We settled into the couches and bean bag chairs of the Columbae lounge, already in our pajamas for the evening. It was March 2017, and I was participating in an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip about the Bay Area housing crisis. That day, we’d already commuted to Oakland, visited three different nonprofit organizations, come back to campus, cooked dinner, cleaned up and regrouped. But ASB is synonymous with jam-packed itineraries and late-night conversations, so we still had another reflection session to squeeze in before bedtime that night. We talked about the rise of Silicon Valley and the displacement of low-income families who were lifelong residents of the region. Eventually, we took up the question of how we might solve the problem. One of my classmates suggested, not entirely in jest, that we should just abolish Stanford.
Most of the group snapped in agreement. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. After seven months at Stanford, I already felt a sense of defensive pride for my school. Sure, Stanford isn’t perfect, but isn’t it an educational institution? Doesn’t it do a lot of good for the community? I didn’t challenge my classmate’s suggestion, but it stuck with me — and it scared me. It threatened my clear-cut, idealistic understanding of the purpose of my college education. I had always planned to attend a prestigious school like Stanford, harness my knowledge and make a positive change in the world. My classmate’s comment pointed out something uncomfortable about that vision: Stanford is complicit in many of the problems that it claims to equip its students to solve.
Three years later, I still don’t believe that abolishing Stanford is a good response to the Bay Area housing crisis — or any other crisis, for that matter. But I now recognize that my classmate’s remark, however radical it seemed at the time, contains important and unsettling kernels of truth. Stanford is one of the five largest employers in Silicon Valley, a region where job growth far outpaces housing supply. Palo Alto contains 3.54 jobs for every housing unit, putting upward pressure on rent in the cities where Palo Alto’s workers actually live. No one expects Stanford to single-handedly mitigate this gap, but when pushed to build more housing, Stanford deflects responsibility and then claims it is already doing enough. Service workers at Stanford, like other wealthy Silicon Valley institutions, are often forced to choose between ungodly commutes and inadequate local housing options — hence the line of RVs on El Camino Real, just beyond the confines of the Stanford bubble.
Local community members resent Stanford’s stingy inaction. I once spoke with a formerly unhoused man who called Stanford “the giant medieval castle on the hill.” He lamented: “The least they could do is have a little peasant village on the street, and when they pull the drawbridge down at five o’clock in the afternoon, let the peasants leave the castle and go live in their little village.”
Meanwhile, Stanford alumni constitute a significant portion of Silicon Valley’s workforce, and bring Stanford’s biases with it. Our school touts the value of social change through “hacking” and “design thinking,” which are appropriate in some contexts, but not panaceas to every societal ill. While there are plenty of programs, classes and clubs that look beyond these buzzwords, it is certainly possible to spend four years at Stanford and never engage with social problems in a sustained and critical way — and so we graduate from Stanford with impressive résumés, high ambitions and the same dangerous blind spots as our alma mater. Stanford offers abundant career counseling resources, but few opportunities to interrogate how our own housing and career choices fuel social and economic inequalities.
Our school is a poor model of civic responsibility, priding itself on solving problems without acknowledging how it is implicated in them. The starkest example of this attitude is in the University’s approach to climate change. In an act of infuriating and meme-worthy irony, the Faculty Senate voted against fossil fuel divestment just one week after Stanford announced that it would create a school focused on climate and sustainability. The following day, as protests against police brutality began to sweep the nation, Provost Persis Drell sent an email to the Stanford community, with the subject line “Confronting Racial Injustice.” Her message emphasizes Stanford’s commitment to “using the university’s intellectual resources and wellspring of talent to further address social inequity,” and yet the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute remains housed in a temporary building, shamefully neglected and underfunded.
This piece might seem like the reflection of a disillusioned soon-to-be-alumna who once felt pride in Stanford and is now ready to say good riddance. That certainly isn’t the case. Paradoxically, my love of Stanford has only deepened since spring break of 2017, when I recoiled at the suggestion that Stanford might bear some blame for the housing crisis. Stanford’s complicity in injustice does not detract from the joy and purposefulness that I felt nearly every single day of my undergraduate career. Up through the last weeks of winter quarter, I still felt a sense of magic every time I biked through Main Quad at sunset, looked out onto campus from the peak of the Dish, or walked home from a lecture that made me look at the world in a new light.
My contradictory feelings toward Stanford — the site of my incredible college experience, and the object of my frustrations — can make for some bizarre moments of cognitive dissonance. Within the span of an hour, I can vehemently agree with an article in a national newsmagazine that slams Stanford’s COVID research, and break down in tears because I miss campus so much. I am ashamed that Stanford, unlike its rival school, refuses to divest from fossil fuels, but I still wore my “Buck Ferkeley” sweatshirt at every Big Game and cheered on the Cardinal with pride. I cherished celebratory undergraduate events like Senior Nights and block parties on the Row, even though I know that Stanford could better allocate its resources to food-insecure graduate students.
My approach to Stanford was, admittedly, a bit hypocritical. On most days, I set aside my misgivings about Stanford and just enjoyed what college had to offer. I sat in idyllic courtyards and basked in California sunshine, gratefully and uncritically. Every time I passed through Main Quad, I felt a sense of surrealness. Something about its iconic imagery always made me think, “Wait, this is where I am right now. Do I really go to Stanford? How did I get so lucky?” Of course, it takes a lot of labor to maintain that quintessential Stanford scenery. Landscapers, custodians and other service workers keep our campus postcard-perfect. In return, Stanford treats them as less-than-complete members of our community, only considering their wellbeing when pressured to do so. It took weeks of sustained student activism for Stanford to agree to pay continuation for subcontracted workers. With impending changes to residential life, many workers face uncertain futures, even after serving Stanford for decades and making campus feel like home for generations of students. I am uncomfortable with Stanford’s narrow conception of community, but I will reap the lifelong benefits of my privileged place within it.
Today, I will graduate from an institution that exists because Leland Stanford, who proclaimed that he “prefer[red] free white citizens to any other class or race,” exploited Chinese workers and used his fortune to build a school on stolen Muwekma Ohlone land. But no amount of shame in Stanford’s history, or its ongoing complicity in injustice, can negate the joy, growth and discovery that I experienced at this place. Is it hypocritical to forever cherish my memories at Stanford, and even feel grateful to it? Is it possible to hold Stanford pride in an ethical way? As an alumna, these are hard questions that I will ask myself every time Stanford sends a fundraising plea. I don’t know what it will take for Stanford to convince me to send in a check someday. All I can promise is that I will always cheer on Stanford, even when Cal makes better choices for the planet. I will be proud when Stanford acts as a force for good in the world, and vocal when it falls short. I will try to maintain the difficult balance between appreciation and criticism, and keep on pushing Stanford to be worthy of my love for it.
Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at stanford.edu.
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