Despite the vitriolic opposition generated by Donald Rumsfeld’s appointment as a Hoover Institution Distinguished Visiting Fellow, the former secretary of defense should be given a chance to speak. As a visiting fellow, Rumsfeld will be at Hoover only a few times a year and will work on a task force that studies the post-September 11 world. Judging from the reaction his appointment has caused, however, one would think he was teaching IHUM to poor, impressionable freshmen. Instead of embracing the vision of the university as a marketplace of ideas—where there is enough academic freedom for one to hear different perspectives and choose the one he or she agrees with most—Rumsfeld’s opponents rail against his mere presence. They do so wrongly.
One of Rumsfeld’s most strident critics, Prof. Barton Bernstein, perhaps best illustrates the value in allowing those you disagree with to have their say. In his class, U.S. History Since 1945, Bernstein claims that the American-backed Bay of Pigs invasion was “an act of American terrorism.” As a conservative—as well as a person of Cuban ancestry—I don’t exactly see things in that same light. But despite a few of his more extreme arguments, Bernstein’s class was one of the best I have taken at Stanford. Backed by his skills as a lecturer as well as a vast bank of knowledge, Bernstein articulated many positions—some conventional and some controversial—that helped me define my own perspectives on modern American history. Donald Rumsfeld likewise deserves a chance to contribute to the world of academia.
Bernstein and others, however, sneer that Rumsfeld is not an “academic,” as if the ivory tower is reserved only for those of the appropriate pedigree. I see no reason to exclude him on those grounds, however. In fact, there are others on this campus that arguably have insufficient academic backgrounds yet excel in the classroom nonetheless. Prof. William Perry, another former secretary of defense, received his formal training in mathematics. Despite his academic expertise in that field, however, his signature classes focus on national security. And so what? Perry’s intimate knowledge of American foreign policy allows him to add tremendous insight to the study of that subject. Like Bernstein, Perry has become another of my favorite professors at Stanford. If our standards of academic clearance are so rigorous that we accept those who hold enough Ph.D.’s but reject those with real world experience, who else might we turn down? How many other voices will we silence? And how much do we impoverish our education?
Some have also argued that Rumsfeld’s appointment to Hoover would signal an unacceptable endorsement of his policies. This is nonsense. Today’s elite universities hardly seem to be that discriminating. Consider for a moment that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently spoke at Columbia University. What does more good for the academic world: allowing a national security expert to study national security or giving a platform to one of the suspected hostage-takers at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979? Despite what common sense might dictate, it turns out that the enlightened world of academia believes a madman who happens to know a lot about world affairs deserves a chance to speak, but a person in the American political mainstream who happens to know a lot about world affairs does not. Indeed, John Coatsworth, a dean at Columbia, recently told Fox News that Hitler would have been welcome at Columbia as well—as long as he was willing to answer questions from faculty and students, that is. No word on whether Ahmadinejad and Hitler would meet Bernstein’s “academic” criterion, however.
There is a puzzling—and alarming—double standard here. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Rumsfeld. I support the Iraq War, but I also think that many of Rumsfeld’s policies were misguided and prevented America from bringing its strengths to bear. But while I can understand his unpopularity, Rumsfeld’s faults do not begin to approach those of Ahmadinejad. To the best of my knowledge, the former secretary of defense has never pledged to wipe Israel off the the map, has never called America “The Great Satan,” has never denied the Holocaust, and is not operating a secret nuclear weapons program. Rumsfeld was charged with prosecuting the war on terror; Ahmadinejad is a source of terror. Yet, only the latter is welcomed on an elite university campus.
It may be mere political bias that is fueling opposition to Rumsfeld; it would not be the first time. Remember that this is the same university that prevented Ronald Reagan from building his presidential library here. Regardless of whether Stanford professors agreed with him or not, Reagan’s presidency has had tremendous impact on the course of history. Stanford bypassed access to a great leader’s legacy due to little more than personal politics. Now, this is not to equate Reagan’s accomplishments with Rumsfeld’s failures, but one should note that academics have been known to place ideological purity above education. And after decades of government service, Rumsfeld has undoubtedly learned something about American national security. Why should he not be able to share it? He was secretary of defense during a unique and challenging time in American history. And while it is probably fair to say that he did not live up to the monumental tasks set before him, that does not mean he has no knowledge or wisdom to share with the next generation.