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The Progressive Legacy of Ron Rebholz


Ron Rebholz was not just an inspiring teacher of Shakespeare. He was throughout his years at Stanford a principled, courageous political activist who challenged the University to live up to its highest ideals, and regularly found it all too often a failure. You could write a good history of Stanford by following the life of Ron Rebholz. For a dozen years or so, I was privileged to have Ron as a friend and fellow troublemaker.

I met Ron Rebholz when I was gathering signatures in a petition calling for an investigation of the political activities of the Hoover Institution. Someone mentioned an English professor who might sign, so I contacted Ron.

Ron was a member of the Faculty Senate and he suggested that we focus the petition on the Senate. On May 26, 1983, after Ron and I addressed the Senate, it voted “overwhelmingly” to urge the Board of Trustees to study the relationship between Hoover and the University. The fight was joined.

The roots of the Hoover fight lie in the Political Science Department. When Hoover’s help was sought in retaining a professor who had an outside offer, its director W. Glenn Campbell declined, citing the department’s lack of “sufficient reciprocity” toward Hoover. Two names were mentioned as possible joint appointments.

If the Hoover proposal were accepted, department appointments would not be based solely on the best candidates identified in national searches, but partly, at least, on a quid pro quo with Hoover. I called the proposal improper but it made me curious about Hoover, so I got a copy of its 1982 Annual Report. I found there all of the evidence needed — from an unimpeachable source — that Hoover was extensively involved politically.

The Report proudly took credit for playing a major role in Ronald Reagan’s political career. Reagan openly thanked the Institution for its help. Martin Anderson from Hoover was appointed a leading domestic advisor, and Richard Allen was appointed National Security Advisor. The joke around Hoover was, last one out for Washington turn out the lights.

The question Ron and I asked was, What is such an institution doing on a university campus? By allowing Hoover to pursue its objectives aided by the good name of the University, Stanford crossed a line. The only answer for us was a divorce.

At first, Donald Kennedy and the Trustees in response to the Senate vote discussed appointing an independent, distinguished visiting committee, but this was soon shelved. Kennedy decided to appoint a committee chaired by a political scientist with a joint appointment at Hoover. Kennedy charged the Ward Committee with finding ways of strengthening ties between the two institutions.

A critical committee review ran the risk of imposing controls on Hoover, which prospect had strong opponents in Hoover’s and Stanford’s camp. No one representing our views or the Senate’s was on the committee. The Ward report endorsed closer ties between Hoover and Stanford, going as far as criticizing some departments for their hostility to joint appointments.

What we did not know at the time was that secret talks were being held between the University and the White House, guided by Hoover, to bring the Reagan Presidential Library and the Reagan Center for Public Affairs to Stanford.

Wasting no time, W. Glenn Campbell opened discussions over the Reagan Library in 1981. He, Ed Meese and Kennedy relied on the obvious academic value of a presidential library, but others cited the already strong ties between Stanford and the Reagan Administration. Especially objectionable was the Reagan Center for Public Affairs, which Campbell insisted would be run by Hoover. Campbell and the White House’s demand that the Center be run by Hoover almost scuttled the entire project. A 1988 petition signed by 57 Stanford faculty members demanded that the Center be subject to normal academic governance. The White House reluctantly agreed to this, and, with that, the project was set for Stanford.

There the matter stood until architectural plans for the project created a new firestorm of objections. The size of the project scheduled for the foothills overlooking Lake Lagunita, and the prospect of busloads of visitors offended environmentalists, homeowners and, of course, Ron and me. All this proved too much for the White House, which withdrew the offer. Had Kennedy, the Trustees and the Hoover Institution had their way, the complex would today be gracing the foothills not far from where we are sitting.

After the Reagan Library proposal died, another controversy broke out when we learned that Stanford had for decades rented land for a migrant farm where workers lived and worked in poverty. Again we turned to Kennedy for action, and again we failed to get it.

Kennedy’s response was a surprise. He declared that Stanford had no more responsibility for Webb Ranch workers than for Macy’s employees who also work on Stanford land. The university’s lawyers and Kennedy simply ignored the obvious differences between migrant farm workers and employees at the Stanford Shopping Center.

After Kennedy resigned, his successors, Gerhard Casper and John Hennessey, were publicly asked to intervene on behalf of the Webb workers, but they reaffirmed the legalistic reply of Kennedy. After a long struggle, the workers at Webb Ranch voted to join the United Stanford Workers, and remain members today. It should be noted that when negotiations with the Webbs bogged down, Kennedy did intervene with a threat to turn the land over to academic use, which was followed soon by a labor-management agreement.

The forced resignation of Campbell at age 65 opened the way for a new, more skillful director of Hoover, John Raisian, who joined Kennedy in establishing closer, more agreeable ties between Hoover and Stanford. Hoover’s mission, however, remains the same: Hoover’s 2010 Annual Report repeats Herbert Hoover’s directive that the Institution is not, and must not be, a mere library. Hoover continues major efforts to influence public opinion through hundreds of op-ed pieces, the Internet, a television series, a large media fellowship program and the Hoover Press. Hoover has tempered its rhetoric but still pushes its agenda, aided by the good name of Stanford.

To students: telling the truth does not mean the truth will prevail, for the power of power is formidable. Most importantly: don’t give up. Much work remains to be done at Stanford.

Thank you.


An earlier version of this piece was delivered as an eulogy for Professor Rebholz on January 31, 2014.

John F. Manley

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stanford University

Contact him at [email protected]

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