Administration, students reflect on OpenXChange

May 31, 2016, 12:19 a.m.

Stanford launched the yearlong OpenXChange program last fall in order to increase dialogue across the Stanford community about pressing and sometimes provocative issues. As the initiative draws to a close, its creators are taking stock of the program.

Some believe the program to be a substantial step toward open and honest communication, while others feel that specific OpenXChange events were one-sided and did not create the space for productive discussion that the program aspired to. While administrators acknowledged OpenXChange had left some students dissatisfied, they framed the program’s goals as part of an ongoing, “evolutionary” effort toward productive campus-wide conversations that they hope will continue even as the official program ends.

When OpenXChange was first announced, President Hennessey referenced an unusually tense and controversial campus climate during the 2014-15 school year. The OpenXChange program was launched in response to that shift and was designed to better link students, faculty and administration.

Since then, OpenXChange has hosted nearly 50 events, ranging from large-scale presentations and panels to small-scale discussions inside residence halls led by faculty. Prominent speakers have included lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson, journalist Fareed Zakaria and U.S. Senator Cory Booker ’91. In the fall, the initiative hosted a Listening Dinner for undergraduate and graduate students, in which 33 University administrators heard comments and concerns from about 200 students.

It seems the program did not fall short in numbers. Some 7,000 staff, students and administration attended an OpenXChange event this year, and more than 1,000 students entered a lottery for tickets to the Listening Dinner.

Two dozen students received grants from the “Build It, Lead It” program, which provides $1,500 in funding for student ideas aimed at encouraging campus dialogue. Approved projects range widely, from a dinner talk series on South Asian American identity to a discussion group for graduate women of color.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam, who announced OpenXChange with Hennessy in an email in September, believes the program has improved the perceived hostile campus environment that initially sparked OpenXChange.

“For a variety of reasons, the mood on campus has been different this year than the last,” he wrote in an email to The Daily.

But Elam conceded that important issues remain to grapple with. Student activist groups such as Who’s Teaching Us and Fossil Free Stanford have brought forth complicated and ambitious demands, he said, and Elam believes that these contentious issues will take “more than a single year to solve together.”

Chris Clarke ’85 MA ’06 ’10 PhD ’13, assistant vice provost of graduate education and director of EDGE and special projects, said OpenXChange has had a positive impact on the graduate student experience. He noted that it can be “a real challenge” to involve graduate students in campus wide events, because they tend to be more focused within their labs or departments and can feel less connected to the entire University than undergraduates.

But according to Clarke, graduate students often outnumbered undergraduates in their RSVPs to program events.

“When [graduate students] are provided with opportunities to be involved in something that seems to span the whole University and represent Stanford, they often respond very enthusiastically,” Clarke said.

At the beginning of the school year, OpenXChange’s leaders said they hoped to include student opinions in the program and its planning. In a Daily article from last October, Elam emphasized, “We want it to be something that students feel is theirs — that they can take ownership, that they can develop it, that they can speak back to us about issues.”

Elam believes OpenXChange has encouraged this ownership in some respects, particularly through the Build It, Lead It grants, but recognizes that the program has not garnered unanimous approval.

“We know that we have not reached the whole student body,” he said. “We know that some students still feel reticent about OpenXChange.”

Some students questioned whether student input was truly present in particular discussions that OpenXChange sponsored.

One student’s May 1 open letter to President Hennessy in The Daily probed Hennessy’s comments during a panel on educational inequity, saying that “OpenXChange is supposed to be where difficult issues are addressed, not ducked.” Brian Baum and Dan Walls, graduate students and members of the group Students for Alternatives to Militarism, said that one event they attended, “When the World is Aflame,” was disappointingly one-sided in perspective.

“When the World is Aflame” centered on contemporary challenges in international affairs such as the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration reform and America’s role in foreign conflicts. Featured speakers included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy and professor of political science.

Many OpenXChange events were held in co-sponsorship with a variety of student groups, and Walls and Baum wished that their group had been given more input in the event, which they learned about only through general publicity. They felt that the panel fell short of OpenXChange’s vision by featuring three panelists largely in agreement with each other and largely uncritical of American foreign policy. Baum described the difference in opinion among speakers as “between accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees and 12,000 Syrian refugees.”

“Particularly, since [OpenXChange] was created in response to campus activism, you would think it might have a wider spectrum of opinions than you would necessarily see in normal campus programs,“ Baum said, later adding, “To not have a voice that represents a peaceful alternative to global conflict … is a huge oversight.”

OpenXChange is currently gathering student feedback, and team members are spending the last few weeks of the quarter interviewing students and organizations across campus to aid compilation of an end-of-year report on the program to President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy PhD ’82. This information will help the University consider what elements of OpenXChange may continue next year and beyond. Elam said that program leaders will also consult with incoming President Marc Tessier-Lavigne about next steps.

“This year of OpenXChange marks only a beginning in the work of creating an atmosphere on campus in which we can have informed discussions across difference,” Elam said.

Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.


Contact Hayden Little at hlittle ‘at’

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