Resisting Amnesia: Understanding the Suites takeover in light of XOX, Part II

March 13, 2013, 2:44 p.m.

This op-ed is the second in a two-part series comparing the proposed Suites takeover with the University’s decision to terminate the lease of Chi Theta Chi (XOX) last year. For the first part, click here.

Lack of transparency

Like Suites, we at XOX found ourselves pleading with the administration to tell us what we had actually done wrong. We resolved the five simple issues listed in the administration’s February 8 notice – all of which were either flat-out inaccurate or easily rectifiable – within the week, in a 200 page memorandum demonstrating the alumni’s managerial competence and financial solvency.

Though we were dismayed that the administration had not expressed its concerns earlier, we had no option but to assume that it was equally committed to achieving a mutually agreeable solution, and that we could do so by uncovering and allaying its concerns. We, too, care about our own safety and that of our community. Our goals – student safety, health, and happiness – should have been aligned.

But in spite of our good faith, the negotiations that followed were characterized by the premise that the University would revoke our independence for some indeterminate period in which we would have to do whatever we were told, like good little boys and girls. During the first meeting in which XOX alumni met to discuss retention of the lease, they were told that if negotiations were to continue, they would have to remain confidential to the people in the room, which included just two alumni, administration members, a couple lawyers, and no students. As if it weren’t bad enough that our alumni couldn’t speak transparently with the community, residents received no formal communication from mid-February until mid-May, nearly the end of the school year, when Greg Boardman emailed a response to the students’ manifesto.

Disingenuous use of “health and safety” as a justification for the takeover

In both takeovers, the administration repeatedly noted a poor health and safety record as a major basis for its decision. Yet both Suites’ and XOX’s performance proved superior to the majority of that of University-operated establishments. Violations occur in every house on campus; their citation and subsequent correction is a routine part of operating a residence and kitchen. Self-corrected mistakes serve as a model for better performance in the future.

I do not doubt that the administration is concerned about the health and safety of its students. Stanford is a huge enterprise for which student health and safety represents an enormous liability. Of course administrators care. Through many meetings with Student Housing officials during the XOX negotiations, I learned that Stanford’s building codes and policies eclipse those required by the County, in detail and scope. All students pose an equal liability, so all buildings are run uniformly to mitigate that liability. And when running dozens of properties with a full 9-5 staff, you need stringent protocols to keep the machine well-greased.

But this model is not the only one capable of ensuring good management, and it directly precludes the persistence of alternate approaches, like Suites’ GCDS and XOX, that invite students to exercise ownership over their living and dining environments effectively and to learn invaluable lessons in leadership and cooperation while doing so.

The problem for the administration is that students who are used to independence know what it really means to run a healthy and safe establishment, and can see the administration’s perversion of it for the sham that it is. Although the administration justified its takeover on account of “pressing life safety issues,” students in XOX have furiously dealt with the repercussions of Student Housing’s errors as they penetrate our house with “improvements.” The long list includes multiple installations that violate fire code, accidental defacing of murals, sexual harassment of a resident by an unsupervised worker, and doors rekeyed without student feedback so that meat suppliers cannot drop off meat in the fridge and residents need a key to complete helpful tasks like restocking toilet paper.

One could argue that Stanford is the landlord and gets to define health and safety however it wants to mitigate its risk and liability. That may be true, but is it worth the termination of 30 years of student management by GCDS and the forcible seizure of a $3.6 million dollar XOX alumni property that was run independently since its creation 120 years ago?

Stanford has a stated objective and obligation to its students to encourage learning through residential life, and its tenants cannot easily move off campus to pursue that learning. Is the specter of risk worth the closure of the rare remaining havens where true residential education continues to thrive? Protection of the institution should not negate the opportunities of the students it serves.

Let Stanford Breathe!

Suites advocates cannot forget that the same tactics were used to end XOX just one year ago, that it was only a few years ago that ResEd systematically collapsed the co-ops’ management structure, and that the Toyon Eating Clubs and the other co-ops remained independently run just years ago. We cannot forget that, as we fight, Stanford staff members are fighting for a living wage and renewed health care, and that these are not isolated struggles.

Office of the VPSA, R&DE, Provost Etchemendy, President Hennessy, Board of Trustees: your students are smart. They can recognize when they and those with whom they stand in solidarity are being used.

What happened to Corey Booker’s 2012 commencement speech reminder that we are “the physical manifestation of a conspiracy of love,” that our achievements are indebted to those who paved the way for them? How can the University that seeks to graduate these future conspirators harbor an administration that systematically stifles the living conditions that promote intellectualism, creativity, and leadership?

I urge the administration to hold itself accountable to its students, to also resist the amnesia that can allow unaccountable power to corrupt. As a starting point, it should learn from the past year’s student uproar and, henceforth, publicly announce any changes to residential life policies and seek student input before implementing them. I refuse to believe that the institutional policies in place to protect against liability and risk cannot be reconciled with support for the conditions that permit learning: collaboration, experimentation and imperfection.

I implore you, Greg Boardman, Shirley Everett, and other University officials: don’t alienate your creative, community-spirited minds through death by a thousand cuts to the places that cultivate them.

To quote one signee of our petition: “LET STANFORD BREATHE!”

Elif Tasar ‘12
Chi Theta Chi Social Manager ’10-’11
Chi Theta Chi House Manager ’11-’12

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