Democracy against, not within, the University

Nov. 3, 2020, 10:55 p.m.

Our expectations for what university life holds have been radically altered. Seniors have maybe one quarter of in-person interaction before them. First-years rely on Zoom to build formative friendships. Online classes and socials are a bare bones distillation of the robust and self-fashioning experience college is promised to be. Community members — from instructors with children to service workers without hazard pay — have been left to improvise a new normal. The supposed utopia of college life, though never fully realized for most Stanford affiliates, no longer seems conceivable, even as an ideal. 

But as has been said again and again, this moment presents an opportunity to step back and scrutinize the gap between reality and promised ideals — and to perhaps do better. This kind of scrutiny is also needed when it comes to Stanford’s mission and its behavior, its contours in our current reality. And when we do so, we can see that Stanford’s mission to promote democratic virtues and engaged citizenship is being realized — but precisely by resisting the University’s undemocratic practice.  


One aspect of Stanford’s mission is to train students for civic engagement during and beyond our time at the University. This mission is signaled at all levels, on multiple fronts. From a Founding Grant that hopes students “exercise an influence on behalf of humanity and the public good” to a new First-Year Shared Intellectual Experience that will engage all first-year undergraduates in the study of citizenship, we are continually reminded that to be a good Stanford student is to be a good, engaged citizen. The proposal for the First-Year Experience, for example, argues all Stanford graduates should “recognize that every community, from the smallest club to the largest nation, needs engaged citizens who can distinguish between self-interest and the common good. Accordingly, they need to know how to discover, and how to debate, what is in the common good.” All of this is presumably done so that all graduates can enact this known common good and be engaged citizens. The proposal posits, “Concerns about democracy, public service, and ethical reasoning are deeply baked into Stanford’s DNA.”

There remains a tension, however, between Stanford’s promised democracy and its internal organization. While the University can certainly teach us to recognize, evaluate and pursue ideals of democratic citizenship beyond its walls, there remain extreme examples where the values of democracy clash with or are resisted by the internal structure of the university. It is no secret that students are not afforded an equal vote to someone on the Board of Trustees. Nor is it a revelation that decisions can and often are made unilaterally by the administration. Tenets of democracy such as accountability and transparency go unrealized and sometimes undemanded in the governance of the University.  More worryingly, democratic equality — among students themselves, between faculty and students working under them, between donors and non-donors, and between workers and administrators — is missing, partly by design, and partly through decision-making that resists popular consensus. So there is a tension between Stanford’s promise to train us to recognize and exercise democratic virtues and its failure to be accountable to these virtues in its governance.

On some level, this is an unsurprising tension. Beyond a learning community, universities are business ventures, publishers, athletic communities and competitors in global innovation. Their manifold mission might resist horizontal or power-sharing governance. Maybe a university, especially a private and investment-oriented one like ours, is not the type of thing that can be democratic in its entirety. As such, the question ‘How democratic is the University?’ has a relatively easy answer. But ‘How democratic should the University be?’ is a more difficult and open question.

Insofar as Stanford believes certain democratic values are worth instantiating in “every community, from the smallest club to the largest nation,” perhaps the simplest answer is that the University should be more democratic than it is now. It is painfully self-contradictory when classroom discussion addresses how the U.S. has marginalized Black Americans since its creation, but community members are met with resistance and deflection in their attempts to departmentalize African and African American Studies (AAAS) at the University. It is a problem when we study the equality of co-citizens, and the importance of meaningful representation in politics, but have only 2 of 25 student-sourced proposals for the Title IX policy pilot implemented.

But this moment, with its unprecedented disruption, also brings a new sort of democracy to campus and illuminates a nuance: just because the university is not internally democratic, and might never be, does not make it averse to democratic practice. In its aversion to democratic power relations, the University helps students, indirectly and paradoxically, become and realize a democratic mode of being. Democracy is realized in resistance to non-democracy. 


This year has shown that a university need not be internally democratic to be conducive to democratic thinking, values and practices. This shift in the tenor of campus activism is the best example of that nuance. Stanford Students for Workers’ Rights (SWR), for example, have spearheaded a campaign of advocacy and fundraising for service workers facing heightened financial insecurity and precarious work conditions in the pandemic. Through the pandemic, students raised over $300,000 to support laid off service workers, capping off their fundraising campaign in July by raising over $30,000 in 12 days. In their efforts, student activists have presented a different definition of community, one that includes the people that truly keep this school up and running — a departure only radical in comparison to the capitalist and neoliberal logics of the University as an institution. In this way students put forward their own model of participatory and democratic thinking and practice, advocating for a model of citizenship outside the myopic constitution of the academic community. 

Likewise, activism around University accountability broadly presents something that is explicitly democratic — community members claiming a stake in the decision-making. September’s Reverse Town Hall, for example, saw a coalition of activist groups come together to raise grievances and demands to University administrators. “The University administration often says they want to ‘hear us,’” the event organizers wrote, “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.” The reverse town hall format sought to upend that relation. In their resistance to the University, community members realize a democratic mode of being. 

From student athletes whose sports were cancelled to graduate students left without recourse on multiple fronts to undocumented students who have long known precarity, we have seen — and helped edit op-eds about — unprecedented student awareness of issues of citizenship and responsible civic engagement at the institutional level. 

These efforts reveal how democracy in the University is revealed precisely by disrupting the University’s status quo. The dominant mode of operation — in which the University displays a stunning refusal to change in response to years (if not decades) of student activism — is incongruous to the democratic ideals higher education often espouses. And perhaps, as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten note in “The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study,” the University can never fundamentally be a “place of enlightenment” in that it will never actively seek to disrupt the reproduction of these inequities. Colleges tend to sell themselves as bastions of democracy (or, at the very least, democratic thought) but the previous model was anything but that in reality. By design the University is hierarchical. It is monopolistic and tends toward unilateral decision-making, rarely involving community members in a substantive way.  What is precisely “unprecedented” and “destabilizing” about this current moment is its demands that the University live up to its own ideals, becoming the place of enlightenment it advertises itself as. 


But this in itself raises a number of questions, as the material conditions that undergird this moment don’t seem to be leaving any time soon. Is this movement sustainable? Will it enact sustainable changes in the University structure? The energy for student activism seems to be increasing, rather than waning, and one can only hope that such a trend will continue as the quarter continues and we navigate a momentous national election. But a central question of this pandemic is whether the structural changes it brought about — from remote working arrangements to online schooling — will persist in our return to “normal.” And how will that new “normal” bode for student activism and participatory politics, as grievances are met with acceptance or rejection? Will the contours of the University change, or will activism itself take on a different tenor? Put differently, is the neoliberal University able to withstand the new consciousness of students — or is a new version of the University incoming?

We cannot answer these questions, though a case could be made for either route. In his essay “Black Study, Black Struggle,” Robin Kelley explores the question of college activism in the wake of the Ferguson uprising. He distills student activism into two camps — modest and radical critics of the university. The modest critics, he notes, hold the fundamental belief that the university “is supposed to be an enlightened space free of bias and prejudice, but the pursuit of this promise is hindered by structural racism and patriarchy.” Latent in this assumption is the belief that the university is perfectible — it is simply falling short of this ideal. And perhaps that reading applies in understanding this trend in campus activism as a democratic practice. But the far more compelling possibility lies in the second camp  — the more radical critics of the university. These students, he writes, are less optimistic about the university’s capacity to change. “There students are not fighting for a ‘supportive’ educational environment,” Kelley surmises, “but a liberated one that not only promotes but also models social and economic justice.” One of this camp’s goals is a project of demystification, of “unveiling the university’s exploitative practices and its deeply embedded structures of racism, sexism, and class inequality.”

It is this demystification that makes its application to this moment compelling. The logical terminus of that demystification is seeing the university in a new light — one that is not divorceable from hegemonies it claims haven from, but rather reproduces them by definition. In this reality, either student activism or the University must change. Perhaps the future holds the relationship described in “The Undercommons” — a state of being in but not of the university. In this schema, Harney and Moten elucidate a new relationship between the university and the student: “In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can.” The future holds a potential that, if this year is any indicator, will be difficult to predict. 


However, we can celebrate the fact that students have been changed. As the editors of opinions for this volume, we’ve had the privilege of bearing witness to this shift over the past months. In the previous volume, our predecessors wrote on the meaning of the opinions section, confronted by the community shifts brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. Those shifts have not abated since, and we cannot help but reflect on the place of discourse and democratic practice in our community in their wake. 

We have reimagined our relationship to the university and what is in our power and right as “citizens” of this institution, despite its non-democracy. Perhaps that in itself is revealing. The best lesson in civic engagement and democratic training we’ve had thus far has been in resisting the University and its agenda — whether by expanding the definition of a “citizen” or by ensuring that democratic practice operates as advertised. The unsure end of this moment does not change that. “The paradox of education is precisely this,” James Baldwin noted in a 1963 speech, “that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which [they] are being educated.” And perhaps that is the true value of our education at the University. Our true education in democratic ideals at the University lies in destabilizing it.  

Contact Layo Laniyan at olaniyan ‘at’ and Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’

Layo Laniyan ’22 is the former Executive Editor for Vol. 259 and former editor of Opinions for Vol. 258. He is a senior from Houston, Texas, majoring in English with a focus in black studies and the history of medicine.Megha Parwani '22 was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volumes 258 and 259. She designed Frankly Speaking, a crowd-sourced opinion column, and served on the Editorial Board for Volumes 259, 258, and 256. She is double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. Contact her at mparwani 'at'

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