Stanford can sometimes seem more like a carefully constructed political system than an institution for higher learning.
Its choice of leadership is only indirectly guided by student preferences. There’s a constant balancing act between guaranteeing the financial health of the institution and reflecting the beliefs and interests of its people. And indirect communication has fostered mistrust and miscommunications between leadership and the students, even in cases in which everyone was on the same side.
The Stanford administration has a transparency problem when it comes to its students. And while that may not alter its intentions, it certainly makes it much harder for listeners to believe their stake in these issues matters.
All of this is not to dismiss the efforts of the administration to communicate meaningfully with the student body, or to say that this barrier in communications is entirely their fault. The administration has made countless efforts — through OpenXChange, talks by President Hennessy to groups of the student body, meetings between him and individual student groups expressing concerns through movements like WTU and Fossil Free.
The administration has even taken steps to give students a concrete voice, such as bringing in a student to serve on the Presidential Search committee that recommended Marc Tessier-Lavigne earlier this year. It has tried to encourage accountability on issues like sexual assault by carrying out a wide-ranging student survey to get a better sense of its performance as an administration in protecting student interests. All of those were important steps that deserve to be acknowledged. But it’s equally important to highlight a critical shortcoming that has been the barrier to real progress both within and outside these well-intended efforts: effective and meaningful communication that backs them up.
Among the many examples of failed communication was the fossil fuel divestment issue. Last year, Fossil Free Stanford saw an opportunity to pressure Stanford into divesting from environmentally damaging industries, and its students protested with a sit-in in Main Quad to make the group’s preferences known. But cries for change seemed to fall on deaf ears. For many students, Stanford’s attitude towards FFS was encapsulated by President John Hennessy getting a public haircut at the on-campus Stanford Hair salon, while students protested for hours outside his office.
We understand that at Stanford, the president is asked to focus more on big-picture items like fundraising and less on engaging with the undergraduate student body, than at most schools. But the reality is that such a show of indifference should not have occurred. Ultimately, although Hennessy did meet with students at the end of the week, his action passed almost entirely unnoticed because he did not do so when campus scrutiny was at its peak.
Currently, the intentions of the administration are often difficult to ascertain. On most decisions, explanations are not given and the information we do receive via community emails and speeches to small crowds about campus issues is often so cloaked in vagueness that it’s not even clear what the subject is.
For example, a week after The Stanford Review’s controversial April Fool’s publication, the administration sent out an email referencing the importance of engaging in “respectful conversations with each other.” It also referenced the role of “humor” in “undermin[ing] the climate of respectful dialogue.”
But if their intent was to discourage painful humor in response to a particular issue, what good is a reprimand without pointing directly to the issue that needs correcting?
In addition, the perception among students is that efforts to address mental health on campus have taken a backseat this year. The reality, though, is quite the opposite. In a recent open letter in The Daily, CAPS director Ronald Albucher detailed a myriad of transformations CAPS has undergone recently that tell a very different story. But these changes will be ineffective if only a small group of students and the administration are aware of them.
Most recently, the administration suggested they want to ban hard alcohol in dorms. The sheer unpopularity of this measure among University staff and students has triggered much speculation as to why the administration would have proposed such a radical change. While no one on campus promotes alcohol transports and sexual assault, a complete alcohol ban demands explanation and transparency. And yet, there has been virtually no meaningful communication from the administration, either to students or to residential staff about the reasoning or intentions behind the ban. The only information we have so far is that some members of Residential Education and the student body are adamantly opposed to its implementation.
Stanford does a lot of work to make sure that students can freely express their views, but expressing views is not the same as having input. The Daily Editorial Board does not propose that students be given a veto, or even a larger share of the vote, in key University decisions. But if the administration does something, we believe that students ought to know that the action is being taken and why the administration is doing it. Stanford is accountable for things much bigger than the contentment of the current students residing on campus. But the fact remains that it is first and foremost a university with students who want nothing more than to understand their leadership.
In the long run, something needs to change. There are far too many intelligent, articulate people in the Stanford administration for communication on clearly student-related issues like dorm rules and mental health to be so woefully inadequate. Moreover, these are issues that absolutely demand student cooperation for the administration to properly move forward. We believe that those in administration are generally well-intentioned — but we also believe they’d be more effective if we knew why they do what they do.
– The Stanford Daily Editorial Board
Contact the Editorial Board at [email protected]