Dear President Hennessy,
Thank you for all your hard work at this institution. It’s a wonderful place. I am a graduate student, a foreigner, aware of the enormous privilege of being here and deeply grateful for that every single day.
On Wednesday evening I attended an OpenXChange discussion: Combating Inequity in Education. I had high hopes of this event — speak truth to power, and all that. That’s what you tell the restless undergrads. The greatest minds of our generation, solving the intractable problems of the universe.
The panel included three brilliant people, all of whom had brilliant things to say. Your questions to them were thoughtful, if conservative, and the discussion meandered along accordingly with the beautiful articulation of points that most already know to be true: Inequity is racialized, poor school districts suffer, not everybody has access to 24/7 wi-fi, and that affects who lives, who dies and how they do so.
I asked the first question at that event, and your answer was not satisfying. I know it’s always a performance in front of donors, but OpenXChange is supposed to be where difficult issues are addressed, not ducked, so I am following it up. What I posed was, “Shouldn’t Stanford be asking its alumni to donate to Berkeley instead, because we have enough, and the Cal system is struggling?” You said [and I paraphrase] that the alumni wouldn’t think that was a good investment of their money, and maybe we could take a few more transfers to help out.
I doubt that you actually think the University of California system is a poor place to invest. A man of your intelligence must know that Silicon Valley owes its existence to the infrastructures of knowledge created to a large degree by the remarkable UC system before it was hamstrung by budgetary cuts, particularly at the end of the last decade. I’m not a UC alumna, and on the shallowest level, I don’t really care: The question wasn’t about which bumper sticker to put on a car. The question was about the distribution of resources in the Bay Area, in the United States and in the world, and your dismissiveness of it was deeply troubling.
We are all, at Stanford, complicit in inequity in education. We live under palm trees and we eat the free lunch. We use equipment nobody else can afford and we cover walls with sticky notes because we have time to waste on dumb ideas, as long as a spark of genius emerges from one of them, eventually. But the question I was asking is, isn’t this akin to fiddling whilst Rome burns?
If we — the 1 percent now, the whatever we might have been before we arrived here — don’t turn our attention to the fact that outside of private institutions, infrastructures of knowledge are under tremendous strain, are we not failing our responsibility to the world? By asking rich alumni to give to a rich university that disproportionately benefits a chosen few, are we not enabling and perpetuating a system that is exclusive, exploitative and inherently deeply unjust? Should we not reach a point where we say “enough” and turn our resources to the public good?
I know that this sounds idealistic, and were I 10 years younger, perhaps the sentiment might have morphed into a demand. (The demands being made on campus right now are critically important; they represent the passionate best in us and our hopes for doing better). What I am trying to do here, though, is simply to point out that an honest reckoning with equity has got to say, we have too much.
Of course we work hard (though minimum wage employment is much harder), of course we do good (though who actually benefits is often worth interrogation) and of course we deserve to exist. Yet if we allow ourselves to have so much, without actively contributing — with actual dollars — to the broader capacity to educate of the state and of the country in which we live, we will soon be speaking only to ourselves.
These are complicated issues, and no computer application is going to solve them. They require social, political and economic interventions that take brave leadership. They require recognition that a premier research university is in dialogue with not only its peer institutions but also the schools that teach its janitors to read. In a climate where others are freezing, this emperor is simply wearing far too many clothes.
President Hennessy, this letter is nothing personal. I understand that you, as one man responsible for protecting the interests of the very top strata of society, might not feel enabled to do much to actually combat inequity in education. I’m not asking you to be Robin Hood, and I’m not attempting to bite the hand that feeds me (thanks for the free dinner before the event, come to think of it).
The challenge is that we are reaping the benefits of a rigged system, and the irony is that we are the only people who have the power to change it. So I challenge you to ask alumni, just for one year, to donate to the California system of education, at all its tiers, instead of to Stanford. It wouldn’t affect the Cardinal budget very much, all things considered. But it would make a powerful point about community, interdependence and equity in education. We are because they are, as the saying goes.
It’s just a thought, an attempt to deepen the discussion to causes instead of symptoms. It’s written in the spirit of OpenXChange, to the community, not to one man.
Doctoral Candidate in Anthropology
Contact Jess Auerbach at jess.auerbach at’ stanford.edu.