The White House appears to have cleared the way for location of the Reagan Library at Stanford University. In an unexpected compromise in negotiations for a three-part presidential center (a library, a museum, and a study and conference center for public affairs), the White House backed down on demands that the center come under the academic governance of the independent Hoover Institution.
In a letter this week to William R. Kimball, president of the Stanford board of trustees, Presidential Counselor Edwin Meese III said President Reagan would offer the university the two parts of the proposed $65 million project that it wants - the library and the museum.
But the crux of a longstanding dispute over the library complex - academic governance of a Ronald Reagan Center for Public Affairs - remains unresolved. The issue promises to renew an ethical debate over whether partisan politics are appropriate in an academic institution.
Mr. Meese dropped demands that the center come under the control of the Hoover Institution, which is controlled only nominally by Stanford and is often characterized as a conservative think-tank. However, he proposed that the Reagan Center for Public Affairs be established as an independent national institution on leased campus land.
Stanford president Donald Kennedy has said such an arrangement would not meet the university's concern for academic governance. On Jan. 18, he said ''a foundation to be created for a presidential center would be formed for the purpose of maintaining such a center on behalf of a public figure with a particular political philosophy. The more distinctive the philosophy, of course, the more interesting the archives of an administration are likely to be to scholars. But, by the same token, it becomes all the more important for a university to ensure both the fact and the appearance of political neutrality, those characteristics of academeic excellence that the university's mode of governance is designed to ensure.''
University officials say it is not clear whether Meese's ''decoupling'' of the Ronald Reagan Center for Public Affairs and the library actually means the library would be located on the campus if Stanford rejected the independent center. Further, they say plans for the library itself are in a preliminary stage. For example, the size of the library has not been determined because it's not known if it will house papers for one or two terms.
Martin Anderson, a former Reagan assistant and now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, says there are two precedents at Stanford for independent institutions that are run by ''prestigious'' national boards: the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and the National Bureau of Economics. Though plans for the library have been separated from the public affairs center, it still appears the administration intends that the center be located at Stanford, Mr. Martin indicates.
Ronald Rebholz, an English professor on campus, echoes the most vocal objections raised by faculty and staff. ''Individuals do express views shaped by political visions. But academic institutions (operating) as partisan are wrong. A university should be pursuing knowledge without political biases.''
Further, he opposes even the Reagan Library. Presidential libraries, he says, are ''a bad tradition . . . like tombs to Egyptian pharoahs.'' He does not object to the university keeping the presidential papers in a regular library, just as it has been keeping Reagan's California gubernatorial papers for the past decade.
Mr. Anderson defends the academic excellence a ''prestigious'' public affairs conference and study center might bring to the university. He notes that too much is made of partisan politics within the academic setting.
For example, the Hoover Institution is characterized as conservatively biased because many of its associates are connected with the Reagan administration. But a recent poll of the institution's senior staff found political diversity: 13 Democrats, 1 Social Democrat, and 12 Republicans, Anderson says.