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The myth of intellectual vitality? On housing and culture at Stanford and Oxford

(AYEESA RASHAD/The Stanford Daily)

I saw an Onion headline a while back, “Malala Can Tell Oxford Paired Her With Roommate Just Because They’re Both Nobel Laureates” that first made me laugh and then made me really think.

The joke, of course, is that no other Oxford fresher — that’s British for “freshman” — has a Nobel to her name. But it also inadvertently picks up on a difference between the American university system and the Oxbridge system in Britain. When she starts school at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall this October, Malala Yousafzai won’t have a roommate. Neither will any of her classmates.

I was shocked, while at Oxford last spring, to discover that students there generally live alone. “Deans here understand that we use our rooms to work and that’s more difficult with roommates,” an Oxford friend said by way of explanation. He was equally shocked to learn that Stanford students expect to have roommates of some kind for a majority, if not the entirety, of their undergraduate careers.

Why don’t Stanford deans think the same way? It’s not that Oxford has more money to spend on undergraduate housing: with nearly 12,000 undergrads, they have an endowment of £5 billion (about $6.6 billion), while we have only 7,000 undergrads and a whopping $22.4 billion in endowment funds. Oxford — relatively speaking! — is a less rich university than Stanford. So why do their students all get singles, often in beautiful, centuries-old buildings?

Stanford has a history of struggles with undergraduate housing, especially compared to our peer schools in the US. You’d think that with an enormous, 8,000-acre campus and buckets of money, it’s the last thing we’d have issues with, but if talking to friends at Yale living in cushy suite-style housing makes you feel jealous, at least times have improved since the 2000s, when singles in Lagunita became “mini-doubles,” Mirrielees two-bedroom apartments became triples and many students slept in “desk beds” or in bunk beds.

Part of this is probably because of high demand in what’s essentially a command economy. Thanks to Stanford’s isolated setting, Silicon Valley rents, and a tight-knit undergrad culture, some 97% of students live on campus. Meanwhile, not all Oxford colleges guarantee housing for the final year of school, so perhaps they manage to make the fewer rooms they offer more pleasant.

But even taking capacity issues into account, Stanford seems dead set on making students — especially freshmen — have roommates. The fact that the new Lagunita dorms feature one-room doubles for freshmen seems to be an intentional choice, not simply based on efficiency concerns.

Why does Stanford prefer its undergrads to have roommates — and its freshmen to have roommates they do not even choose? Certainly not a desire to ensure top academic performance. Whether the culprit is different sleep schedules, visitors, music or snoring, roommates more often than not have a negative effect on students’ ability to work and sleep in their rooms. The answer is probably obvious: Stanford has other priorities for its students than academic performance.

Oxford, on the other hand, doesn’t. British universities expect their students to do very serious intellectual work, and they are careful to ensure that conditions in dorms and study spaces make that work possible. I received countless emails on the college listserv at Oxford detailing noise complaints and the surprisingly immediate and severe responses to them, by student administrators as well as college faculty and staff.

Meanwhile, there seems to be very little conversation between students and administrators at Oxford about campus culture. Administrators tend to see their job as making sure students are able to study, full stop. If that means attending to mental health or ensuring a vibrant social scene, so be it, but they’d rather let the students take care of that themselves. Results are mixed.

More generally, there’s less of a sense of a “college experience” at Oxford. Obviously, graduates feel nostalgic about their Oxford glory days in the same way we will about our Stanford ones, but they generally don’t seem as aware during their time as undergrads that there’s an official point to being there other than the work they’re doing and the degree they’ll get.

The conditions in dorms and study spaces here at Stanford are simply not as conducive to serious intellectual work; that much is undeniable. The conclusion is that Stanford does not expect its students to do serious intellectual work as undergraduates — at least not as much as Oxford does. After all, how could you be truly diligent and productive when you’re living five to a room in a fraternity house, or kept awake in EBF by the throbbing bass of Happy Hour? (Maybe this is what Marx really meant when he spoke of the material conditions of intellectual production.) Students’ own motivations to achieve in intellectual realms aside, our living conditions are a recipe for intellectual mediocrity, not vitality.

I’m not suggesting that this should necessarily change, and I hope this doesn’t read as a criticism of Stanford housing, which, if inferior to conditions in some of our peer institutions, is still extremely cushy for college residences in general, and infinitely preferable in terms of price than the housing market in Silicon Valley.

The obvious reason our living conditions are the way they are is that Stanford encourages its students to make connections with other students and enjoy the extracurricular aspects of university life. Administrators, however bumblingly, display a deep and apparently genuine concern for students’ social lives and personal well-being. And the things that keep us from sleep and work — parties, roommates, etc. — are often pieces of the Stanford experience considered more precious than essays or problem sets.

Here, it’s encouraged to make a conscious decision now and then to abandon schoolwork for a while and enjoy the social opportunities on offer. “In twenty years, you won’t worry about whether you got an A on a test, but what friends you made that day,” is a familiar piece of advice we’ve all heard both from friends and administrators. There’s the idea — almost totally nonexistent on the other side of the pond — that university is about learning things, but also about learning “who you are.”

To me, that’s the bottom line. Stanford students are, broadly speaking, happier and better-adjusted than Oxford students, though they’re almost certainly learning less academically. I simply wish that the university would articulate all this better in its presentation of itself and its culture to prospective and current students.

If we’re being honest, “intellectual vitality” is not at all our mission, nor what we do best. If you’re looking for that, go to Oxford. What we do best is something I’d prefer to call “intellectual flexibility.”

Stanford is a place where students can explore new intellectual horizons in a relatively relaxed setting, cushioned by a vibrant social scene in the dorms and elsewhere. The frontiers of what you can learn and do are much broader here, and a successful college experience means making strides in a range of pursuits.

While a successful Oxford student scores top marks on her exams, we generally like to think that academic success is not sufficient for a college life well-lived — and that if you’ve gone through your time as an undergrad looking only for the academic bottom line and not taking moments to abandon purely intellectual pursuits and seize opportunities for some kind of personal growth, you’ve somehow missed the point.

The door that leads to intellectual excellence is always open at Stanford, so you’re free to enter and leave as often as you want — while at Oxford, you’re pushed through the doorway and locked inside. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, and personal growth happens along the way whether your institution encourages it or not. Our job is to be honest and open about our priorities as a university and to not dress ourselves with the appearance of virtues we do not embody.


Contact Nick Burns at njburns ‘at’ 

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