Stanford has long marketed itself through its culture. Each year, the University publishes glossy brochures that boast of a place of intellectual and cultural freedom, and Stanford has become easily associated with whimsical pictures of the Tree and Wacky Walk. For many students, and perhaps staff and faculty too, this distinct mix of intellectual inquiry and liberty played a decisive role in bringing them to the Farm.
This image is not just a construction of the Admissions Office’s publications for prospective students. For generations of students, Stanford proved to be a liberating space, allowing students to explore ideas and lifestyles, perhaps making a mistake or two along the way. In addition to being free-thinking, students could enjoy nights of abandon and wake up the next morning (or afternoon) to that special cacophony of a Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (LSJUMB) performance, only to go on to a day of boating on Lake Lagunita or fountain hopping. Indeed, the pages of campus lore from previous decades speak of remarkable pranks and RAs chiefly concerned with providing alcohol to their residents. Over the years, Stanford became known for this special spirit of irreverence, that while intangible, struck at the heart of the University’s identity.
However, some in the University’s administration have come to see Stanford’s cultural DNA as “high-risk.” To be fair, this comes in the context of a broader birth of the “University, Incorporated,” bringing changes to college campuses across the country. But this raises special questions at Stanford: Can the culture of a place simply be changed by fiat, and if so, what happens to a university that loses the spirit that defined it through the course of its long ascendancy?
I won’t pretend to know all of the answers to these questions, let alone that I could answer them in such a short column. But I think we should be concerned about the future of Stanford’s culture. When top-down decisions are made as to what campus climate ought to look like, one can only expect unforeseen consequences. And while this may be the case with the recently changed alcohol policy, it’s only part of a broader trend, whether seen in the introduction of Standards of Excellence for Greek life or the sanctioning of the Stanford band.
The cumulative effect of these decisions will certainly change how individuals — whether students, prospective freshmen or alumni — experience Stanford, and may even impact Stanford’s public image. But some of these changes may be unintended. Will alumni continue their unprecedented giving to a university they no longer recognize? Will Stanford continue to post increasing yield rates if the promises of Stanford’s selling points and promotional materials prove hollow? Again, clear answers to these questions remain elusive.
As we begin this new academic year in our home, we have a chance to reflect on what Stanford means to each of us. Although thinking about what we want for Stanford won’t magically induce change on campus, it will allow for richer conversations between Stanford’s leaders and the community that they serve, a dialogue needed now more than ever. And if we can preserve the sense of freedom that once defined the Farm, that will allow for both a less restrictive campus, and more importantly, a liberating intellectual space as well.
Contact Michael Gioia at mgioia2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.