Dear Stanford Community,
We are current and former members of the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (LSJUMB, or Band), some of whom have been involved with Band leadership dating back several years. A few days ago, the ASSU received a resolution to certify an annual grant for the LSJUMB, which would provide the organization with funding from the general student body.
As noted in the resolution’s preamble, the Joint By-Laws of the ASSU state that in order to apply for such funding, the LSJUMB must be certified by the relevant ASSU bodies as meeting the standard that “the organization and its finances are in fact essentially under the control of students.”
It is with regret that we write this letter detailing the many ways in which the LSJUMB has failed to meet this standard in recent years, constituting a breach of applicable ASSU and Office of Student Engagement (OSE) policies. In light of the reality described below, we advocate for the LSJUMB’s request for annual grant certification be denied. By sharing our views and experiences in a public forum, we hope to not only affect change in Band, but to prompt wider discussions on the role of student autonomy and wellbeing on campus.
A fundamental marker of an organization being “under the control of students” is the right of student membership to select their own leaders. The OSE includes this expectation among its Core 10 Student Org Policies:
“leaders must be chosen by election, consensus or another democratic selection process, by the organization’s membership every year, in accordance with the organization’s constitution.”
Prior to 2020, this was indeed the case for the LSJUMB. The pandemic, however, brought a period of aggressive restructuring. Over the several years, we witnessed decisions be primarily dictated by Band director Dr. Russell Gavin, in direct opposition to LSJUMB student opinion. A handful of the innumerable, devastating changes to the LSJUMB are detailed later in this letter, with a particularly egregious change being the abolition of student-selected leadership.
When the Band’s governing documents were redrafted in 2020 with heavy influence from Dr. Gavin, specifics of how the Band’s Executive Team — the organization’s highest-ranking officers — would be selected were left out of the Structural Charter. The document simply mentions that the selection process “will include an interview with the director.”
Nowhere is any mechanism of selection outlined. The OSE requires that such a mechanism be enshrined in the LSJUMB’s constitution, and that it must be “democratic” and involve “the organization’s membership.” When concerns about this oversight were reasonably raised in 2020, LSJUMB members were reassured that these details would be added at a later time.
Three years later, they have yet to be added. As a result, every member of the Band’s incumbent Executive Committee was hand-picked by the director and not the organization’s membership, as confirmed by current members of Band student leadership. This includes the Treasurer. We maintain that student leaders and Treasurers, if appointed by the director to rubber-stamp organizational and financial decisions that are ultimately dictated by the director themself, do not constitute evidence of the “organization and its finances” being “essentially under the control of students,” as required for Band to be eligible for ASSU annual grant funding.
The undemocratic nature of the LSJUMB is further evidenced by a number of concerning incidents occurring over the past 12 months. During a town hall meeting held in the spring of 2022, which several of us attended, members of the Executive Committee were challenged by students to name a single decision made that academic year via a vote by the student staff team. They failed to produce an answer.
Around the same time, members of the Band recognized the concerning fact that the new structure of the organization offered no way to hold our director accountable. In desperation, members of the Band drafted a letter to the Deputy Athletics Director, who supervises the director of the Band, pleading for support in holding the director accountable. This letter was signed by 39 students: a majority of Band’s membership at the time. An investigation was carried out by the Athletics Department, but any outcomes or conclusions were not communicated to students.
Finally, one particularly outrageous display of the director’s authoritarianism occurred during a conversation between a student staff member and the director. In response to the staff member suggesting to the director that a particular governance issue be resolved via a vote by student leadership, the director warned the student not to say “the V-Word” ever again. The V-word in question? “Vote.”
The restructuring of Band in 2020 led to a number of changes instituted unilaterally by the director and in direct opposition to popular student opinion. Notably, these changes to the Band’s governing documents gave the director ultimate control over aspects of Band life and culture that were previously under the discretion of student leadership, and which are in fact under the discretion of student leadership in virtually every other student organization on campus. This directly contradicts the claim made in the preamble of the ASSU resolution in question that “under the new structure of the Band, student leadership shall retain the many decision-making responsibilities that they previously held.”
Using this newfound power, the director has forbidden the Band from performing certain songs, transformed our on-campus home from a safe space rich with history and joy to nothing more than a rehearsal space, instituted punitive restrictions on how we express ourselves, and even on how we can speak. Furthermore, all Band social events are tightly restricted, with events as benign as section lunches and game nights requiring prior approval. The list of such intrusive and arbitrary policies is endless, but as a final illustrative example, we direct you to the Band’s nickname policy, which stipulates that all nicknames given to Band members must first be personally approved by the director.
We believe these details sufficiently refute the claim that the LSJUMB, its governance, and its finances are “essentially under the control of students.” The technical argument, however, pales in importance to the following, more fundamental concern: over the past three years, the LSJUMB has utterly failed to serve its students and prioritize their happiness and wellbeing, and has instead burdened its rapidly dwindling membership with severe emotional distress. As it became increasingly clear to members of the Band that leadership had no interest in prioritizing student wellbeing, scores of once-dedicated LSJUMBers departed the organization in search of community and joy elsewhere on campus.
Whereas the Band once boasted close to 100 members on the field at every football game, it had fewer than 40 members in attendance on three separate occasions during the 2022 football season. Annual trips to the Pac-12 Basketball Tournaments in previous years typically saw members clamoring for one of the coveted 55 spots available to the Band. Last week, fewer than 35 students made the trip to Vegas.
The few who remain today find themselves in a suffocatingly toxic environment. In the last two cohorts of Band staff, several members have been suspended by the director on questionable grounds, while others have quit after months of torment. Many of the remaining staff members have already begun asking themselves how much more they are willing to take.
The irony of the whole situation is that the express goal of the structural changes carried out in 2020 was to eliminate the toxic and problematic aspects of the Band that have plagued it for years. What began as determination to make positive change to the culture of our organization in an effort to make it healthier and more welcoming has devolved into an utterly avoidable source of pain and frustration for dozens of students. For the sake of future generations of the LSJUMB and the wider Stanford community, the Band cannot be allowed to continue to harm its members.
The resolution in question asks the ASSU to assert that “the [LSJUMB] and its finances are “essentially” under the control of students.” We believe we have provided sufficient evidence that this is far from the case. The director and other proponents of the Band’s departure from student-based governance will suggest that this transfer of authority was necessary in order to address the Band’s problematic culture.
In their eyes, a student-run organization is necessarily less safe, accessible, and positive than a university-run one. Not only is this terribly condescending, it is patently untrue. The evidence is all around campus. A capella groups have total say over what songs they perform. Dance groups are allowed to decide when and where to meet for lunch. Members of intramural sports teams do not need to get permission from their coaches to call each other nicknames. In other words, students are free to make their own decisions in every other student group on campus. The outcome? Flourishing communities that are the highlight of their members’ Stanford careers.
Compare these communities to the Band today and it becomes clear that its abysmal state is a direct consequence of the disempowerment and silencing of students in the LSJUMB. Before the Band can once again provide its members with the profoundly meaningful experience it once did, serious efforts must be made towards ensuring its students’ right to self-govern. The constitution must be modified to include a democratic, student-controlled selection process for Executive Team members. Safeguards must be put in place to guarantee that the constitution is enforced, and that it cannot be overridden by the Band director.
The long journey of rebuilding the Band must begin with a return to genuine student leadership. Until this crucial step is taken, however, we do not believe that the LSJUMB is deserving of funding from the student body.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Revolution; the birth of the LSJUMB as we know — or knew — it. In 1963, Band members went on strike, demanding that they be given the right to self-govern. The rest is a long history of satire, stunts, and making people smile at Stanford, in the Bay, and around the world. It is those very principles of self-governance and agency that the Band was founded on that allowed generations of Band members to revel in self-expression, explore their identities, challenge themselves, come to understand their sexuality, find community (and sometimes love), and ultimately learn to become the person they needed to become. These facets of the LSJUMB can and must exist independent of the Band’s problematic past, but they can only exist under student leadership.
So long as the Band continues to neglect student agency and wellbeing, we believe it should not be entitled to funding from the student body. As such, we humbly advocate that the ASSU deny the LSJUMB’s request for annual grant certification until such a time that student interests are once again prioritized.
Arjan “BoBo” Walia
and eight others (20 total). Names are sorted alphabetically. Some names are withheld to protect the identity of the students.