Dispute Over Granting of Tenure Seen as Threat to Stanford Think Tank

Times Education Writer

In a Spanish-style bungalow at the edge of Stanford University’s sprawling campus, talk of hostilities usually centers on the technical questions of nuclear war and its avoidance. Submarine warfare in the Arctic, the feasibility of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the enormous fires after atomic bombings--those are the issues traditionally debated at the Center for International Security and Arms Control.

These days, however, another kind of warfare is being discussed at the prestigious think tank. It is the academic in-fighting over whether an interdisciplinary center should be able to appoint professors. Stanford University’s denial of that power led to last week’s resignation of physicist Sidney Drell as center co-director.

The squabbling about hiring affects only a handful of people directly. But experts throughout the country are worried about the less-immediate effects on decision-makers in Washington and arms negotiations with the Soviets if the Stanford center declines, as some fear it will, as a result of Drell’s resignation.

“As far as Congress and arms control, this can be a real loss,” said James Bruce, senior counsel to the Senate Committee on Energy and National Resources, which often deals with nuclear weapons research and has received advice from the Stanford center.


Reflecting concern over the center’s future, the Carnegie Corp. of New York may drop its fellowship grants to the center next year, according to a Carnegie official. That $460,000 would represent about a third of the center’s annual budget. A $300,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago is “on hold” until the situation at Stanford is clarified, according to a MacArthur spokeswoman. The university provides relatively little of the center’s monies.

“We aren’t threatening anything,” said Frederic Mosher of Carnegie. “But we consider (Drell’s resignation) a major change and we’re waiting to see how they cope with this. . . . This is too important a center to let it go down the drain. I hope the university agrees. The best way would be to convince Dr. Drell to stay and meet his concerns.”

Ruth Adams of the MacArthur Foundation said interdisciplinary studies at many universities face similar controversies over appointments. “This raises very, very interesting issues,” she said. “There are questions for all universities on how to make appointments to tackle new and important global problems that might not fit into existing departments.” In 1984, the MacArthur Foundation gave Drell one of its so-called genius awards.

However, some professors and university leaders say such talk from foundations shows how important it is for traditional university departments to keep control over permanent appointments. Interdisciplinary centers may be too influenced by funding sources and that could harm the integrity of hiring, said Stephen Krasner, chairman of Stanford’s political science department. Others say interdisciplinary centers often have so many rotating faculty members that consistent review of peers’ work for promotion would be impossible.


According to a source at the Congressional Office of Technology Assesment, the Stanford center has had a strong impact in its advocacy of continued research on the Strategic Defense Initiative and its skepticism about whether the space-based anti-missile system can or should be deployed. The Stanford think tank, which was founded in 1970 and expanded and revamped five years ago, has a ideological reputation for being “centrist or slightly left of center” but even conservatives respect the technical abilities of its members, the source said.

Gerald Warburg, foreign policy and defense adviser to Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), said the center’s reports “are avidly consumed by the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA and the Congress.” But just as important, said Warburg, who studied at the center 10 years ago, is the training future policy-makers can get at the think tank. “That’s not something the academic bureaucracy values as much as the nation does,” he said.

The reluctance of academic departments to give up their power is understandable, according to Jack E. Kollmann Jr., associate director of Stanford’s Institute of International Affairs. “The department system may be somewhat archaic and yet a university like Stanford has received some fame, recognition and high fortune in its teaching using this system,” he said.

Drell plans to remain at Stanford as deputy director of the Linear Accelerator Center and will keep affiliation with the arms control center, although not as director. He also promises to remain vocal on international issues such as human rights. His efforts to help win Andrei Sakharov freedom from internal exile made him close friends with the Soviet activist and physicist.


At his office, decorated with photos of Sakharov, Drell dismissed campus speculation that his resignation is just bluff. “This is absolutely not a pressure tactic or a negotiating tactic,” he said. “I’ve just decided I’ve got to stop beating my head against the wall on this narrow question of governance and get on with my work.”

So, he added, he has decided not to advertise for next year’s candidates for the Carnegie fellowships. Also, two of his most prominent proteges--physicist and former astronaut Sally Ride and nuclear weapons expert Theodore Postol--have announced that they are thinking about leaving the center.

Drell, 62, said he wanted to prepare “the next generation of leadership,” but that cannot be done very well unless young faculty members have some hope of getting on the tenure track, which could guarantee them a job. Concerns about the integrity of hiring at the center could be easily met by conducting vigorous searches for candidates, he stressed. Ironically, Drell heads the faculty board that has final say on granting tenure.

At a meeting last week of the university’s Faculty Senate, Stanford President Donald Kennedy said that possible compromises were offered to and rejected by Drell. Those involved possible appointments of center fellows to positions in existing departments or schools. Allowing the center to have its own tenure-tracking system will require a lot of discussion on campus, Kennedy explained, saying “it seemed clear that a decision by us in the absence of a clear consensus would be unwise.”


About 70 scholars are associated with the center, usually 20 of them full time. Drell and others say his resignation will not affect the half of the center that specializes in relations with Asia. But some impact on the arms control side is already evident.

Earlier this year, Coit Blacker left the Stanford center to become an associate professor of international relations at USC. “The inability to offer me a normal tenure position meant that when a reputable institution offered me a position and it was a place I wanted to go, I took it,” he said. Because he was only an acting associate professor at Stanford, he had to get grant sponsorship from a regular professor for research and that, he said, was “ludicrous and galling.”

George Rathjens, a political science professor at a similar arms control program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of Drell’s decisions: “I assume it won’t mean Sid Drell will stop his work and it won’t drive people out of the field. But there is a critical mass phenomenon that Stanford will clearly lose if these people are scattered to the wind.”