Why I’m not open to XChange

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It was a tumultuous day for many when Stanford students suddenly received in their inbox a letter from President Hennessy and Provost Etchemendy on a new initiative named “OpenXChange.”

“Oh no,” I thought when I saw it. I was immediately taken back to Spring quarter of last year, to Etchemendy’s oblivious finger-wagging over such issues as the ASSU endorsements, divestment from corporations complicit in the occupation of Palestine, and lack of “dialogue” – which he defined then as “not speaking but listening; listening with respect and then expressing, in turn, one’s own view with clarity, rather than volume.”

At the time, many on campus took issue with his comments, which, in their purported neutrality, nevertheless used “dialogue” as a rhetorical tool to silence activism. I wrote an article then, and it frustrates me that I am once again writing one now as the same sentiments start to rear their head.  

OpenXChange is the latest iteration of this old rhetoric, this time packaged as a way for students to “consider meaningful interchange and thoughtful listening, as well as mutual respect even around areas of intense disagreement.” And I’m not impressed. I have seen and experienced for myself the intense frustration that comes when marginalized groups speak about their pain and trauma, only to be told that it isn’t real, or that it doesn’t matter.

“We deserve our basic humanity,” we say. “I don’t think so,” we are told in reply. Is this supposed to be the open exchange – sorry, “XChange” – that we are supposed to look forward to? Are we supposed to respectfully listen to hate speech and bigotry before politely clearing our throats and committing to educating people who do not want to learn?

Maybe I’m jumping the gun a bit. Maybe, against all the odds, OpenXChange can be a truly critical space for students to interrogate their own preconceptions (misconceptions) of the world, for learning to happen, and for privilege to be questioned and critiqued. Even if that’s the case, I am yet again unimpressed by the limited information we have about this new initiative. What real changes does OpenXChange aim to make on campus? What problems does it aim to solve; in a year or two, how will we know if it has succeeded?

What we do know, at least, is that OpenXChange is hopelessly out of touch with the existence of student activism. On its “About” page, OpenXChange proudly proclaims that, “from its founding, Stanford has been a place committed to intellectual debate, the open exchange of ideas in the service of learning and the creation of new knowledge.” New knowledge? Really? When dozens of student groups have been running teach-ins and workshops and Student Initiated Courses since day one, when our town hall discussions are packed without an administrator in sight, when students use their academic classes to push forward new and novel ways of understanding issues of race, gender, class, age, attraction, religion… OpenXChange is “new knowledge?” I can’t help but think of that person who learns that Lake Lagunita is dry sometime in senior year and excitedly tells all their decidedly unimpressed friends.  

My critique of OpenXChange is not saying that there is no “dialogue” to be had. Thinking of community policing alternatives to a militarized and violent state police force, best ways forward to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, ways to introduce necessary reform for historically marginalized communities, and plenty of other complex issues require long deliberation. But not “Is Islamophobia real?” or “Why don’t we have a white pride month?”

Lived experiences are not open to debate.

And I have a feeling people in the back will argue that “the activists” are just finding something new to complain about, and that we should eagerly take any scraps the administration can spare us. But this initiative ignores the entirety of the work students and community groups have been doing over the last few years, and in fact attempts to co-opt it for its own. “We are doing something,” OpenXChange seems to tell us, “now do it our way or else.” Perhaps Stanford’s administration is hoping that by acquiring and institutionalizing this kind of bare-bones activism, it can avoid the discomfort and media attention it received last year.

To Stanford: We don’t need OpenXChange. We need mandatory education for students, staff, and faculty alike, more financial support for marginalized communities and community centers, more faculty diversity and institutional change to better support survivors, first-generation and/or low-income students, queer and trans students, students of color and other communities on campus that gain next to nothing from this new experiment. To OpenXChange: It’s ironic that you promote listening as a prerequisite to dialogue, because you sure didn’t listen to us when you made your initiative.  

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!