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That message of unity didn’t go over well in some quarters. There is a long-simmering tension between Stanford and Hoover, which celebrated its centennial last year and considers itself “the world’s pre-eminent archive and policy-research center dedicated to freedom, private enterprise, and effective, limited government.” Hoover is semi-independent: It has its own Board of Overseers, and its fellows, who are given renewable appointments rather than tenure, don’t pass through the same selection process as faculty members (though its senior fellows are granted continuing-term appointments that don’t have to be renewed). At the same time, when a new director is selected, the candidate must be approved by Stanford’s Board of Trustees.
Will you, on behalf of the university, publicly disavow Scott Atlas’s irresponsible, unethical, and dangerous actions?
The somewhat less-than-collegial reaction to Drell’s remarks was captured in a Stanford Daily op-ed by Branislav Jakovljević, a professor of theater and performance studies. “When I signed up to teach at Stanford, I was not told that part of my job would be to serve as a living shield for the Hoover Institution,” he wrote. “I refuse to be used in that way. I am not them.”
Lately the source of tension has focused primarily on one person: Scott W. Atlas, the Robert Wesson senior fellow at Hoover and also an adviser to the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He has promoted what’s usually referred to as the “herd immunity” strategy to deal with the pandemic — though Atlas objects vehemently to the label. It’s accurate to say, though, that his views, which appear to align closely with President Trump’s, are outside the public-health mainstream. Anthony Fauci has called them “nonsense,” and Twitter deleted an Atlas tweet that said masks don’t work.
In September, dozens of researchers and doctors from Stanford School of Medicine signed an open letter calling attention to the “falsehoods and misrepresentations of science” they say Atlas has espoused. The former chief of neuroradiology at the school, Atlas threatened to sue his erstwhile colleagues for defamation. He didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Chronicle, but he told the Stanford News Service in a statement that he has used his “unique background, critical thinking, and logic to present the president with the broadest possible views on policy” and that to “claim otherwise is an embarrassment to those who do so.”
Another letter of protest, signed by more than 100 Stanford faculty members, notes that Atlas has “no expertise in epidemiology.” It also chides another Hoover fellow, Richard A. Epstein, a legal scholar and author of books like Free Markets Under Siege: Cartels, Politics, and Social Welfare, for writing in mid-March that he thought only 500 people in the United States would die from the coronavirus. In a confusing series of corrections, Epstein later revised that number to 5,000 in the United States and predicted that worldwide totals would reach 50,000. (More than a million deaths have been recorded so far globally, 237,000 of them in the United States.)
The letter goes on to say that the signatories are “profoundly troubled” that Stanford’s name is being used to “validate such problematic information.” It ends with a call for Stanford’s Faculty Senate to take action: “The relationship between the Hoover Institution’s way of promoting their policy preferences and the academic mission of Stanford University requires more careful renegotiation.”
What does that mean, exactly? An author of the letter, David Palumbo-Liu, a professor of comparative literature, said he wasn’t sure what a renegotiation would entail or where it would lead. In February, Palumbo-Liu will make a presentation to the Faculty Senate requesting that a committee be formed to look into the matter. “So my interest is basically in flexing the muscle of faculty governance in a way that it hasn’t been exercised in some time,” he says. “After that, it’s really up to the administration as to how they listen or don’t listen to the faculty.”
Palumbo-Liu contends that this isn’t an attempt to restrict research that Hoover fellows can pursue or censor their opinions. The problem, he argues, is that positions taken by Hoover reflect on the rest of Stanford, and when it comes to Atlas and Epstein, they reflect poorly. “They’re committed to a project that is in opposition to ours,” he says. “And they take advantage of the association with Stanford to draw from the legitimacy of Stanford research, and they benefit from that association in a way that’s illegitimate.”
That’s what bothers Stephen Monismith, too. Monismith, a professor of engineering who signed the letter, says he, too, would be happy to see Hoover pack its bags and move off campus. He also wouldn’t mind if the institution dissolved, rewrote its mission statement, and asked fellows to reapply. The new statement, as he envisions it, should be “one that doesn’t have an overt mission to say that the free market is the way to go.”
So far the administration doesn’t seem even slightly receptive to such calls. During the same faculty meeting at which Provost Drell called for Hoover-Stanford oneness, David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, posed the following challenge to President Marc Tessier-Lavigne of Stanford: “Will you, on behalf of the university, publicly disavow Scott Atlas’s irresponsible, unethical, and dangerous actions? Stanford’s reputation and our lives depend on it,” he asked, according to a transcript of the exchange in the official minutes of the October 22 meeting.
Tessier-Lavigne responded by reading the university’s statement on academic freedom, adding that “just because an individual expresses a view does not mean it reflects the views of colleagues or of the university.” At the same time he affirmed that Stanford believes in following “science-informed public-health guidance,” including requiring masks, social distancing, and testing.
That defense aside, Jay Bhattacharya doesn’t think Stanford’s administration has done enough to stand up for academic freedom during the pandemic. Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford and one-time Hoover fellow, is a co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration, which contends that those who are not at elevated risk of complications from Covid should “immediately be allowed to resume life as normal” in order for the population to reach herd immunity more quickly. Atlas has cited Bhattacharya and his co-authors favorably, and Bhattacharya says he and Atlas largely agree on coronavirus strategy. “I think it is absolutely their right to object to what Scott actually said that they disagree with,” he says. “Instead they relied on distorted press accounts in the middle of this massive political battle.”
Just because an individual expresses a view does not mean it reflects the views of colleagues or of the university.
Bhattacharya says it has seemed at times that Stanford, as an institution, has supported the condemnation of Atlas and his views. For example, the letter from Stanford medical-school researchers and doctors was sent out via an official university email list. A follow-up email sent by the university’s Faculty Senate chair, Judith L. Goldstein, and Provost Drell, clarified that use of the official list for the letter “was not consistent with policy” and “will not happen again.”
Though that sense of grievance clearly hasn’t gone away, it’s hard to imagine that this recent flare-up will lead to significant changes in the relationship. The two entities are, as the provost said, more entwined than ever, and there is zero indication that administrators are looking to evict the institution, which brought in $34-million in donations last year and boasts a half-billion-dollar endowment.
It also seems very unlikely that Scott Atlas will hold onto his influential advisory role in the White House once President-elect Biden is sworn into office. When asked about Atlas and the herd-immunity strategy during a 60 Minutes interview, Biden shook his head. “Nobody thinks it makes any sense,” he said.