By Lily Zheng
By now most of us have heard the news: Stanford’s 11th president, selected by the Presidential Search Committee after “six months and thousands of hours reviewing prospective candidates in a comprehensive, inclusive global search,” will be Canadian neuroscientist and former faculty member Marc Tessier-Lavigne.
On Facebook, the uproar in response to his selection was immediate. In the hours after Stanford’s announcement of its next president, I watched the storm of comments and reactions, some indignant, some resigned, some sarcastic. In a surprisingly short amount of time, articles cropped up in response: Stanford Political Journal’s disappointment in a “lost presidential opportunity,” and The Stanford Review’s criticism of students’ “knee jerk reactions” and “tirades.”
The reason for the outrage? Like every other President selected in Stanford’s 125 year history, Marc Tessier-Lavigne is a white man.
I’m not interested in this column about speculating about candidates, about which candidate is/was better, should have been chosen, etc. Rather, I want to unpack that “knee jerk reaction” the Review so dryly commented on, and explore just why so many students are unimpressed with the Presidential Search Committee’s decision.
Over the last two years, injustices and inequities on this campus have grown in salience for most people here. Now, more than ever, we are aware of the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms, the prevalence of microaggressions in classrooms and houses, the vitriol of Yik Yak and our lack of mental health resources. Movements like Who’s Teaching Us? bring to light systemic inequities in the racial and gender makeup of our university, the difficulties of underrepresentation that marginalized communities at Stanford face, and an explosive year of activism, protests, advocacy, trauma and conflict brought massive issues of systemic racism, police brutality, occupation, violence and oppression onto campus.
And our next president is a white man.
We know that Stanford values its academics, its liberal arts program and scientific excellence, and those other characteristics it boasts about so frequently on admissions brochures. Tessier-Lavigne, like President John Hennessy before him, is undoubtedly able to maintain Stanford’s empire in these ways. But in picking a white man, competent as he may be, the Presidential Search Committee sends a clear message that it values that kind of status quo, and that they have no major plans for change on this campus. As society’s issues bleed unstoppably onto campus, many of us see Tessier-Lavigne as representative of Stanford’s desire to reinforce the bubble with plexiglass, hunker down and hope that after the dust settles, it’ll all be business as usual again.
Of course, this interpretation could be wrong. Tessier-Lavigne could turn out to be a strong advocate for queer and trans people on campus, galvanize faculty and institutional structure towards racial justice and decolonization and champion accessibility for first-generation students, low income students, disabled and neurodivergent students and the like. Tessier-Lavigne could interact critically and intentionally with social justice movements and the world outside Stanford, take a stance, steer our massive endowment towards bettering disadvantaged communities, push for divestment from fossil fuels, private prisons and companies complicit in occupation.
But even typing that out I find myself doubting that any of it could happen, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that. For students who desperately need change on this campus, we have grown to distrust the red-tape, bureaucratic machinations of a university that has been slow in supporting our communities and quick in dismissing our needs.
So what now, moving forward?
The Daily reports that during his announcement conference, Tessier-Lavigne “touched upon fostering an inclusive campus community, the health of the campus environment and diversity; addressing sexual assault; and making the University accessible to all students regardless of financial need.” In the official announcement made by Stanford, Tessier-Lavigne’s stated that, “In coming months, I plan to listen and learn from faculty, students, staff, trustees and alumni, to understand more fully the many opportunities and challenges facing the university, and to hear their aspirations for this great institution.”
We as students need to hold him accountable to that. People are frustrated now, and rightfully so – but it’s even more important now not to let our desire for something different fizzle out into apathy. When fall quarter 2016 begins, it’s our job to remember the 125 years of white men Stanford has made its presidents and hold Tessier-Lavigne accountable to the change we want to see, to the change that, with any luck, he wants to see as well. We need to set a high bar for our next president, one that challenges him and our community to transform as an institution, one that pushes him and all of us to reconsider Stanford’s role in the changing times ahead.
Contact Lily at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.