Pay no attention to the ex-Provost behind the curtain

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Feb. 23, 2017, 12:35 a.m.

Many of us at Stanford have long since understood that echo chambers exist on campus. We can find them in our nearest political group or activist community, our nearest conservative VSO or campus tabloid. For most of us, we need look no further than our Facebook timelines to find a group of individuals who share social and political views similar to our own.

These echo chambers are places where the open sharing and discussion of differing ideas is suppressed. Some of them self-select for individuals who already share the same ideas, while others have strong norms that privilege certain ideologies over others. There are many such spaces at Stanford, just as there are many in every institution of learning around the world, and students differ on whether we view them as desirable safe spaces, regrettable necessities, unwanted nuisances or some more nuanced mix of the three.

Enter JOHN ETCHEMENDY, stage left.

In a speech recently delivered to the Board of Trustees, former Provost John Etchemendy discussed what he views as upcoming challenges for the institution of higher education. The speech, titled “The threat from within,” envisions universities as timeless, apolitical, objective entities under attack from an increasingly politicized staff, faculty and student body.

This politicization, Etchemendy argues, manifests itself in echo chambers that are proxies for a sinister “intellectual intolerance” and “intellectual blindness.” He warns that the growing divide between ideological camps heralds the death of “rational argument” and puts the entire university in jeopardy. As reminiscent as Etchemendy’s alarmist rhetoric is to Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “A Nation at Risk,” I’m reminded more clearly of similar statements Etchemendy made in April 2015 – spring quarter of my sophomore year.

ASSU election season was in full swing, and tensions around Black Lives Matter and divestment from the Israeli occupation of Palestine shook every corner of campus. At the time, then-Provost Etchemendy delivered an unambiguous rebuke to the process of student group endorsements, complaining that these endorsements compromised “a senate composed of thoughtful, open-minded students representing the full range of student opinion” for “a senate preselected to represent a filtered set of beliefs.”

In this instance, too, Etchemendy responded to the presence of political influence – in arguably the most political regularly-occurring event at Stanford – with distrust and displeasure. A real problem (lack of representativeness in the ASSU of the entire student body) was framed in terms that indicted students and not underlying structural problems. The resulting fallout and uproar completely overshadowed his original (reasonable) concerns, and contributed to an animosity between “administrators” and “students” that persists to this day.

Today, we’re seeing it happen all over again – and John Etchemendy isn’t even Provost. While he is right to critique the ad hominem attacks that characterize many conversations on campus, identifying “politicization” as the culprit is as spurious as arguments go. Yes, Stanford is more obviously tense today than it was 17 years ago when Etchemendy became Provost; so too is the world. The problems we see today on campus stem from the political climate in the United States, the increasing civic awareness and engagement of students, staff and faculty alike and the glaring lack of social infrastructure on this campus to facilitate the conversations that must happen. Can “dialogue” happen when most of our communication to begin with happens over public email threads? When we’re too tied down by units and mental health to go to even those events with which we agree, let alone those with which we don’t?

Etchemendy plays a dangerous game when he tells the Board of Trustees that “what requires real courage is resisting [political stands]” and warns that politicization “violates a core mission.” If Stanford admitting women at its founding, creating community centers and divesting from apartheid South Africa all violated a core mission, then this is no university I want to call home.  Exhorting the Board to retreat into an apolitical bunker ensures that future student movements will act against it, rather than with it.

I do not believe that John Etchemendy is either stupid or ignorant. I believe him when he talks of watching “a growing intolerance” within higher education over his 17 years as Provost. What I am disappointed about, is that in all these years of watching, Etchemendy took little time to listen. A Provost’s responsibility is to ensure the health of the university into the long-term future; students are not disposable pieces in this larger vision. Had Etchemendy listened more closely during his time here, he might have seen the growing political engagement among all members of this community, the hopes and dreams of student organizers with visions bigger than graduation and the tireless work put in by staff to keep students going.

Politicization hasn’t jeopardized any of this; it’s enhanced it. What we’ve watched as students is the return of a thriving political climate and a renewal of the community bonds that hold us together. If Etchemendy could not see any of this, then perhaps it is for the best that his time as Provost has ended.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’

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' – she loves messages!

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