Strawser | Meeting the moment to double down on DEI

Feb. 15, 2024, 11:17 p.m.

Stanford recently faced a scandal-ridden presidential resignation, selected a new provost and confronted resignations in critical roles in undergraduate education and student life. Throw a figurative stone at a Stanford office and it is likely you will hit one that is currently seeking or has recently sought new leadership.

Across all leadership searches at Stanford, the Presidential Search Committee’s work comes at a uniquely difficult time. Other prestigious universities are also holding presidential searches, with the work more scrutinized than ever before. Worries about the financial benefits of college, the Israel-Gaza conflict, ideological culture wars and navigating admissions following the end of explicit affirmative action have taken higher education by storm.

Stanford is confronting a series of leadership vacancies and a broader social context that strikes at the core of its educational mission. Unlike The Stanford Daily’s Editorial Board, I believe the person best qualified to serve as the next Stanford president would be someone with experience centered around a strong commitment to the values of and policy initiatives that advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

DEI traces back to the 1960s when a series of legislative victories pushed schools, workplaces and other institutions to prevent discrimination against protected classes, such as race, gender and age. DEI initiatives include “addressing discriminatory hiring practices, pay inequity or rectifying issues that cause poor employee retention rates among marginalized groups.” While DEI can look different across organizations, what remains constant is its efforts to go “beyond avoiding discrimination and to actively changing organizations so that they [are] more welcoming and more inclusive,” according to NYU professor Erica Foldy. 

Stanford’s very own Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in a Learning Environment (IDEAL) initiative, for example, aims to represent all communities in the University’s “education and research enterprise,” ensuring a sense of belonging “regardless of [one’s] background, identity or affiliations” and giving everyone in the campus community “broad access to the opportunities and benefits of Stanford.” In furtherance of a vision of academic excellence that recognizes the value of every community and confronts the ongoing challenges posed by historic injustices, IDEAL serves as the “north star” of the University.

The right-wing zealots that want to rid education of DEI are having their way. States like Florida have shut down their LGBTQ student centers and issued a review on lessons that are “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States.” The absence of DEI initiatives and curriculums tells marginalized communities that they do not belong in society, deserve no dedicated resources at school or in the workplace and have stories and struggles that ought to take second place to the placating of white guilt in this country. It is plain as day that DEI’s critics value white comfort more than any truthful retelling of U.S. history. They portray bringing minorities into the institutions they have historically been excluded from as a harm to white people.

There is a culture and policy war being waged against classroom discussions, student resources and the very ideologies that uplift society’s most marginalized people. That makes the stakes of the presidential search and Stanford’s broader leadership transition the most critical inflection point in its 133-year-long history. Stanford needs to be where DEI goes to thrive.

DEI is often made out to be an existential threat to what Stanford has professed an “unwavering commitment” toward: free speech. This concept was on full display when the Stanford Law School’s (SLS) then-associate dean for DEI disrupted the SLS-sanctioned event featuring a Trump-appointed federal appellate judge. Her disruption, after which she resigned in disgrace, caused her to become “a lightning rod for criticism of campus wokeness and suppression of free speech.” She used her University position to disregard free speech in the name of illustrating how the judge’s work “has caused harm” to marginalized communities. To undo the ways in which her actions have stained the reputation of DEI at Stanford, the University’s commitment to DEI should be viewed in ways that reflect its unyielding commitment to First Amendment principles. 

The core value of DEI — correcting for the ongoing impacts of historic discrimination and giving everyone the fair shot in society that they deserve — should be viewed in ways that do not degrade but instead embolden Stanford’s free speech values. After all, the Supreme Court issued what are now invaluable First Amendment decisions during the Civil Rights Movement. Garner v. Louisiana (1961) overruled the “disturbing the peace” charges levied against five African American college students for staging a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter. The Court also ruled in the 1963 case Edwards v. South Carolina that the forcible removal of peaceful protesters against segregation violated free speech rights that were being exercised in “their most pristine and classic form.” The gold standard institution for defending free speech, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), has even acknowledged the importance of those very cases in its First Amendment work. Empowering unpopular, oppressed voices in society birthed DEI during the 1960s, and it can continue to serve that kind of a purpose again at Stanford — nearly 60 years later.

The profound relationship between the values of DEI and free speech should be noted by the Presidential Search Committee and whoever it chooses to next lead Stanford. The next president will need to make their decisions in accordance with the Leonard Law, which holds Stanford accountable to most of the same First Amendment protections that any public college in California would need to comply with. This principle would require Stanford’s next leader to take a close look at cases like Garner and Edwards. For Stanford and its leaders, free speech is not something that needs to be seen as contradicting efforts to uplift marginalized communities but instead empowering them.

With that in mind, the search committee must not shy away from picking a president with profound experience in uplifting marginalized communities. This experience could take the form of promoting medical school curriculums that significantly reduce the often fatal healthcare errors that women and minorities face on a daily basis. It could include a nuanced policy background of combatting the discriminatory impacts of policies like redlining and the mark they have left on the racial wealth gap. It could involve efforts to stamp out biased hiring practices in the tech industry. Stanford’s next president having that kind of experience would signal their own strong commitment to the values of DEI. 
A Stanford president displaying this kind of commitment would best position the University to take bold policy action to strengthen Stanford’s DEI initiatives.

This commitment means financial support for the departmentalization of Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CSRE). This commitment means written support for graduate workers’ right to guaranteed protections on the basis of “race, gender, nationality, caste or disability.” This commitment means support for the UG2 workers currently being harmed by Stanford’s workplace culture of “surveillance, intimidation, favoritism and discrimination.” This commitment means support for faculty diversity so that the Stanford professoriate is more representative of the truly global society that the University serves. This particular moment calls for a president that emboldens Stanford’s commitment to DEI. DEI certainly stands to strengthen the free speech and academic excellence of the University.

Sebastian Strawser ‘26 is an Opinions contributor. He also writes for Humor and The Grind. His interests include political philosophy, capybaras and Filipino food. Contact Sebastian at sstrawser 'at'

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