From the Community | Co-operative Accountability: Fixing pre-assignment

Dec. 5, 2022, 7:24 p.m.

Stanford is home to just seven co-operative houses, which make up a minority of the total housing available on campus. Nevertheless, co-ops play a disproportionate role in campus life and are often highly sought-after as social hubs that house that all-too-rare Stanford phenomenon — residential community.

Before the reorganization of Stanford housing into Neighborhoods in 2021-22, students could either ‘Draw’ into co-ops in a randomized process, or could ‘pre-assign’ in based on application essays judged by student staff. Ever since the Neighborhoods reorganization, however, pre-assignment has become the only way to enter co-op housing, increasing the importance of this process many-fold. Pre-assignment to co-ops is relatively unique among processes at Stanford insofar as it wholly eliminates any intermediary layer of University oversight, instead leaving it to the discretion and trust of the student staff. Pre-assignment has always been a highly contentious process, and given its importance, we believe it is time to reexamine the process of pre-assignment. This article seeks to suggest remedies to common shortcomings in the process. 

Pre-assignment has long been subject to allegations of nepotism and favoritism, wherein student staff select their friends and previous residents. This is to the detriment of those who have been hitherto excluded from co-op life and would like to be included, but lack a personal connection to the decision-makers on staff. There is also the other possibility that the pre-assignment process could be used as a means to settle personal disputes between student staff and prospective applicants — for example, a staff member who dislikes a certain student could weigh in against that student’s pre-assignment application.  

Furthermore, we have observed that pre-assignment has been subject to allegations of discrimination, where the conscious and unconscious biases of students may come to the fore. (In a recent example, pre-assignment for the 2022-23 housing year at Enchanted Broccoli Forest was publicly criticized on grounds of racial and religious exclusion in a one-page pamphlet that was pinned up in and around the co-op, and later circulated online.)

Whether co-ops have or have not actually practiced discrimination or nepotism is a matter of subjective historical record. If you believe that they have, then the need for reform is crystal clear. Even if you believe that pre-assignment has historically been essentially fair, the process remains structurally vulnerable to bias. Further, if you believe that Stanford students would not exploit the opacity of the pre-assignment process, the appearance of bias still risks undermining student trust in the process and could discourage interest in co-ops, as students may not want to bother playing a game they see as rigged. Reducing the likelihood and appearance of such bias should therefore be of concern for all those who care about the future of co-op life at Stanford.

The structural feature responsible for the principal appearance and possible practice of bias in pre-assignment is its opacity. The criteria for assignment, as well as their implementation, are often set unilaterally by the incoming staff, either implicitly or explicitly. These criteria are rarely, if ever, communicated to or developed in consultation with current residents or any other stakeholders. (In a recent example of this phenomenon, the Hammarskjold pre-assignment process for the 2022-23 academic year was carried out with no prior disclosure of selection criteria. After resident criticism, an email was circulated that detailed selection criteria that had been unilaterally set by staff. This was far from an exceptional case — the writers can attest to the fact that previous generations of staff did not decide upon or publish criteria either.)

Some potential reforms to the pre-assignment process we propose are principally to address this lack of transparency. 

First, we propose that co-ops should make public explicit criteria for pre-assignment, and develop these criteria with the support and consent of the current residents of the house, or in keeping with historical house traditions or any constitutive documents. 

Second, we propose that staff disclose their personal relationships, if any, with all applicants they consider. Staff should make such disclosures to all other staff involved in the pre-assignment selection process, during the process itself. In addition, if any applicants with personal relationships with staff are accepted to a house, such relationships should be publicly disclosed in an accountability report after pre-assignment is complete (more on this below). Furthermore, staff should recuse themselves from the consideration of applicants they share strong personal relationships with. 

Third, we propose that staff are held accountable to the pre-assignment criteria that have been set. This may include the publishing of an accountability report, including data such as the number of applicants and the acceptance rate; the number of people accepted from outside the house and the number of returning residents; a diversity report; and an analysis of which criteria were generally satisfied and which ones were not. An essential component of such a report would be a full disclosure of all personal relationships between student staff and successful applicants. Further, staff should report where they fell short in the pre-assignment application process, and where future staff should focus their efforts. For example, if staff found themselves accepting a less diverse house than the criteria demanded or found themselves accepting very few returning residents, they may suggest that future staff not make their mistakes.

Fourth, we propose that all co-ops draft and ratify constitutions, if they have not done so already. Such documents may serve as repositories of the values and priorities of each house, enabling continuity across time and serving as a starting point for pre-assignment selection criteria.

In the experience of these authors, co-op life has been some of the most vibrant, inclusive, exciting and communal life available at Stanford and beyond. Preserving the integrity of co-ops, protecting them from nepotism and discrimination, and ensuring that they are inclusive of the Stanford community at large, is in the interest of every student. We hope that the critiques and corresponding reforms proposed in this article will advance the governance and management of co-op pre-assignment, safeguarding them for generations to come.

Rayan Sud ’21 is a recent grad and a two-time resident of Hammarskjöld. He tried and failed to Draw into Hamm in Fall 2019-20, re-assigned in in Winter 2019-20, and pre-assigned in in 2021-22.

Ravichandra Tadigadapa ‘21 is a recent grad and a three-time resident of Hammarskjöld. He pre-assigned to Hamm in 2018-19, entered through the Draw in in 2019-20, and was a Resident Assistant in 2021-22. He was the co-chair of the Co-Op Council for 2021-22.

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