This is the second article in the Editorial Board’s three-part series on revitalizing Stanford student life. This piece focuses on how the Stanford community — students, alumni, faculty, governance and administration — can work towards a more accountable future.
At long last, it appears the wind of change is blowing on Stanford’s campus. After a disastrous year for Stanford’s reputation and amid a brewing storm of student, alumni, and faculty discontent, there are signs that the University may be changing course. The Provost has unexpectedly resigned. The President may be unlikely to survive. And the newly elected ASSU Executives promise a return of fun to revive Stanford’s ailing student life.
As much as these changes in leadership are welcome, they risk being a temporary reprieve. Only when true accountability reaches across the entire Stanford administration — from middle management to those delivering front-line student services — can we fix the lasting damage to the university and students’ experiences and well-being. To achieve this, Stanford stakeholders need to act collectively to hold administrators at all levels responsible to the community they serve.
First, we must take stock of the toll that Stanford’s unchecked administrative growth has taken on student life and consequently the university’s standing. The viral Palladium article and our previous editorial have detailed how the Stanford administration’s relentless campaign to absolve itself from liability has decimated student life and made campus less safe. But the problem of administrative malfeasance extends far beyond destroying the “esoteric whimsical nature” of Stanford culture. From student groups struggling for funding while being tightly controlled by administrators, to international students despairing if they’ll receive visa assistance in time so they can stay in the country, to the anxious wait for financial aid support, to hungry students resorting to food banks since groceries on campus are extortionate, to still not having enough counselors to address the mental health crisis on campus, Stanford student services are unfit for an institution claiming to be among the best in the world. Instead of learning and developing, students find their Stanford experiences and communities wracked by inadequate services and excessive bureaucracy.
The rampant expansion in administration and regulation is actively hurting Stanford’s strategic interests. When students spend their days fighting administrative battles, they become reluctant to advocate for, or eventually donate to, an institution that seems to only want to expand the number of staff and administrators — currently 17,000 strong — who were in many cases detrimental to their experience. When it becomes harder to convince the very brightest that Stanford is the place where they’ll thrive — when current students themselves have no confidence in the university’s leadership — it hurts the well-being of the Stanford body and Stanford’s standing relative to its peers. The ongoing disillusionment of students burdened by administrative incompetence and overreach threatens to spill into the public sphere.
The fundamental problem is a lack of accountability for administrators. This has been driven by a loss of institutional knowledge and connections between students, alumni, faculty, and university governance from the pandemic that has made it harder to collectively organize. Administrators have had free rein to push through unpopular policies and expand regulations that prioritize reducing liability over enhancing opportunity.
When challenged, administrators set up “task forces,” “accelerators” and “working groups” that delay and distract from action. Often, offices dealing with students eagerly shift responsibility onto another part of Stanford’s labyrinthine network of administrators (the Office of the General Counsel and “Risk Management” are classic favorites) which makes it impossible to pin down who exactly can solve problems.
If all else fails, they simply wait students out until we are exhausted or graduated. Students feel powerless. We currently do not have the resources to resist, so individual administrators can act with impunity since there is no direct accountability or transparent feedback from those they serve.
“Administration” can be a nebulous concept. To strike back, members of the Stanford community need to understand how Stanford operates and consequently what specific levers of power we can pull to bring about change. The key is increasing transparency and collective action.
A revolutionary step would be to implement a feedback system for administrative services in a manner similar to Carta, where students anonymously share their evaluations of teaching staff. If student feedback ratings were tied to administrators’ performance reviews, this could massively drive up standards. And as recent leadership changes show, the Stanford community expressing its collective views can advance the university. This radically new system is unlikely to be adopted by the University (we would love to be proven wrong), but in its absence, how can stakeholders act to protect their interests and guide Stanford towards a better future?
Students, Alumni, and the ASSU
- The ASSU should use its convening power to draw together student leaders and hold administrators to account. They should bring community members to the table — from alumni to members of the Board of Trustees — and enhance awareness of how Stanford works (for example, most students don’t know that the ASSU is legally independent from Stanford, and that the University does not fund most student organizations and instead just regulates them, excessively).
- In turn, students need to engage with ASSU legislative institutions. Our responsibility does not stop with voting; staying on top of current issues being debated by the Undergraduate and Faculty Senates can help influence their decisions to prevent surprises like the proctoring change in the Honor Code or cuts to student group funding. The ASSU will continue to be toothless until student turnout (just 24.72% in 2023) and engagement increases substantially.
- Student groups should deepen connections with their alumni networks, create advisory boards and collaborate with other student groups to enhance collective lobbying power. Using these connections to send emails to the Office of the President and other senior officials forces more transparency on individual lower-level administrators.
- Alumni should talk directly with current students about their matters of concern. Everyone has their own unique experiences with “admin.” Think about which specific groups or issues on campus you care about and understand how the experiences you enjoyed might be under threat for future students. Get involved with student groups through alumni events, advisory boards, and mentorship, and help students when they need support through collective action campaigns.
Faculty, Governance and Administration
- Treat students as adults and not children. We are learning, but we are also earnest, determined and smart. Rather than liabilities, we are assets that can cement Stanford’s relatively new status in the premier tier of global universities.
- Give students and our organizations independence — nearly all Stanford student groups are closely supervised and have less money than those at our peer institutions. Allow any student group to form their own 501(c)(3) nonprofit and receive university recognition like Harvard’s Independent Student Organizations and at Yale. Give us freedom to run our own communities so that we can learn and develop without the “support” of administration.
- The Faculty Senate and University governance should cap administrative growth and create a centralized feedback system that is directly tied to metrics of administrative performance, compensation and hiring.
An alum recently remarked to an Editorial Board member that “Stanford today has become like the government — but worse.” As a society, we have learned that it requires transparency and accountability to ensure that those in positions of power serve their constituents. While administrators may not yet be formally accountable to the student body they serve, as members of the Stanford community we have both the responsibility and ability to keep the university on the right track. Through increasing collective action and doing our part to hold the university administration to account, we can ensure that Stanford’s winds of freedom continue to blow.
The Editorial Board consists of Opinion columnists, editors and members of the Stanford community. Its views represent the collective views of members of the Editorial Board. It is separate from News.