More than 1,700 back petition calling on Stanford to support King Institute

June 5, 2020, 3:13 a.m.

Students began circulating a petition on Tuesday calling on Stanford to provide greater support for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford, amid continued criticism that the University has provided inadequate funding and housing for the institute. The petition gathered more than 500 signatures within 24 hours and has now surpassed 1,700 signatures.

The King Institute publishes the papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., along with other general and scholarly books, and provides document-based lesson plans, online educational resources and historical materials pertaining to the “modern African American Freedom Struggle” and King’s vision. The King Institute also hosts programs and events to contribute to the understanding of King’s life, legacy and ideas.

According to King Institute Director Clayborne Carson, the institute operates on a yearly budget of around $500,000. It is still housed in Cypress Hall D, a part of a group of portables used as offices and conference rooms at the end of the Engineering Quad. This location in a temporary building has long dismayed Carson, who told The Mercury News in January that he is concerned about the institute’s future given Stanford’s lack of support.

Carson told The Daily that he did not know about the recent petition until a student alerted him to it.

“It’s a complicated issue, and I’m glad to get support,” Carson said. “I’m happy to see that students are concerned about it.”

Carson added that funding the institute does not seem to be important to the University.

“My feeling also is that everything that Stanford really sees as vital to its public face will get funded and will be around for a long time,” he said.

The petition, written by Josh Adamson ’20, calls on Stanford to “Increase yearly financial and development support for the King Institute” and to “pledge to build a permanent home for the Institute.”

Cypress Hall is located in a “vibrant part of campus,” and “the building provides ample space for the important research conducted at the Institute at a time when space can be difficult to find on campus,” School of Humanities and Sciences spokesperson Joy Leighton told The Mercury News.

Gregory Clark ’20, a former intern at the institute, wrote in a statement to The Daily, “It means a lot as a former researcher to finally see attention being shown to the disregard” for the institute.

“The MLK Institute has been consistently overlooked and under-appreciated by Stanford’s administration,” Clark wrote in an email to The Daily. “It is laughable that Stanford claims that the MLK Institute is in a vibrant part of campus to divert attention from the fact that the Institute is in a temporary building and giving it little funding.”

Adamson said that he became upset after he read about “the way Stanford has treated” the institute, which drove him to take action.

He cited Provost Persis Drell’s campus-wide email on “Confronting Racial Injustice” as further motivation. 

“As Provost Drell pointed out, the issues of today stem from ‘systemic issues of racism, inequality and injustice that have plagued our social fabric across history. We condemn this history,’” Adamson wrote in the petition. “Perhaps the best way to condemn this history is to learn more about it and grapple with what it can teach us today in this moment.”

Signatories of the petition hope it holds the University accountable and pushes the administration to provide the Institute with more resources. 

“I hope the petition brings attention to this problem and brings about more administrative accountability to fund the MLK Institute,” Clark wrote. “I also hope this isn’t a temporary moment and that students will continue to apply pressure to the administration so the funding demands are met.” 

Carson, who is set to retire in August, said the University had not made the King Institute a priority. He said he has not sat down with a Stanford president for a formal meeting to discuss his work since the 1980s, although presidents have come to visit the Institute and talk with him more informally.

“In some ways I probably have less influence than I had at the beginning,” Carson said. “Stanford is a big place with lots of different priorities, and for the last 20 years, the priority has been building the sciences.”

He said it’s unclear how the King Institute fits into Stanford’s long-term vision.

“The planning and trying to look at what Stanford’s long-term values are — that’s important stuff. But it’s still just not really being made clear where and how the King Institute fits into that.”

School of Humanities and Sciences Dean Debra Staz told The Daily she is “working to maintain the MLK Institute’s strong position into the future.” She did not address its funding.

The recent search for a new director in light of Carson’s retirement was “not successful,” Satz wrote in her statement to The Daily. 

“When we hire a new director, they will bring a vision for the Institute that will address the Institute’s funding as well as the location of the Institute,” Satz added.

Carson hopes the petition will increase visibility for the institute, motivating alumni to make donations earmarked specifically for it.

“Stanford alums exercise enormous power,” he said, adding that a $1,000 donation each from 500 alumni would almost entirely alleviate the institute’s fundraising problems. “But, again, the visibility has to be there.” 

Carson said the work of the King Institute is both unique and important, warranting more attention from the University.

“The King Institute represents more than just [King’s] papers,” Carson said, describing the institute’s other initiatives such as the Liberation Curriculum and the Gandhi-King Conference. “Every Friday, we have a Zoom meeting, and it has people from India, South Africa, South America, Europe, all participating, all trying to build a network of social justice organizations. That activity is worthy of Stanford support, and we could be doing a lot more.”

Students and alumni who have worked at the institute said they have found tremendous value in its research.

“I’m proud to work here and it’s an honor to be a part of King’s legacy in this way and at this time,” wrote Truman Chen B.A. ’17 M.A. ’18, a research and administrative assistant at the institute, in a statement to The Daily.

“The Institute provided me and many other former researchers skills that we will continue to use in our careers,” Clark wrote. “It is a unique and vital place for humanities research on campus, on top of continuing the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It must be adequately supported.”

This article has been updated to include additional information from Carson on his contact with Stanford presidents. 

Contact Danielle Echeverria at dech23 ‘at’

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