Stanford’s Hoover Institution has predictably attracted considerable and sustained criticism for inviting former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to be a “Distinguished Visiting Fellow” and work on a large, institution-wide project relating to national security. Rumsfeld brings extensive political experience to the table—having served in the House of Representatives, Ambassador to NATO, and many other roles in addition to his tenure at the Pentagon. It is difficult, if not impossible, to contest the argument that Hoover is entitled under the aegis of academic freedom to hire whomever it wants. And I agree that diverse political viewpoints— including that of the Bush Administration—are dramatically under-represented at Stanford. Choosing Rumsfeld, however, to advance that cause, was a bad choice. To demonize him, however, (using terms such as “evil,” which I saw on a Stanford Facebook group devoted to opposing him) is inappropriate. The case against Rumsfeld being affiliated with Stanford University is clear, however.
At some point, Stanford and its affiliated institutions have to set standards for the people they hire. One could write an entire 30-volume box set about the various claims and counterclaims made about his controversial tenure as Secretary of Defense. What is concerning is not the debate over his actions while serving under President Bush, but instead, his performance and popularity among the American people.
His approval ratings reached the mid-30’s in 2005 and 2006, meaning that two-thirds of the American people did not approve of the job he was doing. The President, as an elected official, has much more leeway with low approval ratings, but polling data are the only way for cabinet officials to be responsive to public sentiment. Some say that his dogged refusal to resign, coupled with Bush’s obstinacy when pressed to ask him to, contributed to the Democratic landslide in the 2006 midterm elections. Eight generals called for him to resign, a rare public display from a uniformly tight-lipped fraternity—something that a Washington Post reporter said mirrored the sentiments of 75% of the officers in the field.
Whatever the allegations surrounding his policies as Secretary of Defense, it’s clear that the American people and many in the military establishment did not support them. Secretary Rumsfeld is someone that the American people once rated highly, and then rejected—and yet Hoover welcomes him with open arms. If the hugely unpopular Rumsfeld is acceptable, what about former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lecturing at the law school? What about one of Nixon’s henchmen? Men forced to resign under heavy political, Congressional and public pressure shouldn’t then be feted with a plum appointment after they leave office. The academic freedom argument is valid, and virtuous, but standards have to be set that exclude people that offer a net negative contribution to the university’s academic excellence. If they are so soundly discredited by the American people, what credibility do they have left?
The Hoover Institution should also consider the effects the Rumsfeld appointment will have both on its own legitimacy and that of Stanford University as a whole. It’s hard to argue that whatever expertise Rumsfeld could provide really exceeds the value of the potential loss of alumni donations, negative publicity, and so on that come with this most controversial appointment. Stanford only has a limited amount of political capital—it can support controversy and controversial affiliated figures, but not infinitely many. Rumsfeld may not be worth it.
History may well judge Secretary Rumsfeld to be right—including, perhaps, his opposition to the “surge”—but we certainly can’t make projections into the future. What matters now is that the cost of supporting him here is too high with too indeterminate of a benefit. Stanford cannot simply support every contentious figure that comes its way, and there’s no compelling case as to why Rumsfeld is really worth such an outlay. President Bush eventually realized this—his support for his embattled secretary was costing him votes and percentage points—and eventually asked for Rumsfeld’s resignation. Stanford may yet do that too.