Woke Hoover? That’s A Stretch.

Woke Hoover? That’s A Stretch.
This piece appears in response to Tuesday's article by Julia Steinberg on the Hoover Institution embracing wokeness.

After seven years as a resident senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, I have grown accustomed to attacks from left-wing professors on the Faculty Senate, denunciations in the Stanford Daily, and other irritants.

What I did not expect was for Hoover to come under attack from the Stanford Review, which I have long regarded as—to borrow a phrase—“an oasis of conservatism on the increasingly liberal Stanford campus.”

But perhaps it is in the nature of modern American conservatism that internecine strife is more attractive to some than the distinctly unequal struggle for political balance in an overwhelmingly liberal, if not progressive, university.

In an article published in the Review on Tuesday, Julia Steinberg accuses Hoover of having “gone woke.” Her evidence is as follows:

  • On May 24, those on Hoover email lists received an email promoting a Pride Month celebration, “Hoover Pride.”
  • Hoover is sponsoring an Indigenous Student Seminar this summer.
  • Another Hoover email promoted May as “Mental Health Awareness Month.”
  • According to an anonymous source from the Stanford College Republicans, Hoover did not provide financial support for their lecture by the conservative commentator Matt Walsh.
  • Hoover declined to host or even sponsor last fall’s Academic Freedom Conference.

On point one, if some non-heterosexual Hoover employees wish to organize an event of that sort at Hoover, I doubt our director would be well advised—or even within her rights—to prohibit it. In any case, it seems like overkill to characterize the Hoover Pride email as “an open indulgence in the identity politics that conservatives should eschew as divisive.” I have certainly received more emails this year about events at Hoover for veterans, to name another “affinity group.”

On point two, to characterize Terry Anderson’s Renewing Indigenous Economies Project as “woke” is silly. A core goal of the project, and the seminar, is to promote the idea that indigenous communities would benefit from increased entrepreneurship and reduced dependence on government—hardly “ivory tower saviorist policies.”

On point three Steinberg writes: “Mental health workshops are the gateway drug towards social justice ideology, which worsens general wellbeing by instilling a sense of guilt into the patient.” Again, this seems a bit over the top, especially given the crisis of mental health this country faces.

As a senior fellow, I play no part in decisions about funding for Stanford student groups’ policy programming, but it is not clear to me that Matt Walsh’s SCR lecture qualified for Hoover support. The rubric states that “preference will be given to programming that involves Hoover Fellows.” I am not aware that a Hoover Fellow was involved in the Walsh event. I was not even made aware of it—and I have frequently made myself available to the SCR, as well as to the Stanford Review and the Federalist Society.

Finally, I was a speaker in the Academic Freedom Conference last fall. My colleague John Cochrane was one of the organizers of the event. Hoover Research Fellow Jennifer Burns also participated, as did Scott Atlas, Jay Bhattacharya and Michael McConnell, all Hoover senior fellows, and Bjorn Lomborg, a Hoover visiting fellow. To suggest a lack of Hoover support for the Academic Freedom Conference is therefore absurd: no institution was better represented among the speakers and moderators! A number of us would also have favored hosting the event at Hoover, but decisions of that sort are not typically taken by the Core Governance Group (the director and senior fellows). The Graduate School of Business served equally well as a venue.

Steinberg writes that “Hoover’s Senior Fellows are divided on the question about whether Hoover should be explicitly right-wing—whether the think-tank should prioritize academic and political activism over research” and that “Hoover’s recent attempts to repair its relationship with Stanford have cost it some of its ideological independence.” Neither of these assertions is true.

First, I know of no senior fellow who believes that Hoover should “prioritize … activism over research.” We are an academic institution, justly proud of our collective scholarly reputation. We are also not a partisan institution. Even if—by comparison with the rest of American academia—the senior fellowship as a whole leans to the right, there is meaningful intellectual diversity within it. There are Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, among our fellows. That is as it should be.

Secondly, and most importantly, I see no evidence that we have in any way diminished our “ideological independence” under Condoleezza Rice’s directorship. Had Steinberg undertaken a broader review of the activities of the Hoover Institution over the past year, she would have found ample evidence to the contrary.

I could give many examples, but I shall confine myself to four, in all of which I participated as a speaker:

  • The Hoover History Working Group symposium on “The History of History,” which included in its opening session a brilliant and original paper on the reasons for the leftward drift of the historical profession (September 16, 2022).
  • The Hoover conference “Markets vs. Mandates: Promoting Environmental Quality and Economic Prosperity”, which featured multiple challenges to the current orthodoxy on climate change (January 30, 2023).
  • The Hoover Military History Working Group workshop on the Ukraine War,  which saw one of the best-informed and widest-ranging discussions of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia that I have experienced (March 17, 2023).
  • The Hoover Monetary Policy conference, which heard several critiques of the Federal Reserve’s recent dismal record in maintaining price stability and financial stability (May 6, 2023).

These, along with the many other events held at Hoover, are a far better indication of the health and direction of the institution than the marginalia cited by Steinberg.

I have been especially heartened by Director Rice’s commitment to make my discipline, History, a central part of what we do at Hoover, on an equal footing with Economics and Political Science.  She is also devoting energy and resources to a new Center for Revitalizing American  Institutions, an initiative that can scarcely be characterized as “woke” (see the program of its recent conference).

In recent years, the Stanford Review has been one of the few places on this campus where the wind of freedom has genuinely blown. I would encourage Julia Steinberg to take a closer look at all the Hoover Institution has to offer. She will find little trace of the wind of wokedom.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
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