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An academic conference featured 30 white men and one white woman. How should the university respond?

Allyson Hobbs and Priya Satia
The Washington Post
An academic conference featured 30 white men and one white woman. How should the university respond?

Standing 285 feet tall, Hoover Tower occupies a central place on Stanford’s campus. It is one of the university’s most recognizable landmarks. It houses the Hoover Institution, a think tank known for its members’ conservative leanings and for providing an institutional refuge for Reagan and Bush administration figures, including former secretaries of state George Shultz and Condoleezza Rice.

In early March, 30 white men (and one white woman) gathered to discuss “applied history” at a quietly organized and unpublicized Hoover Institution conference. The conference organizer Niall Ferguson handpicked members of his personal network, “rack[ing] his brain” for people he knew who worked on “the right kind of material.”

Ferguson understands the power of personal networks. His latest book argues that “informal, less well documented social networks” are the “true sources of power and drivers of change.” He contrasts the power of networks with the power of the “tower” — the hierarchies that are usually presumed to rule. But at Hoover, an actual tower shelters a type of network that is otherwise increasingly outdated in the historical profession, which has healthy numbers of women and growing numbers of people of color.

This alone would justify greater university oversight of the institution. But the stakes for such oversight are even higher, given the institution’s central place in American politics.

Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster, the current secretary of defense and the soon-to-be former national security adviser under President Trump, were both Hoover fellows, continuing the deep ties between the Hoover Institution and Republican administrations that blossomed during the Ronald Reagan era. (John Bolton, who will replace McMaster, was also a Hoover fellow and delivered the first talk at the Hoover’s 2017 Winter Board of Overseers Meeting.)

The Hoover Institution’s national political influence trades partly on Stanford’s reputation as a leading global university. The relationship between Stanford and Hoover is complicated. Stanford manages the institution’s enormous endowment (about $500 million, forecast to approach $1 billion by 2020 through bequests). The director of Hoover reports to Stanford’s president and provost.

But the Hoover Institution and Stanford University have very different missions. According to a recent annual report, Hoover’s values include “economic freedom, private enterprise, limited government, and commitment to facts and reason.” Stanford, on the other hand, aspires to the high-minded purpose of “fostering education, research and creativity for the benefit of humanity.” Yet, an institution and a university that appear to be strange bedfellows are not, in fact, that strange. Stanford benefits from Hoover’s swelling endowment and financial capacity to construct new buildings on campus.

Their competing goals, however, have clashed and created tensions in the past. In 1983, two Stanford faculty members called for an inquiry out of a concern that the relationship between the institution and the university “threatened the school’s nonpartisan reputation.” A faculty report issued in May 1985 suggested a “divorce” if Stanford could not assert more control over Hoover.

In 2013, a university investigation concluded that the underrepresentation of women among research and senior fellows at Hoover was largely the result of its leaders’ failure to cast a wider recruitment net. A particular cultural problem was the fact that Hoover’s leaders were members of the Bohemian Club, a private, all-male club in San Francisco founded in 1872. Hoover, in short, was an old boys’ club.

The institution promised to improve; new leadership was appointed. Soon after, Ferguson arrived as a full-time senior fellow, a man well aware of the power of networks, at an institution recently made equally aware of the power of its networks. And, yet, they assembled a conference of 30 white men.

Ferguson and Hoover wouldn’t have had to go far to diversify their conference — across the bike lane from the Hoover complex sits Stanford’s Department of History, where more than a third of the faculty members are women. Gabrielle Hecht, Frank Stanton Foundation professor of nuclear security and professor of history, may have been an obvious choice as a conference panelist. Hecht tweeted on March 18, “Specifically, I was recruited @stanford because my work was deemed policy relevant. ‘Applied’, if you will.” Hecht’s joint appointment gives her two offices, separated, ironically, by the Hoover complex.

The Department of History has an active diversity committee (on which we have both served). Though change is slow, the goal of greater inclusivity has gained traction, and best practices for achieving it are a common thread of conversation in departmental life. Three-person panels made up entirely of men are the typical scale of diversity problem historians encounter today. A 30-person conference of white men is unthinkable.

And yet it happened, right between Hecht’s two offices.

The ivory tower has long been criticized for being a “white” tower — a space whose narrow networks perpetually reproduced the dominant narratives of Western superiority that underwrote the history of modern imperialism and racial and gender inequality.

The current push to diversify the tower is as much about improving the knowledge the academy produces as it is about challenging and questioning that dominant frame. Thus, new knowledge about the constructed nature of race is replacing older, eugenicist ideas about race (many produced at Stanford). New histories of South Asia and the Middle East replace older notions of a timeless “Orient.” And so on. Women and people of color have been critical to the production of this new knowledge.

But Hoover has proved impervious to the demographic changes transpiring in the academy — an ivory tower in the most literal sense. The 30 men gathered discreetly, almost privately, there, but, paradoxically, their agenda was to make the academy more useful to the outside world, by putting history in service of those in power: hence, “applied history.” Specifically, Ferguson has called for the creation of a council of historical advisers to inform those in power in Washington.

But of course, history is always about using the past to better understand and critique the present. The discipline is premised on the notion that the owl of Minerva flies at night (as Hegel put it) — that wisdom comes from reflection on the past. Most historians today realize the current political order is hardly just, given the historical conditions that have produced it. Their job is not to “help” those in power but to produce work helpful to both the powerless and the powerful, to critically inform public debate. It’s all applied history.

According to reports, the conference included much-applauded calls for a return to “great-man” history. But the understanding of history as the exclusive field of Great Men, as figures and writers of history, has passed. The profession today has been shaped by the rise of historians from different backgrounds, whose work has proved that the scholarship produced before them was deeply impoverished by the absence of their voices.

The Hoover Institution has real power because of its virtually bottomless resources. It can continue to act influential, even if its networks are out of step with broader trends in the academy, even after the investigation in 2013. The advantages that Hoover’s endowment offers — including a lavish new building completed last year — are an incentive for Stanford to handle controversies about the institution as delicately as it can, even when Hoover does things that contravene the university’s broader mission. But by doing so, Stanford becomes implicated in the connections between Hoover’s anomalous academic networks and the Trump White House, another space dominated by white men — as most glaringly captured in last year’s much-circulated image of the all-male House Freedom Caucus discussing women’s health care with the president.

Flaps like the recent conference damage Stanford’s efforts to recruit women and people of color and sabotage earnest efforts elsewhere on campus to fulfill the university’s larger commitment to greater inclusivity and equity. As Stanford’s website recalls, “From the beginning, it was clear that Stanford would be different. It was coeducational at a time when single-sex colleges were the norm.”

We hope that the university will redouble its efforts to be different: to foster more inclusive networks and welcome difference — as an example to the surrounding Silicon Valley and the larger academic world. Rather than allowing the Hoover Institution to become a space in which the authority of white men is endlessly perpetuated, in networks extending to the White House with deep policy implications, Stanford must make Hoover accountable to the university’s mission and standards of equity and inclusion and insist that its networks open up to change.