Rethinking “the doldrums of freedom”: My response to the Editorial Board

Opinion by Winston Shi
Nov. 3, 2014, 12:01 p.m.

I dissented from the editorial “The Doldrums of Freedom” that was published last Wednesday. In this dissent, I don’t mean to ignore the issues that the editorial addressed; although I don’t think it’s particularly true, the perception of a less “free” Stanford campus is a somewhat common one, and the editorial has gotten feedback that was on the whole positive. Even so, I think it’s important to highlight the reasons why I did not agree.

“The Stanford Experience”

Broadly speaking, the editorial argues that “The Stanford Experience must be returned to the students.” I am not sure what exactly “The Stanford Experience” is, but the board is right to point out that every student should be able to have a different conception of what Stanford is and should be to them. But what’s the implication of the editorial, then? It says that, with certain restrictions (the basis of which is unstated), students should be free to act as they wish in designing their own Stanford careers; moreover, it argues that students are increasingly restricted from forming their own identities and embracing their own individuality on campus.

Is that necessarily the case? There are absolutely students out there that feel restricted in expression and identity, but I’m not sure what the Stanford administration is or isn’t doing to help them out, and I invite people who feel repressed to contribute their own perspectives to the discussion. With that caveat, in most tangible and measurable ways, Stanford has a tremendous variety of options for people that demand a greater role in designing their own lives within the university grounds.

There are over 650 student groups for 7,000 undergraduate students and 9,000 graduate students – for those of you counting at home, that’s about one group for every 24 people – many of which are funded by the most expensive student fees system in the entire country. More importantly, that’s a system that encourages student independence, severing student funding from the Stanford administration. Of course every group would like to have more money than it currently gets, and in principle I can’t blame them – but my point is that there is a clear and defined process for students’ interests and activities to be actively realized on campus, and moreover, it’s a process that is for the most part easy to navigate.

If the editorial’s going to bring up examples where Stanford imposes regulations and restrictions on student activities and label that something as potentially incendiary as “the doldrums of freedom,” it should also acknowledge that on the whole, Stanford has shown remarkable restraint. Far more likely, in fact, is that Stanford is not trying to unreasonably roll back diversity or freedom. We can disagree about particular cases, but we should accept that on the whole, Stanford makes a good faith effort to maintain a diverse campus culture.

Campus culture

Nor do I accept the cultural arguments that the editorial identifies.

I’d like Ike’s back on campus, and when it (hopefully) returns, I’ll be one of the first in line for a Matt Cain hoagie, but while it’s easy to point to the Ike’s bidding process and complain about R&DE taking over the dining facilities on campus, I don’t think that the removal of a restaurant significantly affects student diversity or identity in a way that, say, funding cuts to the Stanford African Students Association (which had a brief funding controversy last year) would have. Unfortunately, the editorial brings up examples like Ike’s to draw a pattern of decreasing diversity where none exists. Collectively, I don’t see any pattern worthy of the accusations that were made.

Occasionally, there are examples that don’t hold water at all. In a piece that was so proudly Stanford-exceptionalist, it’s curious why the editorial brought up the Stanford Band as a paragon of the “wacky” and “eccentric” when the Harvard University Band, the Yale Precision Marching Band, and all the other bands of the Ivy League (except Cornell) wreak at times legendary havoc on the East Coast. Stanford is often erroneously considered the authoritarian cousin of freewheeling Berkeley (which ironically has an exquisitely drilled marching band), but there’s really no reason to assume that Stanford is tilting towards homogenization because of some tangential assumption that formed 50 years ago.

The editorial brought up architecture as a reason why Stanford’s cultural diversity is declining (itself an assumption that’s easy to dispute); true, architecture is sometimes a political statement, but most of the time, an ugly building is just ugly. I actually like many of the new buildings, such as Neukom, but that’s a matter of personal taste. However you think about architecture, the fact remains that cultural diversity is going to come from the students and faculty and staff that are recruited to the Farm, not from hoagies or architecture. The cultural grievances expressed don’t merit the accusation that Stanford doesn’t “give students the freedom to live their lives.”

What’s the path forward?

What I find most concerning about the editorial is that even though it traces a pattern of homogenization, it doesn’t really provide a counter-plan or, given the nature of its views, propose checks on Stanford’s actions.

Statements of principle are valuable. But while I don’t expect the board to have a concrete vision of the Stanford it would like to have, I do expect it to have an idea of what specifically Stanford should not be doing. And in this regard, the editorial does not really provide an answer. The crux of this debate is twofold: whether Stanford should limit students (for example, the Band) and its own actions (for example, architecture), and if yes, what constitutes a justified limitation, especially on students.

The board rightly agreed that student freedom must have limits. “The University had to, justifiably, place the Band on alcohol probation after several incidents at the Fiesta Bowl,” the editorial pointed out. “Legal infractions by Chi Theta Chi are impermissible and give the University cause for reform.” But although the Board does not draw a line explicitly, this is a situation in which some clarity would have been appreciated. What is the principle upon which the board bases its opposition to the examples it cites? Is it the furthest extent of expression and choice permissible by law? Or should Stanford more assertively support a certain set of normative views?

If the editorial criticizes the school, the burden of proof is on its writers, and without any statement of principle, the opinion expressed in the editorial rhetorically reduces to “We don’t agree with this.” But while the Potter Stewart standard (that is, “I know it when I see it”) may hold water for evaluations that are descriptive, we should expect a clearer standard for the actions that a group or body takes.

Students have a lot of freedom to live their lives here; culture and history do not prove any distinct desire or philosophy on Stanford’s part; not all regulations are uncalled for. The editorial does not oppose any and all restrictions. But neither does it establish a basis for the restrictions that it does oppose. Furthermore, it does not propose any mechanism for Stanford students to have a greater voice in campus decisions. If that’s the case, then this tacit, though disapproving, acceptance of what the Stanford administration supposedly “wants” doesn’t merit the critical tone and especially the caustic headline that it was given.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’

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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