A little bit of perspective: SAFE Reform, the ASSU and April 13, 1971

Opinion by Winston Shi
April 14, 2014, 1:50 a.m.

Last week’s ASSU election was the loudest I’ve seen in a while. I’ve heard accusations of racism, ad hominem attacks and cute marketing campaigns. My dorm email list was shut down because of the political flame wars, and from what I’ve seen of other chats, mine was one of the quieter ones. But let me try to put the ASSU election in perspective. Although this was a pretty hotly contested election as modern Stanford elections go, it certainly wasn’t anything like the chaos of 2012, and if you’ll allow a future history major to appeal to his chosen subject, in general Stanford hasn’t been very controversial for a long time.

Allow me to explain. The Daily office has a collection of 25 significant Daily covers gracing its newsroom walls, most of which commemorate the sort of events you would expect — the first issue of The Daily, the election of Herbert Hoover, the end of World War II, Stanford’s hundredth anniversary and a number of significant football victories. To see these comparatively humdrum headlines from before JFK and after Reagan puts the chaos of the 1960s and 1970s in sharper perspective. If The Daily is a decent barometer of Stanford’s collective consciousness — and I would hope it is — these two decades were the only period in Stanford’s history when social issues were the talk of the town. That was the spirit of the times; it is now gone. The rest is not silence, but it is starkly quiet.

On Nov. 22, 1963, a special edition was released in the wake of JFK’s assassination; a disbelieving below-fold headline reads “It Can’t Happen Here.” 1966 saw the legalization of campus drinking (contraceptives were still banned), a night-long draft protest and one of the first steps towards official non-Christian religious services on campus. Protesting members of the Black community were as bold as they had ever been, forcing the University to promise increased minority enrollment and better privileges on campus.

That brings us to April 13, 1971 — probably the most important cover in The Daily’s history.

Topping the paper — above the very name of the newspaper itself — was the revelation that the Palo Alto police had searched The Daily’s office to find evidence against hospital protesters. Seven years later, after the ensuing lawsuit had finally wound its way through the courts, The Daily would lose the landmark Supreme Court case Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, allowing police to search newsrooms for evidence. It is one of the few times, albeit an infamous one, that a college newspaper has ever done anything of national significance.

The hospital protesters were, as it turned out, members of the Black Advisory Committee, which staged a “violent” sit-in at the Medical Center and issued a set of “non-negotiable” demands to the acting dean of the School of Medicine. They demanded that the University be separated from the Hospital; that Stanford drop all charges against demonstrators, pay their legal fees and cover any demonstration-related medical expenses; that the acting dean that they were issuing demands to resign. A 350-person rally converged on the Medical Center lawn after police broke up the sit-in. To provide a comparison, the David Petraeus protest brought in maybe 50.

Nearby, in Palo Alto proper, President Richard Lyman and a number of other administrators were being sued for “sexist-racist” admissions policies. The dean of undergraduate admissions, Fred Hargadon, had outlined what was described as a series of quotas — as the lawsuit quoted, “500 women, 700 men, 75 blacks, 71 Mexican-Americans, and 21 American Indians.” We’ll take the statement at face value for the sake of argument — the gender quota was a holdover from the Jane Stanford era, when Mrs. Stanford decided to focus the University on male education; today, the racial percentage for blacks has increased a tad, from 6.25 percent to 7.32 percent, the Hispanic figure has nearly tripled and the Native American one has actually declined. (I pass over the fact that Asians are not even mentioned.) But changes aside, we certainly don’t see people picketing Montag Hall.

The last headline, and the one most relevant to Stanford today, was entitled “Voters Face Divergent Choices.”

Things have changed since 1971. Consider the ASSU Exec slates: Chris Hocker ‘73 and Robin Friedman ‘73 promised to “dismantle[e]” the ASSU and eliminate student fees, then just $1 a quarter.

“If an organization is truly legitimate, it will get its own money,” Hocker — a self-described libertarian — declared. The other slate, featuring Doug McHenry ‘73, Diane Fields ‘72 J.D. ‘75, Ann Kimball ‘72 and current Stanford professor Larry Diamond ‘73 M.A. ‘78 Ph.D. ‘80, supported tripling the fee. (They won.)

All of this seems a little ridiculous. Even in 1971, three dollars a year was not a backbreaking amount of money. And though the word “tripling” sounds like a huge jump, nine dollars a year was not a lot of money either. Today, now that Stanford has the highest student activities fee in the country, the protest has been not from libertarians seeking to eliminate what power the ASSU has but student groups seeking to maintain the gains they currently enjoy — a protest reminiscent of leftism in today’s France, where student leader Raphael Glucksmann declared that he wants to “reject all reforms.” (The New York Times, not the most conservative newspaper in the world, snarkily commented, “The Socialists have become a conservative party.”)

I understand the desire to rationalize student group budgets out of principle, and it’s one that I generally sympathize with. I supported SAFE Reform, and I still think that some kind of reorganization of student activities is necessary. Some groups need to accumulate reserves, but most student groups seem content to store excess cash in the bank forever, preparing for an Armageddon that will likely never come. Besides, student fees are $143 a quarter; SAFE Reform would cut that figure by about 10 percent, but that’s still a fairly large sum.

And yet, what we, both as individuals and as a community, get from our student groups is worth far more than $143 per quarter. Stanford is blessed with a vibrant set of opportunities, and student largesse makes that possible. The student body recognizes this. Stanford is a calmer place than it was 40 years ago because we see an emerging sense of consensus on the Farm. To be sure, part of me does yearn for the time when ASSU elections were major referenda on the principles underlying the very nature of student life at Stanford. But that is nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.

If you’re looking for a taste of some time-honored college campus controversy, Stanford might be a little boring. The Daily is an independent newspaper that doesn’t get searched anymore, even if that is because we don’t have any potentially violent events to cover. The Black Student Union is not hosting sit-ins across campus, and even though we like to say that the Admissions Office is probably more controversial than it ever has been, it really isn’t.

For those of you who think the ASSU election or the SAFE controversy were major, I must remind you that they weren’t. Forty years ago, the ASSU and student groups at Stanford faced the kind of existential crisis that today’s student groups merely invoke for the sake of rhetoric. For students to squabble over whether or not the Stanford Flipside should get a Segway seems, in comparison, positively minor. (They did. It’s honestly a small price to pay for humor.) Some reform of SAFE will eventually get passed, and the Flipside will probably break their Segway and successfully order a new one. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

Now that the Flipside has a Segway, Winston Shi wants The Daily to get a golf cart. Convince him to upgrade to a Mercedes at wshi94 “at” stanford.edu.

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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