Opinion | Mapping Stanford: A campus tour of institutional priorities

Opinion by Sarah Myers
Feb. 11, 2021, 7:39 p.m.

Since Stanford decided that frosh and sophomores would not be returning to campus for winter quarter a mere two days before classes started, I’ve been pondering how to offer our classmates the support that Stanford cannot (or perhaps will not). It’s impossible to replace the community-building and intellectual development that these students are missing. However, I think it might be possible to offer a pale imitation of the campus experience. 

Some of Stanford’s campus experience is very easy to imitate; find a busy intersection and spend the five minutes before your classes begin dashing through it on a bike without a helmet (do not actually do this). Find a sunny patch of grass, bring your textbooks, call your friends, pretend they’re there with you and do not open your textbooks. Yet other parts of the campus experience are much more difficult to replicate. Seeing campus through professor’s Zoom backgrounds does not reveal the priorities communicated by Stanford’s decisions about which buildings to build and where to build them. 

Stanford’s long-term decisions about how and where to invest in campus facilities make it clear that, in the administration’s eyes, some fields are worth more than others, some regions are worth more than others and student comfort is barely worth consideration. Walking through campus proves that, no matter how many carefully written emails Stanford’s PR team writes, the University’s abysmal behavior throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is not atypical, or even unusual — it is exactly what we should expect from them. 

Let’s begin, as any stereotypical tour of campus would, at the end of Palm Drive. One hundred and sixty palm trees, according to Stanford, line Palm Drive as it leads down to the Oval and Main Quad. On one side of the road, hidden in the trees, is the Stanford family’s mausoleum, home of topless sphinxes and an annual Halloween party which was probably once cool.

Further down, closer to the Main Quad and carefully distanced from Cantor, the STEM section of campus begins. Here is a newly renovated chemistry building, followed by two older buildings currently being renovated, then (next to the Main Quad) the Hewlett and Packard buildings, the physics department buildings and an entire brand new Quad dedicated to engineering. These complexes, with the exception of the neglected and tragically beautiful Branner Earth Sciences Library, are modern workspaces with comfortable rolling chairs, plenty of natural light, coworking spaces and fancy glass whiteboards. 

The center line of this new Quad, perpendicular to Palm Drive, aligns neatly with the crossways midline of the Main Quad. If we travel down this path, we will go through one of the large gates on either side of the Main Quad and enter its large central courtyard. To your right is Memorial Church and its enormous mosaic of Jesus. Many students think that they will spend much of their time at Stanford here, and they’re half right; the Math Corner, History Corner, and Language Corner do host a fair number of classes. However, much of the Main Quad is reserved for administration offices, professors’ offices and other spaces not intended for student use. Perhaps that’s just as well, though — nearly all of these buildings are badly in need of renovation, with few to no group study spaces and leaky faucets, as well as large numbers of stairs, narrow hallways, remote elevators and ramps and other inaccessible features. 

Continuing through the opposite gate of the Quad, we find ourselves facing one end of Green Library. Green is a fascinating place, home to the “stacks,” which house most of the library’s on-site books in charming but rickety reduced-height stories. It is also the world’s first human centipede library, with the original mission-style building (facing the Quad) connected in the back to a newer brutalist construction which enjoys the impressive distinction of being one of the world’s ugliest examples of the style. Students can look forward to an upcoming renovation of the first floor, which will get rid of those annoying bookshelves and replace them with an exhibition of knick-knacks from various tech companies, intended to “celebrate the ingenuity that powers Silicon Valley.”

To the side of Green Library is the Hoover Institution, which has recently gotten an extremely fancy addition, often adorned with security guards whose job it is to protect whichever Trump administration official has dropped in to be fawned over. At this point, the vast majority of the American public know the Institution only as the home of Scott Atlas, whose fanatical devotion to ignoring scientific evidence about COVID-19 made him a favorite of twice-impeached Donald Trump.

Turning away from this monstrosity, we find ourselves walking up a hill towards the fountain nicknamed “The Claw,” next to which you might spot Stanford College Republican’s semi-monthly political theater in support of issues like banning abortion and confirming an alleged sexual assaulter to the Supreme Court. To the right is the Old Student Union, which used to house administrator offices and has been the site of a number of student demonstrations, including a sit-in demanding that Stanford divest from South Africa during apartheid. I’m sure this history has nothing to do with why administrators have now moved their offices into much more discrete locations in the Main Quad (though that hasn’t entirely stopped the protests). 

Of course, such a tour leaves out almost as much as it includes. For instance, lurking behind Lathrop Library is the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which has a set of incredibly nice buildings and dorms that it has to work very hard to keep undergraduates out of. You may remember the GSB from recent Daily headlines describing its prioritization of wine nights over social distancing. 

Across from that is Encina Hall, home to much of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) for International Studies and FSI’s Europe Center. Also in the building is Stanford’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice, which has just recently moved into its forever home in the basement of the building. 

Interestingly, the Center for Latin American Studies is not part of FSI or Encina and is instead housed in Bolivar House, a rather small and somewhat run-down house located one block outside of Campus Drive. Some of the Center’s work is done in the small shed in Bolivar House’s backyard. 

Although FSI does have the Asia-Pacific Research Center, there is no Center for Africa. Stanford’s International Relations major offers a number of regional specializations, but the Latin American & Iberian Studies and Africa specializations have significantly fewer courses offered than other regions. In fact, two of the seven courses currently offered for the Africa specialization are “Global Human Geography: Asia and Africa” and “Ethnicity and Violence: Anthropological Perspectives,” both general classes rather than Africa-specific ones. Four of the remaining six classes are offered only to students studying abroad in Cape Town, one of which is the only course that focuses on a specific country in Africa (“Transitional Justice and Transformation Debates in South Africa”).

But it could be worse, and indeed it is — The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute seems to have been permanently assigned to a “temporary” trailer-style building from the 1960s. Despite repeated calls for Stanford to provide even the bare minimum support for this Institute, the University refuses to fund the Institute itself or even assist in its fundraising efforts. 

And throughout campus are outdated dorms, which lag behind other colleges in amenities, including a far larger proportion of one-room doubles (and even triples), aging buildings and fixtures and significant pest control problems (most outlandishly, residents of the FroSoCo Quad are asked not to leave first floor doors open because snakes will enter the dorms). Beyond the Business School, again outside of Campus Drive, are the Escondido Village Graduate Residences. These residences were built to house more than 2,400 graduate students and are currently housing undergraduates, likely because Stanford’s undergraduate housing, with its high proportion of shared rooms and bathrooms, is not safe in a pandemic. To prepare the residences for undergraduate use, the University helpfully removed all of the installed ovens so that undergraduates could instead be required to pay a great deal of money for a meal plan providing take out from dining halls in which they cannot actually eat. These high-rises help address the problem of insufficient graduate housing, which forces graduate students to find their own housing in the notoriously expensive Bay Area but do not solve the long-running problem that many graduate students, after paying rent for their Stanford residences, struggle to make ends meet

Stanford is a complicated institution with multiple funding streams and diverse priorities. Yet the administration’s choices about what to build, what to improve and where to invest offer a set of real-world choices to compare to the aspirational mission statements in University communications. Engineering, and STEM generally, take priority over humanities. Within the humanities, the Global South and human rights are secondary to other regions and focuses. The quality of student housing is not a priority, but Stanford is happy to increase the number of people paying rent to the University. Although some funding comes from gifts made with a specific purpose in mind, Stanford’s fundraising office fails to steer donors toward underserved areas. 

It is tempting to tell ourselves that Stanford is a fundamentally good institution, committed to providing a high-quality liberal arts education while supporting academic research and that the very public missteps, broken promises and misleading statements we have seen over the past few months are simply small mistakes made at a time of great stress. However, the very geography of Stanford’s campus, a product of carefully thought-out choices made again and again over decades, proves that wrong. Stanford is charging full tuition for a terrible experience, putting liability over students’ need for community, and abusing all of our goodwill because that is exactly the kind of institution it is and has been for several decades. 

A university that accepts the responsibility of hosting the King Institute, home to perhaps the most important collection of Dr. King’s writings, and then shoves it into a glorified mobile home and ignores it for decades on end, is not a university committed to bringing out the best in humanity. A university which in December reaffirms its plans to bring students back to campus and in January suddenly tells its students that they will not return to campus that month is acting with less integrity than it demands of the students it is failing. But this is our university, and it will continue to be until we face this reality and demand better. Stanford has a community of extraordinary teachers and students, a beautiful campus despite its flaws and, if all else fails, a $30 billion endowment. It is more than reasonable to demand more academically diverse priorities, more respect for topics like the Global South and human rights, and more integrity. If anything, it would be embarrassing and unethical to allow this shameful behavior to continue.

All of us can act now to demand better. This past June, Stanford students launched the #StandWithKing initiative, as well as a drive for donations led by the Class of 2020. Stanford students can follow our peers at Columbia, who have begun a tuition strike to demand a better COVID-19 response. We can pledge not to donate to Stanford after we graduate unless the University invests in the humanities, offers adequate academic programs on the Global South, supports the King Institute and prioritizes student well being. We know that Stanford responds to financial incentives and, to a lesser extent, public shaming. It’s time to use those tools.

Contact Sarah Myers at smyers2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Sarah Myers '21 is pursuing a BA in International Relations while also studying Physics, Mandarin, and German. She enjoys writing about politics, ethics, and current events. She spends her free time reading and convincing herself that watching Chinese television counts as studying Mandarin.

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