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At Stanford, Hoover Debate Still Rages

This story was written by Patrick Fitzgerald, The Stanford Daily

As the remaining Republican presidential candidates debated at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Southern California Wednesday night, some at Stanford may have pondered, "What if?"

The debate, the second to be held at the library this campaign cycle, has brought the national spotlight to Simi Valley, Calif., a quiet city of 119,000 residents in the hills three miles north of Los Angeles. City officials say the debates have brought positive publicity and have been an economic boon to the community.

All of which could have just as easily been at Stanford.

In 1984, the University's Board of Trustees approved plans to construct a presidential library honoring Reagan on campus. A subsequent revolt by liberal-minded students and faculty effectively derailed the plans, and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation moved on.

More than 20 years later, the campus has revisited the Reagan debate as the relationship between Stanford and the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution has been again called into question. Questions regarding campus politics, partisanship and academic freedom remain unanswered -- as does "what could have been."


For the Reagan Foundation, Stanford was a natural fit for the 40th president's legacy. As Governor of California, Reagan cultivated a strong relationship with the Hoover Institution, eventually donating his gubernatorial papers to Hoover and receiving an honorary fellowship. After winning the presidential election in 1980, dozens of Hover fellows, including Milton Friedman, George Schultz, Condoleezza Rice and current Hoover President John Raisian, went to work for the Reagan administration.

Plans to include a public policy center under Hoover's auspices, along with a presidential library and museum, created an ideological backlash; over 84 faculty members and 1,500 students demanded an inquiry into the relationship between Hoover and Stanford. After vociferous protest from several student groups and the Faculty Senate, in 1985 the University Board of Trustees approved plans to construct the library and museum in the foothills overlooking campus, but rebuffed the plan for an accompanying policy center.

"You have to remember, this is in the context of a very liberal university, more liberal than it is now," Hoover Senior Fellow Larry Diamond said. "There was that feeling of resentment [that Reagan had won in 1980]."

After three years of controversy and debate, the Reagan Foundation withdrew its proposal and announced in April 1987 that it would seek an alternate location, eventually settling on Simi Valley, in the hills where a young Reagan used to ride horses.

"We were proceeding diligently and on schedule with our plans for the library and we are naturally disappointed with the decision," then-University President Donald Kennedy and Board of Trustees President Warren Christopher said in a statement at the time. "While we regret the decision, we certainly wish them every success."

Stanford was not the only university to struggle with plans for a presidential library. Traffic concerns led Cambridge, Mass., to reject plans for a Kennedy Library at Harvard, while Duke University elected not to build a library in honor of law school alum Richard Nixon.

Reagan advisor and Hoover Senior Fellow Martin Anderson said that logistical factors similar to those at Harvard played a role in Stanford's opposition. University officials at the time expressed concern that the 20-acre site in the foothills behind campus would have become more of a tourist attraction than an academic resource, and the Faculty Senate voted three weeks before the Foundation's announcement to scale back the facility or move it farther from campus.

"At first glance it looks like it as totally because of politics," Anderson said. "I'm not so sure it was."


Simi Valley officials say the library has been an economic and publicity boon for their community.

"It created a lot of nationwide interest last time, and it was just good publicity for our city," Simi Valley Mayor Paul Miller told the Simi Valley Acorn last week.

Leigh Nixon, president of the Simi Valley chamber of commerce, told The Daily in a phone interview that the library created a "trickle-down infusion to the economy" by increasing tourism and benefiting restaurants, gas stations and hotels.

"We all recognize that we have a jewel here," Nixon said. "There's been no disruption. We're glad to have them."

For some, Simi Valley's gain has been Stanford's loss. John H. Bunzel, a former president of San Jose State University and a senior research fellow at Hoover, said the primary source documents at the library would have been invaluable for scholars and researchers, regardless of political ideology.

"If you could have, as we do, the best archival materials about Hitler and Stalin, why can't we have a library with materials from Reagan?" Bunzel asked.


Twenty years after the fact, the legacy of the Reagan Library debate lives on. The fundamental questions raised by the controversy -- campus partisanship and the relationship between Stanford University and the Hoover Institution -- bubbled back to the surface last fall when it was announced that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would join the Hoover Institution as a distinguished visiting fellow.

Like the controversy two decades before, students and faculty called for the University to formally sever ties with the Institution. Also like the previous debate, neither Stanford nor Hoover budged.

But protagonists of the 1980s debates said the scale of the recent Rumsfeld controversy comes nowhere close to that of the Reagan Library. The campus was much more polarized then, and the student activism much more prolific.

"The current debate is silly, the other stuff was real," Anderson said. "If you were a Republican and supported [conservative] ideas, they would try to get rid of you. They weren't successful, but they'd still try."

English Prof. Ronald Rebholz, an outspoken opponent to Hoover during many of the controversies of the 1980s, agreed with his conservative counterpart.

"The Reagan Library debate was much more intense," he said. "The students were much more involved then."

That's where the agreement ended, however. For his part, Rebholz said the library and policy center would have gone too far in politicizing the campus. He expressed no regret at the potential scholarship opportunities missed by the library's absence.

"We were spared that horrible situation," he said, "of having Hoover Tower at one side of the campus, and the Reagan center on the other."
© 2008 The Stanford Daily via U-WIRE

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