Letter to the Editor | Who is running Stanford?

Opinion by Greg Jacobs
April 10, 2023, 11:07 p.m.

I was disappointed in 2021 to read that Stanford had been sued by a number of its athletes when the school, without warning, told them it had decided to drop 11 varsity sports teams. Those sports included men’s volleyball, wrestling and rowing. Women were to lose sports like synchronized swimming, rowing and fencing. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Athletic Director Bernard Muir said the cut was a budget necessity, and was needed to keep Stanford “competitive” with other schools. That turned out not to be true. In fact, the school rejected alumni financing of the sports. I was further angered when I read that Tessier-Lavigne may have co-authored a number of scientific papers with “manipulated images.” I was then saddened to read about Stanford soccer player Katie Meyer, who had committed suicide last March after a badly botched disciplinary action Stanford attempted to take against her. Her parents filed a lawsuit against Stanford in October.  

These are some of the more serious scandals involving the school in the last three years. There have been less severe missteps taken by those who are supposedly in the business of running an elite, world renowned university, but even these smaller mistakes seem to indicate a larger problem. One of my classmates (I graduated in 1970) complains that the administration is of late “rudderless,” stumbling from one crisis to another. He may not make his annual donation to the school as a result. I think it is time to ask: exactly who manages Stanford? And how are they making decisions? Is it the President? The Board of Trustees? Or a small group of individuals known only to a few?

By themselves, some recent actions taken by Stanford were somewhat humorous. The school has been the butt of jokes by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and numerous other major and local papers. For example, the IT department came out with its “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” to be used on its websites. The national media had a field day with this action, especially when it recommended no longer using the word “American.”   

Some folks may have found humor in the suspension of the Stanford Tree after the Washington State home football game, when the Tree displayed the now widely-viewed hand-made “Stanford Hates Fun” banner (oh, there goes the band again). I did not find humor in the suspension because the Tree was telling the truth (please see the article “Stanford’s War on Social Life” in the Palladium Magazine by a graduate student, Ginevra Davis, who makes a strong case for the fact that Stanford’s administration has arbitrarily and quietly clamped down on student social activities since 2012). The Tree was suspended by a “faceless student committee” assisted by the band’s musical director. Not only that, students coming to the next home football game were searched, and even had to lift their shirts to see if they had “objectionable banners.” 

For more serious misconduct by Stanford, I encourage Daily readers to look at the contents of the lawsuit filed by the 240 students who were members of the 11 sports Stanford wanted to cut without any warning. Stanford changed its tune when a lawsuit was filed, alleging a lot of embarrassing conduct by Stanford, and reinstated all of the sports. The student lawsuit, “Guden, Bicknell, Lietzke, Stemmet et al v. the Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University (aka Stanford),” alleged that for years the school had planned to drop those sports, but did not tell any students.

The more recent lawsuit, which is even more upsetting, has been filed by the parents of Katie Meyer, who state that Stanford acted improperly in its attempt to discipline Katie, a member of the women’s soccer team. Katie supposedly spilled coffee on a Stanford varsity football player who assaulted a friend of hers (he got to play out the season, and was never disciplined). Stanford knew that Katie was struggling after she was brought into Stanford’s byzantine and draconian student discipline process. On the last day, or actually the evening of the last day Katie could be disciplined, Stanford sent an email to her saying they were placing her diploma on hold three months short of graduation, and proceeding to a disciplinary hearing. Her parents claim she could have lost her student status, her membership on the soccer team, her captainship of the team and other benefits of a Stanford degree. She desperately tried to contact a Stanford representative, but it was after hours, and there was only a phone number to call. No one answered. Notify her at night when no one is around? This seems cowardly and unfair. She took her own life later that night. 

For many years now, Stanford had decided that the student disciplinary process was too harsh. So what did Stanford do? It studied the issue. There had been many complaints from students, parents, mental health professionals and even Stanford faculty that the process needed an overhaul. Unfortunately for Katie, it was never done. Meyers v. Stanford alleges, if true, incredibly heartless conduct by Stanford.  

Stanford has, in fact, changed. It has clamped down on all forms of student social activity on campus, starting with fraternities and the Stanford band. In doing so, the school has not even met minimal standards of good management in dealing with its most precious resource, the students. What is going on? Maybe the following can shed some light. Athletic Director Muir came in 2014, from a college where he cut a number of sports teams. He failed to make the same kind of cut here. Persis Drell, Dean of the School of Engineering from 2014-17, and Provost since 2017, tried to cut funding to the Stanford University Press in 2019, but withdrew in the face of widespread criticism. She said she had not “anticipated the reaction” to her decision. And along with Muir, she failed to cut the 11 Stanford teams. The University has even hired a former Harvard administrator to clamp down on student activities here, after he unsuccessfully tried to do so at Harvard, only when he was faced with a lawsuit (Sound familiar?).

President Tessier-Lavigne was hired by Stanford, I assume by the trustees, in 2016, despite a cloud over him from allegations of improper research publications dating back some years. The Board was forced to investigate those claims recently, when The Daily raised the issue. The Board of Trustees started to do its own investigation, but The Daily found out that one of the trustees had invested 18 million dollars in Tessier-Lavigne’s business. 

So, I ask, who is running Stanford?

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