Why I’m not donating to Stanford post-graduation

Opinion by Ethan Chua
June 15, 2020, 9:05 p.m.

As a graduating senior of the Class of 2020, and as an international student with class privilege, I’ve been reflecting on where to dedicate my financial resources post-graduation. It’s often customary for graduating seniors to donate a largely symbolic amount to their alma mater, as a token of gratitude and a sign of future commitment to their university. However, after witnessing Stanford’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its consistently lackluster response to the demands of the Black community, I cannot in good conscience donate a portion of my income to Stanford University’s general funds. 

Instead, I am pledging to stand with Students for Workers’ Rights in boycotting donations to the University’s general funds until it extends hazard pay and guaranteed income to all workers, including contracted workers, through the next academic year. I am also pledging to instead commit 10% of my income over the next year to Students for Workers’ Rights and the national Movement for Black Lives. (In solidarity with Black students, FLI students, and other students of color, this boycott does not extend to community centers, FLI-related programs, and the King Institute.)

Let me get specific about why I am choosing to boycott donations to Stanford. Stanford University has the third-largest endowment among universities in the United States, with an endowment of about $27.7 billion dollars last fiscal year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, despite my deep skepticism of the entrenched financial privilege this figure symbolizes, I presumed that the endowment at least existed as a safety valve in case of extreme emergencies for the University community. But when COVID-19 hit, an existential crisis of global proportions, I watched as Stanford not only refused to dig into its endowment to support its most vulnerable community members, but actively denied income and benefits to its contracted workers, many of whom have worked for the University for decades.

Although I acknowledge that much of the endowment is restricted, restricted endowment funds compose only 23% of the University’s total revenue pool. Where I had previously given Stanford the benefit of the doubt — in this case, that its financial resources could be mobilized in an emergency situation to support its community — I found that the endowment only really existed for Stanford’s own unlimited fiscal growth. When the University declined to assist contracted workers, student activists (including myself) at Students for Workers’ Rights had to spearhead mutual aid efforts for the workers, which ended up raising over $150,000 from students and faculty at a time when the University was providing nothing. Only after a months-long pressure campaign backed by over 700 faculty members and notable alumni such as Julian and Joaquin Castro did the administration agree to pay contracted workers — and even then, it took more than a month to send UG2 workers their first installments.

Likewise, I’ve seen Stanford consistently fail its Black community, quickly drafted statements of solidarity by the administration after the murder of George Floyd notwithstanding. For years, the King Institute has languished in a small shed on-campus literally overshadowed by the nearby engineering quad (incidentally, it’s right next to the Service Employees International Union’s Local 2007 office, an amusing fact of landscaping that also doubles as a metaphor for Stanford’s treatment of its Black students and its service workers, respectively); it’s taken students’ own initiative to raise money for the institute, which is home to America’s most comprehensive collection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings. Likewise, Stanford’s historic African and African American Studies program has gone for years without being a department, which means it is unable to hire or retain faculty and graduate students, thus seriously limiting the vitality of Black scholarship at Stanford. The Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity’s lackluster response to a non-Black guest lecturer’s utterance of the N-word this quarter is only emblematic of a university that consistently fails to invest in Black communities. As a non-Black student, there are serious existential limits to my understanding of what Black students at Stanford go through; but as an Asian student well-aware of both systemic anti-Blackness in the Asian community and poignant moments of Black-Asian solidarity, I refuse to donate my money to an institution so recklessly indifferent to the flourishing of Black lives. The King Institute and African and African American Studies give the lie to any declarations by politically savvy administrators that they too believe that Black lives matter.

To close, let me say that while my decision to boycott Stanford’s general funds is a personal one, I believe that our decisions around university endowments have deep systemic consequences. At a meeting with some members of the Board of Trustees I attended in New York last spring as part of the Stanford in New York program, a student asked a trustee about what priorities governed their use of the endowment, and he responded that the endowment was designed to guarantee Stanford’s existence in perpetuity — for the next several centuries, at least. This answer should be nothing less than chilling to us, who live on an earth which may not be habitable in the next century, while members of the faculty senate voted just recently to continue investing in fossil fuels. If that sounds hard to believe, listen to former president John Hennessy himself balk on interview when Malcolm Gladwell asks him whether he’d consider devoting some of Stanford’s endowment to the UC public schooling system on his podcast — Gladwell incredulously asks Hennessy whether there are any limits to the endowment, and Hennessy responds that he doesn’t believe there should be limits to the University’s ambition. But the time-scale of the endowment — the infinite time of finance capital — does not require a habitable planet, or properly protected service workers, or Black lives. 

That’s why I’m calling on my fellow graduating seniors and members of the Class of 2020, as well as Stanford alumni as a whole, to join me in boycotting donations to Stanford, and instead committing our graduation gifts and future income to service workers and Black communities (both on-campus and nationally) here: bit.ly/stanford-grad-pledge. In addition, I’m inviting you to join more than 700 graduating seniors and alumni in boycotting donations to Stanford’s general funds pending their commitment to pay, protection, and transparency for all service workers, including contracted ones here: bit.ly/alumpledge.

A previous version of this article stated that restricted funds comprise 23% of the endowment. In fact, restricted funds comprise 23% of the University revenue pool not the endowment. The Daily regrets this error.

A previous version of this article misidentified former Stanford President John Hennessy as former Provost John Etchemendy. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Ethan Chua at ezlc327 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com. 

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