Sleeping giants and sustainable activism: Where are our professors?

Opinion by Lily Zheng
March 2, 2017, 12:24 a.m.

At Stanford, what’s rarer than a snow day, more political than a rally and more powerful than a speech?

Answer: A professor acknowledging local, national or global crisis in the classroom.

Stanford University is one of those few elite schools around the world where the name brand means more than the degree. It’s widely accepted that at Stanford, students receive a world-class education in the subject(s) of their choosing and gain the skills and knowledge to be leaders, innovators and change-makers in the world. We have some of the most prominent and distinguished researchers, businesspeople, scientists and scholars in the world, facilities and resources that would put other universities to shame and an endowment larger than the GDP of many countries.  (I’m beginning to sound like a brochure, so I’ll stop.)

To achieve all this, Stanford has had to create, maintain and protect a way of functioning that has persisted for 130+ years. At its core, Stanford is a multi-billion dollar apparatus that collects and processes people, knowledge and talent. Lecturers become assistant professors become tenured professors (or leave); labs, think-tanks and on-campus organizations fight for funding in the hopes of a widely-publicized breakthrough; students arrive, receive an education, graduate and – if Stanford plays its cards right – donate.

Stanford is a remarkably unyielding institution. Though in many ways the finer details of its character are modified by the people who go through it (Tessier-Lavigne-era Stanford is ever so minutely different from Hennessy-era Stanford), Stanford will be Stanford so long as its campus and prestige remain intact. What this means, though, is that, for the most part, this university is buffered against sociopolitical events happening in the larger world.

This is something that many students intuitively know. What reason would a cognitive science professor have to talk about fascism? Why would a CS class talk about police brutality or systemic anti-Blackness? Even in classes studying concepts more relevant to current events or national-level controversies, conflicts and tensions involving millions of people go either unmentioned or appear only briefly in half-hearted attempts to relate course material to real life. Though of course exceptions exist, most classes on this campus could go on “business as usual,” barring apocalypse or natural disaster. (Manmade disasters of the sort unfolding in America today seem to be more easily ignored.)

This is great if we’re concerned with the survival of the university, but damning if we’re thinking about the sustainability of student activism. As I wrote in my first column of this year, the cognitive dissonance between our intimate connection to social justice issues and the stonewalling we receive from our academic and campus life contributes to a pervasive sense of disconnect at Stanford. Is our nation wracked by conflict? Perhaps, but it doesn’t feel like that here. Are communities back home in a state of emergency? Perhaps, but it doesn’t feel like that here.

If student activism is a fire and global crisis is its fuel, the pervasive failure of higher education to provide much-needed oxygen means that we are fighting a losing battle, suffocating slowly on our own fumes. This is one reason why in my time here, no student movement has survived more than one academic year without bleeding out most of its momentum and power. Institutional silence is one of the biggest culprits behind the ever-looming threat of student activist burnout. So long as the institutional arms of the university do not see themselves as threatened by the state of the world, Stanford will remain” business as usual.” And, so long as Stanford remains business as usual, student activists will use tactics of disruption, hypervisibility and resistance, putting their bodies on the line to create artificial threat and force Stanford’s hand.

If we as a campus are seriously working toward building unity to take us forward, we must acknowledge collectively that it isn’t students that are apathetic, but professors. Our everyday classes, in which professors remain silent on issues that are actively affecting the student body and the world, are incubators of campus tension. These classes exacerbate the fundamental disconnect between professors – especially tenured professors who have been at this university for decades – and students who are constantly connected to the outside world and its conflicts. This is a problem now as it’s been a problem in the past, but it isn’t inevitable.

Aren’t tenured professors supposed to be the sleeping giants of Stanford? Aren’t tenured professors able to do almost anything on campus, be leaders and inspirations and otherwise do the work of creating global and civic-minded citizens – not just read from lecture slides? Department affiliation and area of study should not come before professors’ identity as a member of the Stanford community, and a member of the larger society we are all embedded in.  

I’ve written already about the need for student communities to come together and take care of each other to sustain student movements. I’ve written already about the responsibility of administrators to support students and vice versa.

Now I’m calling on professors to do their part, too.  


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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