One of the defining characteristics of Stanford in the eyes of The Princeton Review is that the school operates so smoothly it “runs like butter.” This compliment appealed to me when I was considering colleges as a senior in high school. I wondered how such a free, innovative place could also “run like butter.”
As a freshman, I continued to be amazed. It seemed that there were invisible genies that took down and put up decorations and signs, coordinating thousands of events every quarter seamlessly, all as I went to class and chatted with friends and did my homework. As the state of California went bankrupt and America was in financial crisis, Stanford offered tens of thousands of dollars in grant money to undergraduate students.
I realize now that this smooth operation comes at a price: it comes with a paradigm of “business as usual” that students trust because so much is handled so well at the University level.
This trust—and the huge workload of the Stanford administration—has slowly converted Stanford into an academic-industrial complex. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s a sunny, jolly complex, complete with smiling administrators and as little red tape as possible, which means still a lot. But at the end, we are paying, quarter after quarter, a school that is shrewd with its money and ambitious with its space. “Business as usual” has put University operations under the tyranny of the all-powerful dollar.
This is an unflattering characteristic that our beloved school shares with almost every other large university in America. An organization that is media-hungry, jealously guards its reputation and shields its clientele from competitors could just as easily describe any 21st-century American university as it could describe your neighborly multinational corporation.
What are some problems? The more entrenched the product, the less your comment essentially matters. There is almost a unanimous consensus that Axess must die—and I have a feeling that the administration knows this without the need for a single survey. Yet the administration isn’t responsive to this comment because Axess only grows with inertia over time, and the cost to replace it becomes enormous. Again, the dollar lord remains almighty.
And then there are the legacy admits. A little less than a year ago, this very newspaper published a startling statistic: almost one fifth of my class, the Class of 2013, had a legacy at Stanford, according to Dean of Admission Richard Shaw. This percentage of legacies is head-and-shoulders above some elite East Coast schools. Furthermore, across the pond, the universities that usually embody class and privilege, such as Oxford and Cambridge, all abandoned legacy admits decades ago.
Again, from a corporate mindset, the practice of legacy admission is a practical one: it supposedly emboldens alumni loyalty and entices donors to fill University coffers. If students are customers, then they will be loyal donors to the brand if their progeny can have the privilege of being customers as well.
Yet at a philosophical level, such admissions are deeply problematic. New York Times op-ed columnist Richard Kahlenberg recently wrote in “Elite Colleges, or Colleges for the Elite?” that legacy admissions are distinctly an American privilege—and, at the same time, paradoxically un-American because they undermine the notion of meritocracy that this nation was founded on.
There are so many cases where the notion of “business as usual” works well in the university context. But upon closer inspection, there are just as many cases where such a notion doesn’t work at all. The practical and the moneymaking are often prided above the morally correct and the popular.
I don’t know if Stanford can adjust—or more precisely, I don’t know if it can afford to adjust—its mindset. But it must. If it wants to be a leader of a true liberal arts education, it needs to stop running a non-profit educational institution as if it were a for-profit educational commodity.
Stanford, we are not here as customers of an experience. We’re here for much more than that. We are here to shape our very souls and minds. Please don’t forget this.
What do you think about Stanford’s corporatism? Is it a necessary effect of the pressures of 21st-century American higher education? Could you care less? Let Aaditya know at email@example.com.