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Academic freedom or misinformation? After controversies settle, Stanford faculty remains divided over the Hoover Institution

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Since its inception as a think tank in 1959, critics have pointed to competing values that exist between the Hoover Institution and Stanford University. One faculty report in the 1980s called for a “divorce” if Stanford could not assert more control over Hoover, and more recent efforts have been aimed at reigning in the independence granted to the Institution over other academic programs.

But scrutiny of the Hoover Institution rose to new heights during the pandemic. Hoover Senior Fellow Dr. Scott Atlas was named White House Cononavirus Adviser and repeatedly circulated views that contradicted public health guidance and medical experts.

While the dust of the pandemic-related controversies has largely settled with a new administration in Washington, the Stanford faculty remains divided over the Hoover Institution. Some faculty members say the Institution is a beacon of academic freedom that provides balance to the ideological divide on campus. Others assert that the spread of misinformation by some Hoover fellows is dangerous and ought to be called out by leaders. But administrators’ ability to speak out could be hindered by the role Hoover plays in development efforts, compelling them to tread carefully or risk donor retribution, some faculty say.

Four professors say they will call for the creation of an impartial committee at Thursday’s Faculty Senate meeting to study the history and ties between the Institution and Stanford. Comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu, who is advocating for the committee, told The Daily that an “excess of partisanship has led some Hoover fellows out of the realm of fact, science, and good faith argumentation, and contributed to both misinformation about COVID-19 and disinformation about elections.”

‘Silence is not an option’

Comparative literature professor Russell Berman, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said that he appreciates that Stanford leadership has refrained from criticizing scholars at Hoover and Stanford at large.

“The role of the university is to preserve a space where multiple and even controversial views are possible,” Berman wrote. “I can think of individual colleagues at Stanford — not at Hoover — who express extreme views, but I don’t expect the president to scold them for that.”

Former provost and philosophy professor John Etchemendy echoed Berman, writing that “given the importance of academic freedom to the university, one would hope that the university would respond with maximal delicacy to any controversies regarding the expression of viewpoints.” Etchemendy noted that, during his tenure as provost from 2000 to 2017, he received more complaints about controversial views expressed by faculty in other departments and programs than he did about views expressed by Hoover fellows.

When asked whether some Hoover fellows had spread misinformation, Etchemendy wrote that “if by ‘spreading misinformation’ you mean making public claims that ultimately prove to be false, I would hazard a guess that we have all been guilty of that.”

But statements that some faculty view through a lens of academic freedom are viewed by others as a clear danger to the public good that require censure by leadership. History professor Priya Satia told The Daily that administrators had an obligation to speak out against Atlas and clarify that his actions do not meet Stanford’s standards.

“Misinformation is liable to ‘pass’ as good information when it appears with a Stanford label, because the Stanford name is associated with trustworthy knowledge,” Satia said in an email, adding that “diversity of opinion is one thing; patent falsehoods departing from the findings of all Stanford’s other scholars are another.”

Despite calls by many faculty to speak out, Stanford leaders stayed quiet as Atlas disputed the efficacy of masks, claimed that allowing the virus to spread through unchecked community spread would not result in more deaths and asserted that children cannot spread the virus.

Atlas’s misleading views may have had grave effects on the nation’s efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus. He was reportedly the driving force behind a change in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance that advised against testing asymptomatic individuals. (The guidance was later reversed.) Dr. Deborah Birx, the former coordinator of the coronavirus task force, disclosed in an interview that “parallel data streams,” which she suspected originated from Atlas, were being fed directly to former President Donald Trump.

Over 100 Stanford physicians and researchers condemned the “falsehoods and misrepresentations of science” fostered by Atlas in September, and over 100 faculty members subsequently called for the University to reconsider its relationship to the Hoover Institution.

Only after Atlas urged Michigan residents to “rise up” against new lockdown orders did Stanford distance itself from the senior fellow, issuing a statement that Atlas’s position was his alone and that his views were “inconsistent with the university’s approach in response to the pandemic.” In November, the Faculty Senate voted to condemn Atlas’s pandemic-related actions by a vote of 85 to 15.

Atlas is not the only Hoover fellow to push controversial views. In March, Hoover senior fellow Richard Epstein falsely declared that 500 Americans would end up dying of COVID-19. Epstein later acknowledged his error and revised his incorrectly predicted death toll to 5,000.

Three Stanford physicians and lawyers warned of the effects of physicians who engage in activities that threaten health in an article published in the journal JAMA on Thursday. The essay details Atlas’s harm to public health and the responsibilities universities have to “speak out for truth and science in support of public health.”

“To take the view that respecting freedom of speech requires institutional silence when science is being subverted is to misunderstand the concept. To add speech is not to suppress it; voicing words of protest is not censorship or retaliation,” wrote Dr. Philip Pizzo, a professor of pediatrics infectious disease and former dean of the School of Medicine; Dr. David Spiegel, the associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who serves on the Faculty Senate; and Michelle Mello, a professor of medicine and law.

Pizzo revealed in an interview with the journal that before seeking signatories for the open letter condemning Atlas’s false statements, he went to Stanford leadership to see if they would take a stance. But the former dean was instead met with silence from administrators, which he interpreted to be a cautious approach on the part of University leaders wary of retribution from donors, community leaders and government officials.

“We have a responsibility individually and, in some cases, collectively to take stands on when something wrong is happening even when our leadership is not able to do so.” Pizzo said. “Silence can’t be an option.”

When Atlas’s attorney Marc Kaswotiz threatened legal action against the signatories of the open letter, the Office of the General Counsel declined to represent the 105 Stanford physicians and researchers in an indication of just how reluctant the University was to wade into the controversy, according to several faculty members with knowledge of the situation. The signatories were reportedly told by University lawyers that they had spoken on their own and thus could not be represented by Stanford, forcing the affiliates to retain outside counsel.

Though a lawsuit never materialized, Pizzo, Spiegel and other faculty members disagreed with Stanford’s stance. “We were speaking as faculty experts about an important issue related to the health of the public,” Pizzo told The Daily. “I felt then and continue to believe today, that because we were speaking as faculty in the area of our academic expertise, that this should have fallen under the umbrella of the university.”

The Hoover endowment

Satia and history professor Allyson Hobbs wrote in a 2018 op-ed that the financial opportunities the Hoover Institution offers Stanford places administrators in a precarious place. “The advantages that Hoover’s endowment offers — including a lavish new building completed last year — are an incentive for Stanford to handle controversies about the institution as delicately as it can, even when Hoover does things that contravene the university’s broader mission,” the professors wrote in The Washington Post.

Hoover Institution Director Condoleezza Rice told the Faculty Senate last month that the Institution only receives 2% of its operating budget from University general funds. The rest of its funding is covered entirely by expendable gifts from individuals and foundations, and Hoover’s endowment — which has grown from Herbert Hoover’s $50,000 founding donation to nearly $580 million.

The Institution’s endowment is managed as part of Stanford’s “Merged Pool,” which includes the majority of the University’s other endowed funds, said Rob Wallace, CEO of Stanford Management Company, in an email. While Stanford Management Company oversees the investment program for the Merged Pool, the board of trustees and Hoover leadership sets policies for how Hoover’s endowed funds are spent, he added.

In recent years, the Institution has sought to use its endowment and donor funds to expand its physical presence on campus — one of several efforts to integrate Hoover with Stanford. The $65 million David and Joan Traitel Building was established facing the Main Quad with the “explicit intent of linking the institution more closely with the rest of the university,” wrote Etchemendy, who allocated the site for Traitel.

In 2019, the Hoover Institution embarked on a three-year project to replace the Lou Henry Hoover Building with the state of the art George Shultz Fellows Building, which will house fellow offices and feature a new digital lab. Stanford stands to benefit from the construction of both buildings and their presence on campus, forcing administrators to tread carefully in their public comments, according to Hobbs and Satia.

“Hoover’s funding has nothing to do with how the institution is treated by Stanford,” Etchemendy stressed, explaining that gifts to Hoover or any other academic unit are gifts to Stanford designated for specific use.

Even so, Stanford benefits financially by having a conservative think tank, according to Satia, because Hoover’s presence on campus attracts donations from affluent conservatives for Stanford general funds, in addition to Hoover projects. During fiscal year 2020, the Hoover Institution yielded more than $36.5 million in expendable gifts from individual donors and foundations — the largest figure since 2015 — though Hoover donors’ influence on general funds is not clear.

“The administration also seems to deeply value Hoover’s ties to corridors of power in Washington, D.C., even if they extend the influence of those determined to sabotage the things Stanford claims to value most, such as science, inclusion and benefiting humanity,” she told The Daily.

Faculty Senate

At the Jan. 28 Faculty Senate meeting, Rice urged faculty to move beyond viewing Hoover through a partisan lens and recognize that it “has a view” in favor of limited government and private enterprise. Policy institutions on campus have their own broadly defined missions, according to Berman. “It is unlikely that an opponent of free markets would be attracted to Hoover … Similarly it is unlikely that Clayman would appoint a proponent of patriarchy or [Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity] a defender of racism,” he wrote.

A group of faculty members on the Faculty Senate, though, say that their charge against Hoover goes beyond political disagreements. At Thursday’s Faculty Senate meeting, the group — composed of Palumbo-Liu, Spiegel, comparative literature professor Joshua Landy and theater and performance studies professor Branislav Jakovljevic — will present a report on the Hoover Institution. The professors will then introduce a resolution calling for the creation of an ad hoc committee to review the relationship between the Hoover Institution and Stanford University.

The goal of the committee, according to the professors, would be to identify ways the relationship between Hoover and Stanford could be enhanced.

“After seeing and hearing evidence that Hoover fellows have acted beyond their expertise to make statements that have sought to erode faith in the science behind a robust response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and also erode faith in the legitimacy of the recent elections, we hope Senators will reach the same conclusion as we have with regard to our recommendation for an impartial ad hoc committee,” Palumbo-Liu said. “If not now, when?”

Due to an editing error, this article has been corrected to accurately reflect a quote by professor Russell Berman on the missions of policy institutions on campus. It has also been corrected to include the accurate spelling of professor Joshua Landy’s name. The Daily regrets these errors.

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Cameron Ehsan is a desk editor for the News section and the engagement editor. He is studying biology and American studies. Contact him at cehsan ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.