Editorial Board: The doldrums of freedom

Oct. 29, 2014, 11:29 p.m.

Many of us pursued Stanford because it seemed different. While we sought out rigorous academics, at the “Harvard of the West,” we also sought out a different institutional culture than that present in our East Coast peers. “The Stanford Experience” meant something different to each student. That is to say, culturally, Stanford is distinctly not the Harvard of the West. Or, at least, it didn’t used to be.

This Board is worried by the increasing homogeneity of experience on campus. Stanford University is not doing enough to encourage the creative, wacky, eccentric environment that has made Stanford different — and an oasis — for decades.

Across campus, our buildings and services are becoming increasingly homogenized by the University. This summer, Ike’s Place was replaced by an R&DE-run café. Apparently, the casual and alternative environment of Ike’s — typical of Stanford’s culture — was not appropriate. “We have deans and donors eating here,” said Lindsey Akin, services manager for the Science and Engineering Quad. Students and alumni have also commented that modern student facilities lack any architectural flair and labeled this as the industrialization of campus. And when the Band joked about having a half-dozen buildings on campus that look the same and are named after John Arrillaga’s family, students laughed because they know it’s true. None of these changes are that troubling on their own. But as a pattern, they are far more worrisome: The Stanford Experience™, as one student labeled it, now takes place on an assembly line of dorms, gyms and dining halls that were themselves factory produced.

These changes limit the opportunities for students to have the diverse set of living and learning experiences that have made Stanford the place that it has been for so long. A more concrete example is that of the Toyon Eating Clubs. For over 100 years, the first ‘Stanford’ and then ‘Toyon’ Eating Clubs provided students an alternative to on campus dining services. More importantly, because they were run entirely by students and not administrators, student managers reaped the benefits of experiential learning.

However, like the Eating Clubs themselves, these opportunities were abolished during the 2009-10 school year and replaced with a Stanford-run, Stanford-owned dining hall, Linx (which has since been shut down). An organization that had been teaching and connecting students for more than a century was replaced by a dining service that lasted no more than a few years.

The same process was nearly repeated in 2013 with Suites Dining. Again, prior to 2009, students operated the Dining Societies completely independently of the University. But starting in 2009, the University took greater and greater control, eventually attempting to – but not succeeding in – ousting student management from Suites Dining. Thankfully, that “The Stanford Experience” is still at least partially an option for some students.

Other examples like ending the practice of running naked through the libraries during Dead Week, though somewhat frivolous, further smooth the irreverent edges of Stanford’s culture.

This pattern of behavior has extended beyond our campus and into careful control of Stanford’s manicured public image.

In our football game against USC this year, which was televised nationally on ABC, our tree sported an admittedly wacky tongue, designed to mimic Miley Cyrus. But rather surreptitiously, that tongue disappeared for the following game against Army; in its place was a sign that read: “I Tree’d the Fifth.” Concerned about how our mascot appeared to viewers, the Administration censored the Tree.

But rather than carefully sanitizing its image, Stanford should instead encourage this quirky individuality. The Tree and the Stanford Band are archetypal examples of the Stanford culture that attracted many of us. Before every game, members of the Band recite the motto “rock the fuck out.” Similarly, they sport this attitude on their logo, which includes the phrase, “the wind of freedom.” The Band sends a clear message to people both inside and outside the University that we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

However, the University is taking a greater and greater interest in the Band’s activities. Over the last several years, Band has faced increasing restrictions. Today, Stanford Band Management are offered themes to develop their shows around and must present their scripts to a committee including PR administrators for approval.

While the Band and this committee are on good terms and have a collaborative relationship, it does represent the control over image the University seeks. How jokes might “sound” or “look” – regardless of their context – is questioned.

For more than 50 years, Band’s irreverent spirit has been supported by the University. Indeed, the Band was a public representation of the unconventional culture that has made this University great and home for so many. Yet now, this culture is being sacrificed. But for what? So we emulate the image associated with other elite universities? So that we can have more applicants and donors who would otherwise flock to our peers?

The reality is that Stanford is different. That difference has attracted top students since our founding and should be celebrated today.

We recognize that this is not without limits. The University had to, justifiably, place the Band on alcohol probation after several incidents at the Fiesta Bowl. Legal infractions by Chi Theta Chi are impermissible and give the University cause for reform. But we should be skeptical that the house was instead subsumed, especially when Stanford’s image stands to benefit.

Our advice to Stanford is to follow the model of the tech industry, to which it is so closely linked: disrupt.

Rather than following the other prestigious universities, we should chart our own course that pushes students to think differently and act differently, if they so choose. Stanford should give students the freedom to live their lives in a variety of ways on campus, be proud of the ways students embrace that freedom, and continue attracting the students who wish to do so. While not every student will participate, all should have the option and will benefit from others’ participation. For these reasons, The Stanford Experience must be returned to the students.

Winston Shi dissents from this editorial; read his column here.

The Editorial Board can be contacted at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com

The Volume 246 Editorial Board is comprised of the senior staff of the opinions section and The Stanford Daily. It is chaired by Nick Ahamed '15, the managing editor of opinions, and Jana Persky '16, the editor in chief. Executive editor Joseph Beyda '15, opinions desk editor Mark Bessen '15 and former-managing editor of opinions Winston Shi '16, as well as columnists Aimee Trujillo '15 and Pepito Escarce '15, sit on the Editorial Board.

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