Opinion | Governance by Google Form

Opinion by Nicholas Midler
March 17, 2021, 8:30 p.m.

Sometimes, power changes hands overtly after a solemn process. Other times, it happens quietly or too quickly for much deliberation. The case of Antonio Milane fits into the latter category. Two weeks after Milane first made an Instagram post asking Stanford to provide him with a scribe for homework assistance, the University bowed to immense public pressure and agreed to his request. Milane isn’t the first Stanford student with cerebral palsy, but he is the first to go viral and successfully pressure the University to change its disability access policy.

The massive response to Milane’s post and Stanford’s capitulation speaks to a remarkable shift of power from institutions to the masses, made possible by social media.

Milane’s original post got over 18,878 likes and 2,000 comments, and his appeal blossomed across the web. An Instagram video Milane posted has more than 184,618 views, and his story was picked up by Impact, a social impact-focused Instagram account with 1.3 million followers. Drawn by the online reaction, The Stanford Daily, KTVU, Inside Higher Ed and San Jose Inside all covered the story. For every comment expressing outrage, another one tagged The New York Times or LA Times, calling for wider coverage. A Change.org petition garnered over 70,000 signatures.

Say what you will about Stanford’s about-face, but what’s abundantly clear is that the administrators weren’t the ones calling the shots. Nothing about Milane’s needs or the law changed in the two weeks between the first post and Stanford’s decision to provide him a scribe after all. Stanford didn’t make the decision. Several hundred thousand people on the Internet did. 

It’s not exactly news that what happens on the internet can affect real life, but I do think it’s worth noting that many of the people who liked or shared Milane’s story probably have nothing to do with Stanford. They also didn’t wait to hear what Stanford had to say. 

Perhaps this is because the issue seems so clear-cut. Stanford has $28 billion. Milane has cerebral palsy. He comes from a single-parent immigrant household and is the David in a fight against an institution that is clearly a Goliath. What more is there to it?

The debate took place on comment threads and petition homepages, and because no one from the OAE was wading through Instagram posts responding to these comments, the sentiment was pretty one-sided. Stanford’s first and only public statement was their commitment to support Milane’s needs for a homework scribe, and this came two weeks and tens of thousands of shares and likes after Milane’s first Instagram post. Several of the comments didn’t seem to know that Milane was only denied help for homework and asked why Stanford couldn’t pay ten dollars an hour to get another student to take lecture notes, a service Stanford already provides. 

Some comments launched expletives at Stanford for not caring about its students and advised future applicants to apply elsewhere, preferably at universities that valued all their students. Milane did reach out to several Ivy League schools and the UC system, but they either offered the same accommodations as Stanford or ignored his questions entirely. Other people plucked out and quoted sections from the Americans with Disabilities Act, falsely claiming that the law required Stanford to offer a homework scribe.

Stanford Law professor Michele Dauber weighed in on the issue with a Twitter list comprising “some of [her] favorite things Stanford pays for that are not legally required instead of typing and scribe services for disabled kids to do their homework.” She pointed to landscaping, “[e]ndless portraits and statues of white supremacists” and Full Moon on The Quad. She then listed The Stanford Marching Band (which is financed by student fees), freshman lanyards (which are included in a separate New Student Orientation bill) and Scott Atlas (who is employed by the Hoover Institution). 

The parentheticals push against Dauber’s point, and I added them because no one from Stanford was about to offer corrections. Stanford could easily raise the money to extend disability access, but the issue with the Twitter list is that it shows how easy it is to stretch the truth. When the discourse fractures across social media platforms and extends far beyond the Stanford community, it’s difficult for everyone to get accurate and complete information.

Despite this, it looks like the online crowds have taught Stanford a lesson it’s taking to heart.

The administration is going beyond what the online petitions call for, convening a task force to study best practices for campus disability access in addition to providing Milane with a homework scribe. It’s too early to say for sure, but it looks like Milane and tens of thousands of others have sparked a larger change. There’s a wisdom to crowds, and it’s unlikely that Milane’s story could have provoked such a large reaction if his needs weren’t so compelling and Stanford’s obligation to act so apparent. Public sentiment is a powerful barometer. 

Milane’s case, though it seems exceptional, exemplifies a larger trend at Stanford. Last spring, almost every upheaval resulting from the coronavirus sparked another petition from students. Every time COVID forced the University to change plans, inboxes inevitably swelled with requests to type one’s name on a Google doc or fill out a form demanding an amendment or annulment of policy. Thousands of students did. Some of the petitions were successful and saw real change, others were ignored. This click activism is characterized by its ease of participation, and asking the other side to elaborate and having to wait and think about their response isn’t easy. Clicking a button is easy. This doesn’t discredit the petitions. Many of them greatly benefited Stanford students, often those most in need. What Milane’s situation made clear is that it’s just as easy for a Stanford student to sign a Google form as it is for anyone else on the internet.

Crashing into the mix of internet activism is Susie Brubaker-Cole’s email about Stanford’s long term plans for disability access. Even though every student got the email, the vast majority of people who signed Milane’s petition or liked his Instagram posts will probably never see it. Most of them probably haven’t even read the Daily article announcing Stanford’s capitulation. The signatures are still rolling into Change.org.  

There’s no righteous outrage in Susie Brubaker-Cole’s email, but I’m guessing it ticked off a good number of student activists because it mentioned the Stanford staple of task forces. Actually, it goes even further because before the task force there’s going to be a study group whose work will inform the task force. After the rush of successfully overwhelming Stanford and winning Milane a scribe, Stanford’s plodding two-committee response to disability accessibility must be absolutely maddening. If Antonio Milane deserves a scribe, then doesn’t the next cerebral palsy applicant? When you’re certain in your moral clarity and passionate about your ethical values, the delays imposed by a task force can feel cruel. 

The task force is manned by the same people pressured into making changes by the massive Change.org petition. These are the people who aren’t quick to reference Stanford’s $28 billion endowment and use its size to justify the necessity for action because they know that it all gets spent. In 2020, Stanford withdrew $1.4 billion from its endowment to cover 20% of University expenses, and while Milane’s needs are a drop in this bucket, there isn’t a spare drop because every cent is accounted for and used. You can read about it in Stanford’s annual budget report, but how many of the thousands of commenters on Milane’s Instagram have read it?

This doesn’t mean Milane shouldn’t get a homework scribe, far from it. It speaks to the danger of letting crowds of temporarily interested observers shape decision making, because such crowds lack the expertise that comes from attending meetings, answering emails and fulfilling the other quotidian obligations routinely performed by the scores of university officials who manage the budget and allocate resources. It’s a difficult job because demand often outstrips resources, but I have faith in a lot of the decisions Stanford makes. We’ve avoided mass graduate student strikes, financial aid is more available than ever and new institutes, schools and research hubs are expanding Stanford’s ambition and potential to tackle tomorrow’s greatest challenges.

Two years ago Sylvia Colt-Lacayo found herself with similar unmet needs to Milane. She turned to the internet and raised $8,000 from a GoFundMe campaign, but her message didn’t go viral the same way Milane’s did. We’ve moved more online since then, and have gotten increasingly comfortable forming opinions from push notifications, headlines and tweets. You can pass judgment by pushing a button. That’s a combination to be wary of.

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