OpenXChange seeks to ’empower’ students; some activists stay away

Oct. 6, 2015, 12:33 a.m.

In the eyes of student activist Erika Lynn Kreeger ’16, Stanford’s new OpenXChange initiative isn’t to be trusted.

OpenXChange, an initiative that aims to facilitate campus-wide conversations about various topics, particularly the hot-button social issues spotlighted by last year’s student activism, was launched by the University administration just before the start of this quarter. And Kreeger’s list of grievances against it is already long.

“I think many of us in the activist community and the larger student community are very skeptical of OpenXChange, especially with its purported emphasis on ‘listening,’” said Kreeger, who asked to be referred to using the gender-neutral pronouns they/them/their. “We find somewhat ironically that OpenXChange has done a very terrible job of listening to students and listening to what their needs are.”

In addition to an event with Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef that was co-sponsored by OpenXChange, there have been six OpenXChange events so far, all of them part of a “Listening Tour” in which students and administrators discussed student views on campus climate and how OpenXChange can best engage students in conversations about pressing and contentious issues.

And despite Kreeger’s many issues with OpenXChange, they didn’t attend any of the Listening Tour events personally. Neither did any of the many other student activists Kreeger knows, they said.

Kreeger said activists were “implicitly” excluded from the events by the choice of locations — none of the events were held at the community centers at which some undergraduate activists are heavily involved.

Although Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Harry Elam and other administrators involved in the Listening Tour acknowledged they wanted to hear the opinions of students who are part of the non-activist “silent majority,” none said they wanted to exclude activists.

In an email to The Daily, Elam wrote that the final two Listening Tour events, those held at Lakeside Dining and Xanadu, featured “an intimate and engaged” audience that included students with diverse perspectives.

“Each event featured students who self-identified as activists as well as students who saw themselves removed from the issues of engagement,” Elam said.

Maya Theuer ’16, a resident of Xanadu, attended the Listening Tour event held in her house on Thursday, Oct. 1 and called it “an awesome gesture by the administration.” At the event, students and administrators discussed various topics including Counseling and Psychological Services, the OpenXChange initiative itself and false rumors surrounding budget cuts to the Office of Accessible Education, she said.

“They [administrators] were dedicated to listening and informing where they saw gaps in information,” she wrote in an email to The Daily. “They stayed for a solid hour and a half to address issues, provide information about how Stanford will implement changes around the turmoil of last year and overall genuinely listen to our opinions and concerns.”

Nicole Taylor ’90 M.A. ’91, who has been hired this year as the new Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Community Engagement and Diversity, attended a Listening Tour event her first day on the job. Taylor oversees 10 centers and offices on campus, including the community centers. She has already met with Elam, OpenXChange staff and the directors of all the centers, she said.

“This isn’t just about talking,” Taylor said. “We’re very serious about action.”

According to Elam, future OpenXChange programming will involve students at the community centers. A Student Advisory Board for the initiative is being organized and will “have wide representation from across the campus,” Elam wrote.

He said the OpenXChange Listening Tour events have made one thing especially clear: Students want better communication between the administration and the student body, and they want to know how their concerns are being addressed in administrative decisions.

In the interest of including students’ voices in OpenXChange even before its launch, administrators hired two recent graduates to serve as Project Specialists: former ASSU vice president Logan Richard ’15 and Abhilasha Belani ’15, last year’s ASSU Director of Emotional Wellbeing.

“Over the course of my senior year, campus culture changed in a way that I couldn’t have predicted, where students started to feel frustrated,” Belani wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “I found that many students were frustrated with the University for not acknowledging their concerns while others were frustrated with their peers for interrupting their day-to-day and still others were frustrated with the way conversations were taking place.”

Belani said that so far this year, she has been impressed by administrators’ efforts to understand students’ feelings.

At an OpenXChange Listening Tour event held at the Graduate Community Center on Monday, Sept. 28, five administrators — Taylor, Elam, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Greg Boardman, associate vice president for strategic planning Roberta Katz ’69 and Sally Dickson, Taylor’s predecessor who is now retired and serves as a special assistant to President John Hennessy — sat around a table with the two Ph.D. students and one MBA student who showed up. Belani was also there.

“We want to get a sense, as we start this project, of what students were feeling last year,” Elam said at the beginning of the event.

He explained that he sees listening to how Stanford students approach different topics as the first, necessary step in OpenXChange, to be followed by more concrete projects later in the year.

At the event, administrators asked students for their thoughts on how to get graduate students more involved in conversations on the types of issues that sparked bitter disagreements among undergraduates last year.  One Ph.D. student apologized for not having paid much attention last year and said he had come to the Listening Tour event because he had heard about it from friends and was interested in learning more about the issues on the table.

“That’s what we want to hear,” Katz told him.

Kreeger decided to stay away from the Listening Tour for a number of reasons, including their belief that administrators would steer conversations in predetermined directions and the fact that they felt silenced last year. In addition, Kreeger explained that they don’t trust administrators to listen to them or stand up for the marginalized communities to which they belong.

“I’m not saying I’m opposed to having administrators come and listen to us, if that’s what they’re actually doing,” Kreeger said. “But I think there are lots of problems with it.”

“Why would we [activists] put our valuable time and energy into something that was created by people who explicitly tried to silence the activist community?” they added, mentioning that their views do not necessarily represent the whole activist community. “I’m just not going to be willing to put my time and energy into something that’s going to burn me again.”

Instead, Kreeger is putting their time and energy into reviving the Synergy tradition of “teach-ins,” weekly events involving discussion about various issues. Kreeger and Lily Zheng ’17, who is a columnist for The Daily, will each run five teach-ins per quarter.

“We try to structure these very intimately so that there’s opportunities to listen and talk,” Kreeger said.

Kreeger ran last Thursday’s teach-in, titled “Why Everything Is Terrible and Why YOU Should Care.” This week’s teach-in, to be held Wednesday evening at Synergy, is called “Taking Action Towards Collective Liberation.”

So far, turnout at the teach-ins has been excellent — 32 people stayed for the entire event the first week, including a number of freshmen. Most students who attended hadn’t been involved in the activist communities.

According to Kreeger, the teach-ins differ from administrator-run events in that students don’t have to “listen to people who know things,” and there’s no “implied knowledge gradient,” although they or Zheng will present background information on the week’s featured topic at the beginning of each teach-in.

But administrators believe a “collaborative effort” with students is important, and some of the aims of the teach-in organizers are echoed by the organizers of OpenXChange. In fact, one of the sample proposals for the program’s Build It, Lead It Grants is for a teach-in. The grants can be used for activities that “engage…fellow students in thoughtful, critical discourse.”

While OpenXChange will include some “top-down” events such as events with speakers, Belani said it’s important for other aspects of the initiative to come from the campus community. She said besides having grant money available, OpenXChange “is ready to offer support to groups on campus that are already doing this kind of work and provide resources wherever possible.”

In three weeks on Oct. 26, Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy will host an OpenXChange Listening Dinner. Students can register for tickets online.

After the dinner, “listening” events will continue and will include events at various locations, including community centers. The goal, Elam said, is to include as many students as possible.

“We want students to feel empowered by this initiative, and take control of it, and make it what they want it to be,” Elam said last week. “We’re not there yet. But it’s only week two.”


Contact Emma Johanningsmeier at ejmeier ‘at’

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