Last week, The Daily’s editorial board met with new University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne to discuss his transition to Stanford and his hopes for his tenure, as well as his perspective on current campus issues such as alcohol and sexual assault. During our conversation, Tessier-Lavigne repeatedly expressed his desire to better engage with students and collaborate in developing constructive policies; as a group, we noted that while students and administrators both care about the well-being of the Stanford community, failures in communication have led to controversy and student discontent over the past year.
We support and appreciate the incoming administration’s efforts to improve relations with the student body, and we hope that both President Tessier-Lavigne and new Provost Persis Drell make clear and effective communication a priority. Clear communication with students will require more consistency in how and when messages are conveyed, and effective communication hinges on the University treating students as adults. On a topic that warrants more discussion, the University must remain wary of creating situations in which administrators, though genuinely concerned for student welfare, unduly interfere in campus life and fail to accord students a measure of responsibility in the decision-making process.
With that in mind, in this board’s final editorial, we present here several recommendations for improving administration-student communication. We also discuss recent controversies, with reflections on their outcomes and suggestions for the future.
Taking advantage of the residential staff structure
One of the primary issues facing Stanford administration is the lack of student support for policy changes. When the University takes a top-down approach to decision-making or poorly understands the channels used by students to voice input, students with important viewpoints remain unaware of how they can contribute to discussions — or that discussions are even taking place. In addition, when students are able to provide input but decisions seem to go against popular opinion, we begin to interpret administrative decisions as a sign of disregard for student voices.
We believe that the University should take advantage of the existing dorm staff structure to foster discussions and gain support for institutional changes. Especially in underclassmen residences, student staff and resident faculty are some of the most respected leaders on campus. If RAs, RFs and other staff were to disseminate information about administrative initiatives and lead discussions within dorm communities, students might feel more comfortable engaging in campus issues and reform, and if student staff were given formal opportunities to explain their support or concerns regarding policy decisions, there would be greater awareness and understanding of administrative actions. This residential structure was not appropriately informed during early development of the alcohol policy, creating confusion for residents and staff alike.
These discussions could take several different forms – larger University updates during house meetings, smaller hall discussions or more focused one-off sessions led by individual staff – all contributing to a structure we might call a “dorm caucus.” While meetings need not be mandatory for all residents – upperclassmen especially tend to participate less in dorm life – they would provide a known place for students to voice their opinions if desired. Given a formal role in the policy process, staff members could also act as trusted liaisons for students who wish to voice concerns privately.
Transparency in working groups
The University has long relied on various “working groups” or “committees,” usually made up of undergraduates, graduate students and administrators, to tackle important issues. Too often, students aren’t aware that these committees exist or, when they are notified, have no idea how they were formed.
Creating an easily accessible landing page with a list of all active committees would be a useful first step. Full member lists might be kept private to prevent unnecessary attention from falling on individual students, but selection processes should be made clear and committees ought to be accessible, either through a designated point representative or a public contact email. Furthermore, publishing meeting minutes or summaries when appropriate would allow the broader community to gain insight into the discussions being had, instead of having to wait until a decision is handed down with no clarity as to the process by which it was reached.
A data-driven approach
In a time when online petitions and social media campaigns allow students to quickly express their views to thousands of others, the administration’s approach to collecting input can seem both slow-moving and opaque. Policies that cite studies and data but present neither for viewing or analysis will, no matter how well-intentioned, seem arbitrarily imposed.
We would like to see the University adopt a more data-driven approach when developing such policies, especially when regarding issues that, like alcohol and sexual assault, affect the entire student body. Collect data and then show it to us. Students want nothing more than to share our views, and in the absence of University channels, we resort to informal vehicles like ASSU referendums and Google Forms polls, which can suffer from partisan wording, selection bias in survey distribution and a lack of both data privacy and coherent presentation. The University has a unique ability to reach all students; we want to see this taken advantage of.
The University often cites complaints from students when justifying policies but rarely goes into specifics. Anecdotal evidence is important; we recognize that the yes/no preferences of a majority can – and often should – be outweighed by the severe concerns of a minority. As part of this data-driven effort, the University should also collect and share concrete, appropriately anonymized examples of both the concerns leading up to a policy and the reactions following its enactment, with indications of the scale of each side.
In general, these recommendations are intended to improve understanding for both administrators and students. In many cases, students recognize the presence of legitimate concerns but might not be aware of their severity, and administrators recognize negative reactions to policies but not the specific reasons behind student grievances. Here, we briefly reflect on several issues from this past year, focusing on root causes for controversy and potential solutions.
We understand and recognize certain successes of the recently implemented restrictions on hard liquor and refuse to ignore data implying that something has worked. We don’t want to suggest that the specifics of the ban have been effective – anecdotally, most residences have chosen not to implement or enforce it – but it seems that the mere presence of dialogue around alcohol consumption has contributed to safer drinking behaviors.
We have already discussed our problems with the introduction of this policy elsewhere, so we would like to focus on preserving the progress made while returning self-governance and clarity to those tasked with creating a safe drinking culture on campus. It is our belief that decisions around hard alcohol – and alcohol consumption in general – should be made by dorm staff. Though the current policy – like Stanford’s under-21 policy – provides staff with a “tool” to intervene in the event of dangerous behavior, its ambiguity fails to affirm the importance of staff’s role and expertise. The University should make it clear that the implementation of the alcohol policy is a choice that these individuals have the right to make.
We also feel that the University fails to do enough to encourage safer drinking practices; in other words, the current policy restricts hard alcohol but does not provide productive alternatives. Instead of villainizing alcohol, the administration needs to commit to the creation of spaces where casual drinking — as opposed to binge drinking — is normative. College kids are going to drink. To ignore this fact is to ignore reality. So why not help students do this in a way less detrimental to their well-being, and Stanford’s? Ideas include re-allowing fraternities to serve beer and wine at all-campuses, so as to discourage pre-gaming; allowing residents to drink beer and wine in common spaces, so they can hang out with friends and sip a beer; and even committing to the creation of an on-campus bar, which is with successful precedent at peer institutions.
Greater transparency is also in order in sanctioning high-profile student groups like the Band. Like the rest of campus, we take sexual assault and harassment very seriously. But without clear communication from the University, it can be challenging to understand the outcomes of Title IX cases regarding student organizations. Privacy and legal restrictions such as FERPA must be respected, but when one party of a case is such a large student group, the matter ceases to be strictly personal.
Any student group, no matter how popular, should be disciplined for cases of sexual misconduct – but every member should understand why. In his Jan. 8 email to the community, former Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ’82 stated that the original Band alcohol/travel ban was in response to misconduct complaints as recent as 2015 – information not communicated to most students when sanctions were first put in place. This breakdown in communication caused legitimate concerns that the Band’s suspension was merely a tool to force such a famously irreverent organization to quiet down. Ultimately, while cultural changes might be essential, it serves little purpose to discipline a group without clearly explaining what behavior was found objectionable.
Full Moon on the Quad
As the administration recognized in its continuation of FMOTQ this year, the event is a vital tradition conducive to Stanford’s culture of both irreverence and inclusion. For many FMOTQ is a celebration of sexuality, of free expression of individuality. But we also understand that for some, the event raises significant concerns related to sexual violence and the generation of hostile spaces on campus.
This year, the administration, working with the junior class presidents, attempted to desexualize FMOTQ to address these concerns. Yet in pushing the event towards gratitude and thank-you notes, the organizers, consciously or otherwise, turned the kissing, nudity and absurdity of Full Moon from something to be celebrated into something deviant.
Moreover, this year, the emphasis on desexualization took away from other important priorities: A lack of ID checks rendered the space informal but also less secure, while the shortening of the event reduced the sexual atmosphere but also left non-participating students with little to do. We do not believe that these steps represent a valid solution.
We recommend the return of ID checks, stricter security measures and the continued presence of sober monitors. Sexual violence thrives in spaces with unmonitored alcohol and drug consumption; in this respect, we feel that a focus on the effects of these substances would lead to a safer and less hostile environment at FMOTQ. This means more rigorous screening – turning away people who are evidently too drunk to attend – and sober monitors removing those students who are not being appropriate or respectful of their classmates. As students, we recognize that Full Moon is a privilege, and we also recognize that if our actions do not contribute to a comfortable, consensual environment, this privilege can be taken from us.
The University has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining Stanford’s unique culture. Much of the recent clash between students and administration stems from failures in communication with the students who create this culture, leading to misunderstandings and a perceived stifling of Stanford’s irreverence. Following our conversation with President Tessier-Lavigne, we are hopeful that the new leadership has the best interests of the student body at heart. We learned that we often have a shared understanding of the core issues on campus, and with improvements to communication and decision-making processes, we would like to continue building a community whose value is in the gestalt of its many pieces. Only when student goals and administration goals are clearly articulated can mutually beneficial alignment occur; this happens through improved communication and the acknowledgment that both groups are often striving for the same ends.
— Vol. 250 Editorial Board