Our activist frameworks don’t always work here (and that’s okay)

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Jan. 12, 2017, 1:38 a.m.

When did we first learn that Stanford was the enemy?

Maybe it was in 2014, with the #StandWithLeah protests against Stanford’s handling of sexual assault, or in 2015, when Provost Etchemendy responded to campus tensions caused by police brutality and racism with a call for a “two-way street” of “dialogue.” Maybe it was in 2016, as fossil fuel divestment failed and mental health resources remained absent, or in the fledgling weeks of 2017, over fresh accusations of sexual assault mishandling and the suspension of the Stanford Band.

“Stanford doesn’t care about people like me,” we conclude, thinking about all the negative experiences we and our friends have had on campus. “Stanford doesn’t want to care about people like me.”

What students allude to with these statements is almost always some variation of a structural argument: We argue that some fundamental flaw, prejudice or inequity permeates every level of Stanford’s institutional structure, from the most powerful decision-makers to Stanford’s many institutes, departments and offices to everyday conversation. From our perspective, this flaw not only permeates Stanford but also poisons it, compromising the integrity of the entire system. With any given flaw (“Stanford cares about its reputation more than its students,” for example), we use a current issue as a springboard to argue that said flaw, snowballing through multiple poisoned levels of Stanford’s hierarchical structure, eventually causes the negative outcome we see.

I and many other students who have applied this framework to interpreting campus life are putting into practice a type of analysis often used by activists and movements across the country to identify and critique such things as the prison-industrial complex, institutionalized racism and neoliberalism.

We’re also often wrong in trying to apply this approach to Stanford.

When we look at Stanford University’s massive size and scope, we often draw parallels to an organizational form we’re familiar with: the bureaucracy. We imagine a huge machine of red tape, inefficiency and corruption branching out from a few powerful individuals and see ourselves as students struggling against an all-encompassing and hostile force. Everywhere we can see evidence of wrongdoing, and it becomes easy to piece it all together as the result of an evil institution’s malicious collusion or willful neglect. This is an excellent framework to employ if we’re trying to start a campaign or build student solidarity, but it’s frankly inaccurate.

As organizational theorists would argue, Stanford University, like many other modern universities, is less a cohesive institution and more an “organized anarchy.” We are an extremely decentralized institution made of bubbles within bubbles. The CS department knows next to nothing about the sociology department, which knows next to nothing about the GSB; SLAC and the MLK Jr. Research and Education Institute may as well exist across the country from each other. “Administrator,” while a functional category and status-heavy title, belies the reality that administrators are spread across campus, perform vastly different tasks and very rarely coordinate their efforts toward a particular goal. In this environment, decision-making is less a directive issued from above and more an organic process driven by the interests of the right people who happen to be in the right meeting, at the right time.

An institution organized in this way is difficult to understand, let alone organize against — it’s not surprising, then, that activists do what we do. It feels far more satisfying to say “Stanford University doesn’t care about people of my race” than it does to say “I was hurt by the racism in this specific policy created a decade ago and in the interactions I had with a staff member of this organization.” This latter version isn’t easy to come by. As activists, reaching a functional level of specificity concerning flaws in the system requires a degree of investigation beyond simply indicting the entire institution — a sentiment that, though powerful, lacks meaning when applied to a place like Stanford.

It’s imperative that as students who want to hold our university accountable, we emphasize effectiveness and understanding over reactivity. Some of that means waiting to get all sides of the story (and acknowledging that institutional actors can have a side without it being inherently evil) to identify problems requiring action, rather than leaping onto stories and rumors that match our confirmation bias. Stanford University is a more complex and contradictory organization than any of us give it credit for. While that makes any issue deserving activism fundamentally nuanced, this by no means changes the end goal of student activists.


Contact Lily Zheng lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!

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