Rumsfeld Issue Raises Debate over the Definition of Tolerance

The appointment of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution has faced enormous opposition on the Stanford campus. As of October 6, an online petition objecting to Rumsfeld’s appointment has garnered over 3,800 signatures from concerned professors, students, and alumni.

At the rate the petition has been growing, it is conceivable that Rumsfeld could be regarded as one of the most hated people on campus. The enormous vitriol against his appointment rests on three main arguments, which can be articulated as follows:

First, many argue that Rumsfeld’s tenure as defense secretary was marked by moral depravity due to his stances on war and the use of torture. The argument is that Rumsfeld played a leading role in starting the controversial Iraq war, in which nearly 4,000 U.S. troops have died and atrocities have been committed, most notably at Abu Ghraib. History professor Barton Bernstein, as quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, considers Rumsfeld “a profoundly immoral man” for his “involvement in a war started for reasons unprovable, unproven and demonstrably wrong.” In addition, renowned psychologist Philip Zimbardo told the Stanford Daily: “Many Stanford faculty are outraged by this appointment of a war monger and torture facilitator into any part of the University environment.” In other words, the critics argue, Rumsfeld’s actions have shown him to be highly immoral, thereby making him unfit to join Stanford’s Hoover ranks.

Second, some argue that Rumsfeld’s appointment to the Hoover Institution is inappropriate because it smacks of ideological solidarity rather than scholarly merit. Professor Bernstein articulated this position in a quote in the San Jose Mercury News on September 7: “[Rumsfeld] is not a person of intellectual merit; he is not an academic.” In the same Mercury News article, my Stanford Review colleague Stuart Baimel adds: “The great thing about higher education is that it stays above the political fray. So having someone like Rumsfeld, who is very much tainted by the political positions of the Bush administration, is making a mistake.” The logic behind this argument is that Stanford, as an institution of higher learning, should select staff and fellows based on their academic accomplishments rather than political predispositions.

A third argument is that Rumsfeld should not be made a Hoover fellow because his views are opposed by the vast majority of Stanford’s students and staff. Art history professor Pamela Lee, the author of the anti-Rumsfeld petition that has garnered over 3,000 signatures, told The New York Times: “It’s extremely important for the Hoover to know that their appointments are not in the mainstream of the Stanford community.”

Given the enormous popularity of Professor Lee’s petition, her assertion is probably correct: most Stanford students and staff disagree with Rumsfeld’s ideas. Moreover, as a political leader whose policies were often described—erroneously or not—as neoconservative, Rumsfeld’s role in the Iraq war has been criticized not only by the anti-war left, but also by non-interventionist libertarians and the isolationist right. Although most of Rumsfeld’s defenders are conservatives, not all conservatives are pro-Rumsfeld.

At the same time, one cannot reject the Rumsfeld appointment solely on the grounds that his views are unpopular on campus. This view is articulated by Jeff Wachtel, special assistant to Stanford’s president, who told the Stanford Daily: “The University is a place of free expression of ideas, and there are some ideas that generate controversy, but that’s not a reason not to have those ideas expressed.” To disallow Rumsfeld’s appointment based on their unpopularity is anathema to the basic liberal principles of free speech and tolerance. Stronger arguments are needed.

What about the view that Rumsfeld’s Hoover appointment seems motivated by political motives rather than academic merit? Shouldn’t a university be obliged to focus on intellectual excellence while keeping its organizations politically neutral?

The critics are right in saying that the Hoover Institution is not politically neutral—it doesn’t even pretend to be. Its mission statement explicitly promotes the conservative vision of private enterprise and small government. In the Hoover Institution’s defense, it is also arguable that few university organizations can claim to be truly politically neutral—witness the Feminist Studies Department, the LGBT Community Resource Center, or the Stanford College Republicans. By and large, the Stanford community recognizes that many organizations have their own political proclivities, and everybody naturally chooses to join organizations that reflect their personal political leanings.

There is also the issue of Rumsfeld’s lack of scholarly accomplishment. But Rumsfeld is not being hired to teach political science to undergrads—a task for which he is unqualified. Rather, Rumsfeld has been hired to study “ideology and terror” in the post-9/11 era—an area that he has much experience handling, for better or for worse. Although he does not have a Ph.D., he is nevertheless a former Secretary of Defense, which means that his opinions on public policy—however much we dislike them—will be taken seriously by other Hoover fellows. The conservative Hoover Institution’s decision to hire Rumsfeld for his political experiences is as explicable as the Stanford football team’s past decision to hire the late Bill Walsh for his NFL experiences.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the issue of morality. Many argue that Rumsfeld is evil because of his role in Iraq and the torture scandals. To repeat what Professor Bernstein said, Rumsfeld is considered a “profoundly immoral man.”

The Stanford community has always been divided on moral issues. But nobody ever thinks of imposing their moral values on others. For example, Stanford Students for Life (SSFL), whose members regard abortion as immoral, organized an event last winter where they publicly erected 464 white crosses to represent the 46 million abortions since Roe vs. Wade. In response, Stanford Students for Choice (SSFC), whose members regard abortion as a valid personal choice, appeared with several posters, but did not attempt to disrupt the pro-life event. Later, the Stanford Review quoted SSFC co-president Mishan Araujo: “We are both very respectful of each other’s events and opinions.” On issues of morality, sometimes it is necessary to agree to disagree. Whether Rumsfeld is an immoral person is a complex ethical question. In a tolerant, liberal university environment—liberal in the broadest sense of the word—one should be slow to pass judgments on another. Stanford is a diverse, liberal community with people of all sorts of moral beliefs, and it is vital that everybody learns to respect their differences.

Looking at both sides, Rumsfeld’s appointment to the Hoover Institution raises important questions that deserve answers. His role in the controversial Iraq war and his policies on torture and prisoner interrogation are issues that Stanford students and staff should feel free to question. However, a strategy that defines itself against Stanford’s core values of free speech, tolerance, and open debate cannot succeed. Rather than shut out Rumsfeld and be labeled as intolerant by Red State America and the media, the Stanford community should politely receive the elder statesman, listen to what he has to say, and then ask the hard questions during the Q&A.

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