What it takes to trust Stanford

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Feb. 16, 2017, 2:09 a.m.

I’ve written for the last month or so about the nationwide mobilization against our new presidential administration, but it seems pertinent now to turn our attention back to home. Stanford has lacked a healthy student/administrator relationship for years now, and at this point, it’s causing serious breakdowns in our ability as a campus to address and resolve problems.                   

It comes down to a lack of trust. In January, I wrote briefly about the recent history responsible for our current student wariness, but highlighting key events only tells half the story – the deeper trends undergirding this student-administrative distrust go back further.

While activism has always existed at Stanford, today’s explosion of student activism was preceded by a decade of diminished civic participation and dampened activism on campus following the anti-Iraq war protests in 2003. I doubt that administrators working in this vacuum of student action built much expertise in communicating with activists, because this kind of communication was, in large part,  unlikely to be salient in the first place. Activism, when it did exist, was more tied to humanitarian service than direct action. The student/administrator relationship was good in the sense that a plywood wall is good: It holds up a roof well, but in a thoroughly unremarkable, taken-for-granted way.

While we talk often about how Black Lives Matter impacted student life and activism during 2014-2015, we don’t think much about how this paradigm shift hit administrators. Suddenly, students were demanding from their peers, faculty, staff and administrators a level of communication, coordination and collective action that hadn’t been seen at Stanford in years. Administrators, hesitantly interacting with the young inferno of new student activism, reacted with tone-deafness, inflexibility and helplessness. (I’m reminded of a relative of mine who upgraded from Windows XP to Windows 10 and got so overwhelmed with the personalization settings that he refused to use his PC for a week.)

In the two years since, the administrative side of Stanford has worked to catch up to a rapidly changing and rapidly moving student body. Though representatives of the institution (administrators) by definition change slower than the individuals who move through it (students), Stanford’s administration has in large part cheated its way around this slow change through Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Persis Drell and a host of new administrative appointments that I don’t have space to name here.

The problem now is that the reputation given by activists to the collective “administration” has stuck, even though the “Stanford” that activists fought against in 2014 is in many ways not the “Stanford” that we turn our sights to today. Phrases like “Stanford doesn’t care,” “administrators prioritize the Stanford brand over students” and “administrators don’t listen” have become colloquialisms among many students, and are used today as go-to responses to any campus controversy or conflict. This is precisely what’s happening now with regards to the controversy over the firing of former Title IX attorney Crystal Riggins, what happened a few months ago with the suspension of the Stanford Band and what happened earlier this year with the alleged bribery of sexual assault victims.

In each of these recent cases, Stanford students have had to decide on a moral opinion given limited information and little context. In every case, students have unified not in support of a “student” per se, but rather in opposition to the “administration.” Popular outrage against the perceived wrongs of “administrators” (even if the specific administrators many activists had problems with have already left Stanford) is a convenient and effective way to mobilize today’s student body.

When we do this, however, I am worried that we are prioritizing reactivity over actually addressing real issues. For example, each of the three controversial issues above have provoked official responses that have provided a hitherto unheard of degree of transparency on issues Stanford has historically kept in the dark. And yet, I hear casual mention of these controversies as if Stanford had never responded, and as if the original student accusations had all been given the fact-checked stamp of approval.

I get the feeling now that we as a student body are using a myth of unified administrative incompetence and neglect as a tool to bring together the student body. From the perspective of effectiveness, this tactic is likely to sacrifice the organizing capacity and student/administration relationship of students who come after us by convincing administrators – who will most definitely outlast us here at Stanford – that student activists and student activism are more concerned with the performance of justice than they are of the complexities of institutional change. If this is the price we pay, then I don’t think it’s worth it.

This is not a call urging students to unthinkingly throw their trust behind Stanford the institution. There have always been, and still remain, large institutional problems in structure, routines, norms, personnel and culture at Stanford that must be pulled into the open to be critiqued. What I am saying here is that we cannot assume perpetual and unwavering guilt of this institution, as real as the harm it perpetuates feels to us. At best, we sabotage the change we’re trying to make in the world. At worst, our cynicism creates vicious cycles in which administrators truly become the enemies we make them out to be.


Contact Lily Zheng at 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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