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Monday, February 25, 2008

Monday, February 25, 2008

Knowledge and Hackwork

Inside Higher Ed has a good overview of the Bush II Presidential Library controversy. The facility at Southern Methodist will have three parts, including a policy center that aims to "celebrate" the president and his record.

The obvious problems include:
  • knowledge being produced on a university campus without the normal safeguards of peer review
  • knowledge that will be received by the media and the public as valid because it comes from a university campus.
This arrangement is another sign of the difficulty universities have staying independent in the midst of desperate struggles for either adequate funding or big-league competitiveness (SMU's issue). But we shouldn't pick on SMU. The Hoover Institute at Stanford has for decades openly pushed conservative positions and systematically built conservative networks of scholars and top officials without feedback from Stanford's overall faculty. UC Berkeley recently signed a deal with BP that will allow BP scientists to conduct proprietary work in facilities built with public money and housed on campus.

The appointment of Donald Rumsfeld to a Hoover Institute position raised the issue at Stanford. An on-line petition against the hire raised over 4300 signatures. Some faculty proposed a motion last fall to investigate the process that led to the Rumsfeld hire. The Stanford Daily reported Philosophy Prof and motion advocate Debra Satz explaining, “I find it hard to understand the reasoning in appointing Rumsfeldnot because of his views, but because of his competence.”

The SMU Bush connection is a little more fawning towards a figure who is, like Rumsfeld, a little more disgraced than the normal donor or beneficiary. It's easy to assume that university resources would go into the partisan defense of weak records rather than into history and policy analysis. It's hard to image Chalmers Johnson being invited to Hoover or SMU to speak. The SMU case may help raise awareness of the fragility of academic freedom when it comes up against powerful interests, especially ones that haven't done too well and feel that they have something to prove.

Meanwhile, Stanford faculty are using Hoover's hiring of Donald Rumsfeld as a visiting fellow to try to established a new review process for affiliated institutes that trade on Stanford's name.

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