“Wouldn’t it be great if Stanford were able to operate like the Gates Foundation, where we used the grants that we were awarded and used the incredible talent and resources here to tackle major international topics? Probably the most important one (in my opinion) that relates to all others is poverty. So, why wouldn’t Stanford aim to end world poverty in the next 100 years? (…) Yes, it’s a huge ‘ask’ for Stanford. But if we don’t do this (with all of our skill, personnel money, and influence), then who will?”
— Submission #121, as quoted in white paper EB-4
A 100-year plan to eradicate world poverty. An end to research paywalls using University funds. A new model of the research university that gives millions of undergraduates access to a Stanford education a year, instead of thousands.
The President and Provost’s call to “dream big” in their original request for submissions cast the net wide for ideas of every stripe and scale. Now, as the planning process enters its next, practical phase, funding, resources and a general need to prioritize will help to reel in the ideas that move forward with funding. The hard graft of making great good ideas work lies before us.
With over 2,800 proposals in hand, many of which are socially conscious, driven by ethical convictions or call on the University to rethink its mission, the decision not to adopt a certain idea or to cut it back to a smaller scale becomes a moral position. The Stanford public should scrutinize the process of selection and implementation as not just a medley of initiatives but an action-backed expression of who and what matters to the University. Now that we’ve put our ideas out there, we should take it upon ourselves to track the ones that don’t make it past the selection process and ask, why not?
Feasibility is likely to be a common answer: Stanford should pick the proposals that are likely to achieve the best results relative to the quantity of resources they consume. This seems to be a simple, almost clinical formula. However, the community should recognize that the definition of “best results” is a value judgement in itself — best for whom? Which purposes are better served than others?
The long-range planning proposals will force us to prioritize. Ideas submitted range from professional development for non-faculty employees, subsidized housing near campus for postdocs — estimated to cost $50 million a year, or $1 billion to endow — to new research centers focusing on environmental justice and big data, to name just two. Deciding which issues we should address first, as well as how much funding to allocate to each scheme at the expense of another, is a weighty ethical question. Do we “promote the public welfare,” as Stanford’s founding mission mandates, with investments that bolster research contributing to human understanding? Do we prioritize the well-being of our direct community members, focusing on, for example, helping postdocs who struggle with Bay Area living costs and low-wage employees who commute to Stanford as far as the Central Valley over two hours each way? Answers aren’t easy.
Resource constraints guiding the selection of ideas aren’t always straightforward either. Because Stanford is not a public university, certain details of the University’s day-to-day spending will never be known to the vast majority of the community they affect; the sheer scale of University operations also means that nobody but the key decision-makers is likely to scrutinize every line item in the budget anyway. This means we are often unaware of current expenses that we might judge to be better spent on worthwhile new initiatives.
For instance, just recently, Stanford funded weekend flights to campus for the alumni who write the class notes for the Stanford Magazine. Stanford also funds everything from security for Robert Spencer’s visit to campus to dorm trips to Disneyland, Kanye concerts and even Berlin; these are just a few examples of expenditures with value for different groups on campus that the Stanford public might not prioritize if it had the opportunity to weigh in. Resources are certainly limited. But without insight into so much of our current spending, it is difficult to evaluate claims that the University just doesn’t have enough money for an issue.
Let’s be clear: We’re not saying that Stanford is deliberately being disingenuous about its finances. We’re saying that there are serious existing obstacles as well as a lack of a concerted effort among community members to understand just how Stanford might make decisions about resource allocation that align more closely with community values. This becomes a moral issue when we consider the sheer scale of the social impact that the long-range planning ideas proposals for Stanford — how do we justify saying “no” or saying “yes, but on a smaller scale” to these ideas for the greater good, when we don’t know that much about how our resources are currently spent?
One way forward for the Stanford public is to be more proactive about scrutinizing University spending. Alongside suggestions of new initiatives to spend on, we can suggest cutbacks — what among the University’s current expenditures are necessary parts of the institution’s purpose, and what are luxuries we can do without? These suggestions may be most convincing from the mouths of people who benefit from them.
Beyond resource limitations, some proposals challenge Stanford’s modus operandi as an institution, perhaps for the better. One proposal calls on Stanford to propel the “open science” initiative by removing barriers to educational materials and taking down paywalls to research — yet Stanford earns $5,040 per student for an online AI course it offers through the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD) and at least $14,426 for students enrolled in eight units of coursework during its summer sessions.
Democratizing knowledge may be an obvious way for Stanford to synthesize its research and education goals with social good, but it is easy to see how ideas of this nature may be readily discarded. Making education exclusive rather than entirely open is, in some ways, a foundational aspect of Stanford’s success.
Stanford’s wealth and international standing are inextricably bound with a view of learning that is elitist at its core. It may not be “feasible” to adopt expensive plans that would force Stanford to radically alter how it presently — and successfully — operates; then again, is our current success judged on a metric that the community as a whole approves?
On the surface, the long-range planning project is an opportunity to build on what Stanford has already achieved. But for the process to actualize its promise of developing a communal vision for Stanford’s future, the community should be engaged in deciding which orthodoxies must go — from current practices to resources to long-held values. Before we discard new ideas for their incompatibility with the institution, we should first question whether the status quo is right to begin with. The public must insist on participating as vigorously in the work of cutting down as we did in the initial sowing. From asking the tough questions about what Stanford stands for to proposing cutbacks in current spending, community input should help administrators to choose and implement the proposals that best realize our communal vision. It is in this process of selection and self-critique that our principles as a community are put into practice.