Reverse Town Hall: Open-letter invitation to admin

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As the COVID-19 crisis and protests against anti-Black state violence have continued to unfold across the country, Stanford’s administration has shown itself to be wholly unprepared to confront the challenges of this historical moment. Over the last several months, the administration has, time and again, offered statements on the pervasive institutional racism, economic instability and public health threats affecting students’ lives only after students themselves have issued demands. We have been both disappointed and unsurprised by the emptiness of these statements and by the administration’s failure to commit to implementing substantive changes.

The situation could not be more clear: it is the student body, and not Stanford’s administration, that is leading the way toward a more just and equitable future for this University. Since March of this year, students have formulated demands on a wide range of issues, including the departmentalization of the African and African American Studies Program, the defunding and disarmament of campus police, proactive advocacy and support for our noncitizen student community, fair implementation of the new Title IX regulations, the establishment and expansion of University resources dedicated to meeting students’ basic needs and an equitable and long-term COVID-19 response plan for graduate students. We have drafted, circulated, signed and submitted petitions; written op-eds; spoken with members of the administration; organized virtual actions as well as in-person rallies; and attended the University’s town halls. 

The beginning of fall quarter is only weeks away, and the administration has yet to release a plan detailing its efforts to address our concerns. As a result, Abolish Stanford, the Black Graduate Students Association, Sexual Violence Free Stanford, the Stanford Basic Needs Coalition and the Stanford Solidarity Network are proud to announce that we have formed a coalition working to amplify the student body’s demands. On Sept. 10 at 1:30 p.m. PST, with the co-sponsorship of the Graduate Student Council, we will host a Reverse Town Hall and publish our collective recommendations in the form of a “Roadmap to Reopening with Equity and Justice.” We invite President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Vice Provosts Stacey Bent and Susie Brubaker-Cole — as well as faculty, staff and students — to join us to discuss our proposed plans and answer our many questions about how the University intends to address the impacts of state-sanctioned white supremacy, a pandemic and a global economic crisis. We hope that the University will be able to produce clear, appropriate and meaningful commitments as a result of this conversation.

The University administration often says they want to “hear us,” but this usually takes the form of an impersonal survey of atomized students or a Town Hall where executive-level administrators hold the mic while the community waits silently for promises of action. With so many urgent issues to address — and in a time of extreme isolation from our intellectual, social, spiritual and other communities — the Reverse Town Hall format both brings these communities together to hear each other and lets us discuss our communities’ demands and steps to make Stanford a just and equitable place to learn, work and live. The following sections provide a high-level overview of our communities’ issues and demands that will be addressed during the Reverse Town Hall.

Building space for Black Studies 

Stanford University cannot truly condemn or fight anti-Black racism while simultaneously neglecting the ongoing calls of students, faculty, staff and alumni to departmentalize the African and African American Studies Program (AAAS). We envision AAAS as a nationally recognized leader in teaching, researching and producing scholarship in the field of Black Studies — a goal which can be achieved by recruiting more faculty who are trained and specialize in Black Studies, broadening and deepening our curriculum, fully supporting our undergraduate and graduate students, funding our innovative programming and hiring staff members to support our mission. Still, the University has failed to adequately support the program or offer concrete steps toward departmentalization, instead resorting to silence and inaction. This response is no longer sufficient.

We demand that in the 2020-2021 academic year the University outline a clear path to departmentalization for the African and African American Studies Program over the next five years. This path to departmentalization must include sustained funding for the department and a cluster-hire of Black Studies scholars to ensure that the lack of intradepartmental resources no longer impacts the ability of AAAS to fully support its students. Recognizing that the immediate needs of students and staff must be addressed before the goal of departmentalization is met, we demand that the University provide resources to support the urgent needs of the program while developing a plan for departmentalization within the 2020-2021 academic year; these resources include a commitment to support two lines of funding for postdoctoral fellows who do the important work of meeting student demand, teaching key courses and creating an academic program befitting Stanford’s stature. Also, the University must commit to making the current Research Fellow appointment a permanent position, as the AAAS Research Fellow has played a critical role in developing programming for graduate students and increasing research opportunities for undergraduates. Finally, the University must appoint a designated Development Officer to secure resources from donors and other institutions interested in supporting AAAS initiatives.

The African and African American Studies Program plays a critical role in the social, political and intellectual vitality of our campus community — if the University seeks to demonstrate a true commitment to combating anti-Blackness both on- and off-campus, it must begin by supporting the African and African American Studies Program in this endeavor.

Defunding and disarming campus police

We stand in solidarity with the George Floyd Rebellion. Our collective emerged with the immediate aim of amplifying the demands articulated in the Letter to Stanford President Regarding Policing on Campus and the long-term aim of pursuing total abolition of police, prisons and ICE at Stanford and across the peninsula. We seek to build a coalition with all who oppose racialized state violence in its many forms, from the specific apparatuses of policing, surveillance, prisons and detention centers to the systemic forces of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. We invite the Stanford administration to join us in this struggle for liberation, to go beyond the one-year deferral of Stanford University Department of Public Safety (SUDPS) contract negotiations and to seek a transformation of “public safety” on our campus from one of policing, surveillance and profit extraction to one of trust, care and reparation.

Our specific demands are altered slightly from those in the June letter, and are as follows:

Reparations: SUDPS was involved in the murder of 20-year-old Pedro Calderon on Stanford’s campus in 2002. Pedro’s family and community in East Palo Alto still have not seen any semblance of justice or reparations from Stanford or any of the governmental entities involved in the murder or its investigation. We call on Stanford to seek justice for Pedro Calderon, to provide reparations to his family and the community of East Palo Alto and to ensure no one is ever murdered on our campus again.

Dismiss and disarm: We call on Stanford to end the memorandum of understanding between the University and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office that deputizes SUDPS officers to carry firearms and benefit from the unusual protections of county peace officers. This memorandum effectively provides Stanford’s private police force the immunity of a public police force, but without public accountability, and thus sets a dangerous precedent for “public-private” policing.

Defund and divert: We call on Stanford to end its contract with SUDPS, and to thereafter continually decrease the police budget and allocate that money to avenues that nourish our community rather than punish it, including the SARA office, a fund to replace stolen property, financial aid and basic needs for all community members and resources for the surrounding communities impacted by Stanford-driven gentrification.

Desist and de-escalate: We call on Stanford to train all community members in de-escalation and in alternatives to calling the police. We also advocate for a Stanford-specific switchboard for emergency calls that will route us to a non-carceral crisis response that is more appropriate and effective than police.

Disclose: We call on Stanford and SUDPS to make available its policies on use of force, including deadly force, as well as ethical behavior, de-escalation protocols, misconduct investigation protocols, department budget and agreements with the city of Palo Alto and Santa Clara county. We also call for the release of data on officer records, including misconduct; racial and gender-based profiling in stops, citations and arrests; and outcomes of investigations into misconduct. Finally, we demand student positions with veto power in all decision-making bodies related to campus policing.

Responding to the COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare long-standing issues of equity and affordability at Stanford that its administration has consistently refused to acknowledge. These are structural issues that in “normal times” left many people in our community — students, faculty, staff and especially contract workers — vulnerable, at risk. On top of this baseline precarity, the global pandemic has forced workers to face lost job opportunities and summer funding, financial instability for housing, involuntary re-entry into labs during shelter-in-place and lack of protections for international students. It is obvious that the status quo at Stanford is not sustainable, and leaves our graduate community open to physical, emotional, financial and academic danger. Nowhere is this danger more evident than the recent announcement of the “campus compact,” which many have interpreted as an attempt to coerce students into assuming all of the liability of living and working on campus while threatening to revoke their financial and housing security.

Stanford’s initial response to the pandemic focused on short-term appeasements like expanding the Emergency Grant-in-Aid (which is still not available for housing and other standard living expenses) and the creation of 30 new competitive postdoctoral opportunities, rather than supporting students whose lives and work have been upended by this crisis and need more time and funding to complete their degrees. We are pleased the administration is taking a first step toward ensuring the financial security of its graduate community by providing five years of guaranteed 12-month funding, finally responding to years of research and advocacy by Stanford Solidarity Network and allies. There is a long road ahead, however, in creating equitable opportunities for all graduate students.

We are calling on Stanford to fully acknowledge the struggle of affordability in the Bay Area during this crisis by extending graduate funding timelines and establishing rent at federally recognized minimum levels. We demand that Stanford end the power imbalance between students and PIs that allows for the exploitation of the former through threats to their financial, career and physical safety by creating an official, University-wide channel for reporting power-abuse issues by faculty members in a way that protects the safety of researchers and holds abusive faculty members accountable. Further, we demand acknowledgment of the mental and emotional toll on students trying to make progress on their work amid a global pandemic, a long-overdue racial justice reckoning from, for example, a fascist call-to-arms and a militarized crackdown against civilian populations nation-wide by expanding and providing mental health services that were insufficient even before these crises, and now have completely frozen the system. Making support for these services systematized, rather than focusing on one-off exceptions, is critical in making them accessible to students — particularly true during what is, for many of us, our hardest time in grad school. Now is the time for the University to support us, because so far, it has utterly failed to do so.

Standing up for international and undocumented students 

For the past four years, our noncitizen student community has been under sustained attack. While this was the reality for undocumented students long before the Trump administration, the aim of the current administration’s policies has been clear: to be as cruel and unwelcoming as possible. From the Muslim ban and ongoing family separation, through repeated assaults on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the asylum system, to the most recent ICE policies regarding student visas and online courses, the goal has been to make noncitizens feel unwelcome or to force them out. These policies are not abstract for the thousands of members of the Stanford community who are not U.S. citizens. The uncertainty and financial and emotional stress faced by international and undocumented students has significantly worsened since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, the University’s response to the combination of the pandemic and the federal government’s attack on our community has been woefully inadequate. We need a University that will fight for its community members and truly support them in this historic moment of crisis. 

We see four areas in need of reform: increased and more timely communication with our noncitizen student community, the establishment of a center to more actively advocate for its noncitizen community members, increased legal support and emergency grant provisions.

Meeting students’ basic needs

The rapid decision to remove nearly all undergraduates from campus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic left students with emotional and financial whiplash as they struggled to find a safe way to leave and a safe place to go without any assistance from the University. The Stanford Basic Needs Coalition was formed in response to the needs of Stanford students going unmet over the past several months in the wake of the pandemic. In March, the members of the Coalition raised and distributed over $250,000 to other students who needed it for transportation home, short-term housing and storage costs and more. Immediately after the pandemic news broke, a Community Offerings spreadsheet was created and has fulfilled dozens of requests from students who were left suddenly without housing or transportation and needed emergency assistance. This work has continued throughout the pandemic, most recently with the creation of a new fundraising campaign in anticipation of further need for financial assistance for students whose short- and long-term plans are in a continual state of flux.

We believe Stanford can commit to doing more to ensure affordability and equity for its students. There are several steps Stanford should take, including:

  • Expanding the services covered by the Emergency Grant-in-Aid for graduate students.
  • Expanding funding for the FLI Opportunity Fund and QT Fund.
  • Creating an additional emergency fund made available to all undergraduate students regardless of expected contribution.
  • Preparing now for future moments of crisis in both the near- and long-term — if another situation arises in which large portions of the student population are asked to leave campus quickly, we call on Stanford to commit to the rapid disbursement of funds to fully cover transportation, short-term housing and moving costs for affected students.
  • Facilitating the evaluation of basic needs at Stanford, through institutionally supporting studies of food and housing security at Stanford.
  • Creating a dedicated Basic Needs Center committed to connecting students to available resources for meeting their basic needs.

For Stanford to reopen in a way that is safe and equitable, the University must commit to meeting the basic needs of all students. We hope that Stanford will work to fulfill these pressing financial needs and is open to engaging in dialogue about how they can be accomplished.

An open invitation to attend 

All of the organizations in this coalition are working on issues of the utmost logistical and moral urgency. This work will define Stanford, as well as higher education and our societies, for years to come. We want to emphasize that our coalition represents only a fraction of the concerns Stanford students and postdocs have mentioned in recent months. Despite President Tessier-Lavigne’s claiming the University “need[s] to do more and act with even greater urgency to create an inclusive, accessible, diverse and equitable university for all our members” and “commit to embracing ideas for producing concrete, long-lasting change,” we have yet to hear a committed response from the University on any of the demands from student groups.

It is particularly unconscionable that we have yet to see any substantive communication on the issues of systemic racism at Stanford and economic justice for the University’s subcontracted workers. Nearly three months have passed since a coalition of Black student and postdoc groups and their allies published an open letter with a comprehensive list of actions the University should take in the short- and long-term to achieve racial equity. Nearly four months have passed since President Tessier-Lavigne promised that Stanford would continue to pay UG2 workers through August — yet Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR) reports that 75% of these workers haven’t received pay continuance, and that the “workforce still employed on campus is severely understaffed, especially given their increased workload”; SWR also notes that workers are being given knee pads instead of hazard pay.

Similarly, the administration recently ignored 23 out of 25 of the ASSU’s recommendations in their draft Title IX policy, further signaling the continued and pervasive lack of transparency and community consultation on the issues that most directly affect them. While some of these student suggestions were ultimately incorporated into the final policy released on Friday following a brief comment period, questions remain about how survivors of sexual violence will be protected under this new policy. We stand in solidarity with the demands of our coalition members and allies, and together stress the need for these concerns to be carefully and comprehensively taken into account.

The reopening of the University amid multiple social, economic, ecological and public health crises presents a unique opportunity to reforge the dynamics and structures in place that keep our community safe and allow it to thrive socially and intellectually. We feel it critical to come together to discuss our interlocking campaigns for justice and equity at Stanford, and to demand a response from the administration.

Ours is a shared vision of a university committed to dismantling white supremacy in the academy and establishing an anti-racist praxis; a university that is a national and international leader in Black Studies; a university dedicated to transformative justice and to ending the violent institution of policing; a university that prioritizes the well-being of its graduate students; a university that protects and defends its noncitizen student and staff communities; a university that ensures that the basic needs of its students and staff are met; and a university that places a higher value on the safety of those impacted by sexual violence and harassment than on its reputation.

We look forward to sharing this vision with the Stanford community, and hopefully the University administration, on Sept. 10 at 1:30 p.m. PST. To join us, RSVP at bit.ly/reversetownhall.

—Abolish Stanford, the Black Graduate Students Association, Sexual Violence Free Stanford, the Stanford Basic Needs Coalition and the Stanford Solidarity Network.

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