The danger of Stanford building moral credit

Opinion by Kirsten Mettler
Nov. 10, 2019, 4:23 p.m.

Many think it’s time to celebrate because Stanford is being “woke” by acting more politically correct. Renaming Serra Mall to Jane Stanford Way, for example, seems like a significant social step for the University. However, the battle for inclusion and diversity is not over yet. The big demon of social progress may still be lingering in the shadows: moral credentialing.

Moral credentialing is the phenomenon in which people are more willing to behave badly after establishing that they are not prejudiced. For example, a famous psychological study found that if employers are given the chance to verbally disagree with sexist statements, they are more likely to later favor men when hiring for a job. After “proving” that they were not sexist, subjects were less hesitant about being sexist in practice. 

Right now, I fear that Stanford is at risk of becoming a moral credentialer. Most of the good they have been doing lately seems to be more symbolic that substantive. As a student, I have been receiving a lot of emails purveying good news, in which Stanford administrators have condemned what is wrong on campus — whether that be racist comments or sexual assault — but I have yet to see action.

When I talked to my parents the other day, my stepmom commented on how she was so happy to know I go to a school like Stanford. When I asked her why, she cited the email sent by Provost Persis Drell on the results of the AAU campus climate survey, adding that she was happy to hear that Stanford really cared about its students and owned up to issues on campus. 

While my parents were expressing excitement with how the University was handling sexual violence in their big public statements, students were still talking about the series of drugging incidents that have taken place this year on campus. Stanford was happy to make broad statements talking about how they plan on tackling these issues: holding feedback forums, partnering with YWCA of Silicon Valley and creating a new transgender support website, to name a few of their strategies. However, the reality is that girls on campus are still getting drugged — and on these issues, there seems to be very little response. The university’s messaging simply isn’t lining up with their actions. 

This is exactly what I am afraid of. On campus, I constantly hear people complaining about how the university handles issues. I have heard students express their discontent about the recent renaming of Serra Mall after Jane Stanford, or the failure to put up Chanel Miller’s plaque. Meanwhile it seems that parents and alumni see these same issues through Stanford’s rose-colored glasses. They see Stanford through its progressive public statements and heartfelt emails, not through the various missteps it makes. 

For example, with Chanel Miller, Stanford’s administration agreed to work with her to create a meaningful space on campus. It emphasized its support for Chanel Miller, but when it came to actually bringing her installation to life, the University quietly backed out. As much as Stanford talked about doing the right thing, it did not follow through. It was the perfect setup for moral credentialing: Stanford says the right things and keeps people satisfied; meanwhile, its motivation to actually do the right things fades. My takeaway from this is that it is crucial for students to stay aware and demand accountability from Stanford on various fronts. Students are the last mode of defense to keep the university accountable. 

Take the improvements that have happened to CAPS and mental health services on campus. Stanford advertises the happiness of its students and how much it cares about student well-being, but for years, improvements to CAPS have been a main policy goal for the ASSU. But it wasn’t until students went to court and actually sued the university that Stanford decided to improve its mental health services. Students had to pick away at Stanford’s image by escalating issues to the national stage, therefore inhibiting its ability to moral credential itself. 

On a basic level, this is unsettling. Students shouldn’t have to bring their schools to court just to get them to live up to their promises. One would expect a university to care about its students, regardless of the public relations consequences. But, in its current state, students need to go to such extremes to see real change on the Farm, rather than just big talk in emails. 

Students are keeping Stanford honest. As university releases elaborate public statements with sentiments that never seem to make it on campus, students are the ones able to see the hypocrisy first-hand. Stanford’s weak facade of moral credentialing is now challenged by a student community dedicated to meaningful improvement. Hopefully, students can keep the credentialing at bay.

Contact Kirsten Mettler at kmettler ‘at’

Kirsten Mettler '23 is an Executive Editor of The Stanford Daily. She is a former Managing Editor for Arts & Life and Desk Editor for News. Contact her at kmettler 'at'

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