This op-ed is the first in a two-part series comparing the proposed Suites takeover with the University’s decision to terminate the lease of Chi Theta Chi (XOX) last year. For the second part, click here.
The heartbreak of unfair loss has haunted me for just over a year now. It was on Feb. 8, 2012 when a handful of members of Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE) and the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs (VPSA), which oversees Residential Education (ResEd), ambushed student manager and alumni representatives of the XOX community, in what was planned to be a routine meeting, with a notice of their decision to terminate our alumni’s ground lease with the University.
Among the many responses to a call-for-help email sent out to alumni and residents that night, one rings through my brain as I read The Daily’s coverage of the University’s attempt to take over student management of Suites Dining. It came from an alumnus who, like myself, had been a house manager during the second-most-recent attempt by the administration to seize the house, in 1996. He informed me that, with great effort and some incompletes taken that quarter, the XOX community managed to push to keep its independence. He warned me to “keep in mind that they’ll get the house someday, decide how much it matters whether it’s on your watch… can’t say it was or is the civil rights issue of the era.”
Long story short: it did matter – to me and others in the community – that it was on our watch. We raised hell. After quickly dismantling the few reasons for termination stated in the notice and launching a PR tempest to demonstrate the significance of XOX’s independence, we got them to sit down with us and negotiate.
Fast-forward to August: after countless hours of volunteer effort and nearly $100,000 spent in legal fees on an uphill battle in which we assumed good faith on the administration’s part despite consistent evidence to the contrary, our group was able to grasp the full picture of the “independence” offer being made to us and the spirit underlying it. We could no longer kid ourselves into interpreting the administration’s offer as anything but its pathetic reality: the opportunity to apply for a new lease that would return management to the alumni, without any legal ownership of the house or even the ability to make small repairs and improvements without approval. At the same time, those renovation choices were not to be dictated by the needs of the students, but rather by the rhythms of a scaled property-management model that makes little sense for a small organization managing a single property. The bottom line, though, is that we were forced to walk away.
If that sounds like a dismal perspective on ResEd’s decision with respect to Suites, let me share more parallels between the two situations. Ultimately, these takeovers represent two shameful acts of the ResEd and R&DE bureaucracy’s paternalism, an institutional attitude that systematically suppresses rare opportunities for self-determination in student life. The similarities are frightening.
Failure to solicit and prioritize student opinion
As with Suites, members of our community were unexpectedly notified that a decision that would seriously impact them had already been made.
The PR campaign XOX ran was robust and highly effective in demonstrating student opinion. It included several interviews with local reporters; a story on local television; videos and posts on every social media forum available; interviews with KZSU, an online petition that garnered over 1,000 signatures; multiple op-eds in The Daily; a Stanford Magazine story; a successful letter and phone call campaign to Vice Provost Boardman, Provost Etchemendy and President Hennessy; student-initiated meetings with administrators including conversations over homemade lunches at the house; a community-wide event that was serenaded by the Stanford Band; a unanimous vote for independence by the ASSU Senate and the Berkeley co-ops; and a march and protest at the VPSA by nearly a hundred students from all parts of campus in which residents delivered a manifesto on the meaning of XOX’s independence. Based on the zeal Suites advocates have demonstrated in the past two weeks, I imagine they will pursue a similar effort.
Just as Suites once provided a relatively cheap housing and dining service to students, XOX offered a similarly affordable option – the cheapest total quarterly room and board of any on-campus residence. And because both were run efficiently by small nonprofits with no University overhead, both provided more bang for each student’s buck. Returning residents in XOX are frustrated with fewer food options this year, since R&DE removes 20 percent of the board bill before allotting it to kitchen managers, whereas in past years the entire board bill was spent directly on residents.
Reading fragments from Bollard head chef Frank Hassan’s cherished letters from students, I immediately recall the testimonies of signees of our Save XOX petition. Just as Frank’s students consider the familial relationships he fosters with them to be singular among Stanford’s dining services, XOX supporters described the house as a cultural outlet “for the creative, the passionate, the revolutionary,” a rare “outpost of west coast FUNK on all of Stanford’s palmy-league campus.”
Given these success stories in education through student ownership, how can the administration’s standardized asset management possibly take precedence over the student experience?
For part two of this piece and for more similarities between the XOX takeover and Suites Dining, click here.
Elif Tasar ‘12
XOX Social Manager 2010-11
XOX House Manager 2011-12