from Democrats and many Republicans, Rumsfeld resigned soon after the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006.

Due in part to its commitment to libertarian principles of "private enterprise" and limited government -- and a fierce ideological opposition to communism -- the Hoover Institution is a haven for conservative-leaning scholars, many of whom are distinguished in their own right and hold concurrent academic appointments at Stanford or elsewhere. Founded by a grant from Herbert Hoover before he became president, the center's mission statement says, in part: "The overall mission of this Institution is, from its records, to recall the voice of experience against the making of war, and by the study of these records and their publication, to recall man's endeavors to make and preserve peace, and to sustain for America the safeguards of the American way of life."

Hoover's mission has sometimes collided with some of Stanford's more liberal-leaning students and professors. Friction between the two were common from the Vietnam War through at least the 1980s, when opposition culminated in an aborted attempt to house the Ronald Reagan presidential library on campus. In 2005, a group of Stanford students began the Roosevelt Institution, a conscious effort to create a counterbalancing "student think tank" organized through a network of campuses nationwide.

Criticisms of Rumsfeld

Professors involved in the opposition movement expressed distaste for Rumsfeld's appointment for varying reasons. For some, it was the term "distinguished" as applied to a highly criticized manager of the war in Iraq. For others, it was his connection to the torture-tainted scandal of Abu Ghraib. Some are outspokenly progressive and are critical of Hoover, while others believe it is a valuable center of scholarship.

"[T]here is also ... at the Hoover Institution a solid and stolid phalanx of tired and/or discredited Republican politicians, fixers and hacks, of no discernible intellectual substance, whose appointments, as far as one can judge, were made largely on the basis of ideological solidarity rather than analytic or scholarly accomplishment," Nicholas Jenkins, an English professor, wrote on his blog. Jenkins, who despite his criticism maintains that the institution houses some respected and valuable scholars, added: "The intellectual positions (if that is the right term) of these individuals look massively out of kilter with the energy, expertise and diversity of the rest of Stanford."

The faculty involved in protesting the Rumsfeld appointment uniformly say that this is not about academic freedom or free speech since Rumsfeld would not be coming to campus to speak or share ideas with the campus at large. "I don’t see this as a free-speech issue. I’m not opposed to Rumsfeld voicing his opinions on the campus, writing books; I don’t even see this as an issue of his support of the war," Satz said. "And I’m not even arguing that his appointment should necessarily be rescinded."

They furthermore add that, considering his performance as defense secretary, his qualifications are suspect. "To me, then, that raises the issue about what kind of standards were used and what kind of intellectual and moral reasoning could justify this kind of an appointment," Satz said.

For many, an overriding concern also seems to be that in the public consciousness, Hoover is associated with Stanford. "Once you put it out into the world that Stanford is acknowledging Rumsfeld for what he’s done in a positive way, we think that’s just wrong," Zimbardo said.

The emeritus professor has recently revisited his prison experiment -- in which students posing as prisoners and prison guards began to act out their roles and dehumanize each other -- by comparing his findings to what happened at Abu Ghraib. For Zimbardo, Rumsfeld represents the forces that helped create the environment that allowed the prison abuses to occur, turning upstanding patriots into disgraced soldiers.

"All of this is to say that Rumsfeld was one of the triggers. He was one of the architects of the war and the architects of setting up these kinds of conditions," he said. "It’s a violation of human dignity, and that for me is the bottom line."

The question, then, for some faculty members goes back to the relationship between Hoover and Stanford, an arrangement neither party seems willing to revisit. "Either Hoover should be more in line with the university and more integrated with its standards," said Satz -- or it should be more independent.

"There’s no doubt that this is a controversial appointment, but it is also a temporary appointment and in the long run we hope that this won’t reflect negatively on the university," Wachtel said. "There are always controversies at a university, and I think the fact that we’re open to the exchange of ideas, even if unpopular, is the kind of thing that we do at a university, and so we feel that it’s up to Hoover to invite people to come to participate on a temporary basis in their judgment, and we hope that in the end it will prove to be a good thing."

Sure enough, at least one group on campus thinks the Hoover Institution was justified in its decision to bring in Rumsfeld: the Stanford College Republicans. Irene Oberman, the organization's vice president, acknowledged conservative and Republican attacks of the defense secretary, noting in an e-mail, "Their criticism was more on his doctrine of 'transformation' of the military which would enable it to use more technological warfare and less military personnel on the ground than his comprehension of terrorism. Today, Rumsfeld could ... offer valuable insights of military strategies that will not work, as well as changes that should be made to reconstruction efforts based on his own experiences in Iraq."

Rumsfeld's appointment at Hoover could potentially anticipate future controversy if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decides after Bush's term ends to return to Stanford, where she previously served as provost.


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