By Justin Wilck
This past Monday was the first day of the academic year. In many ways, it was the spectacular and familiar open to the fall quarter that we, as returning students and workers, are accustomed to. The cardinal Stanford banner still stretched out imperiously from Palm Drive to the lower contours of downtown Palo Alto, the balloon arches still lined the threshold to Old Union, and lanyard-strung frosh still lined the book store, dining halls and, too often, bike paths.
But this past Monday also marked another broken promise by the Stanford administration — a failure that we as students and workers are all too familiar with. Last October, when the university announced its response (denial) of SU Prison Divest’s divestment review, the Board of Trustees announced its intention to review Stanford’s Statement on Investment Responsibility (SIR) and related procedures. The Board’s letter announced that its goal was to “to present by the fall of 2018 a new statement and related procedures.” The fall quarter is well underway, and we’re still waiting for a new policy.
I’m not writing to register surprise or disappointment at this failure — anyone who has followed Stanford’s divestment history would likely conclude this most recent (non-)development is par for the course. Last March, the CEO of Stanford Management Company stated that “the endowment is not a tool for social activism.” Last April, undergraduate and graduate students voted overwhelmingly in favor of a fossil fuel divestment resolution in spring’s ASSU elections, and the administration never commented or took action. Understandably, many of us involved in Stanford’s divestment movements were never particularly optimistic about substantive SIR or APIRL reforms.
But the administration’s failure to produce their promised response is indicative of a larger problem — when the administration fails, it doesn’t answer to students, and it is largely students who work to fill the gap between expectation and reality.
Take the case of divestment and the SIR review process. As we’ve seen throughout the process of Stanford’s Statement of Investment Responsibility (SIR) rewrite process, we as students are often asked to be sources of information and expertise, but we then lose our ability to meaningfully self-determine as we are excluded from decision-making and voting procedures. And at the end of the process, when the administration fails to meet the expectations that it sets, there is no model of administrative accountability to students.
In this system, the burden of administrative failure is shifted onto students. As students interested in divestment, we have to do work to galvanize the administration to meet its commitments (e.g. this op-ed). But beyond that, once the new standards are released, we have to assess them and make tailored divestment proposals during the academic quarter, while our workload is arguably the hardest. We need to reconceptualize the phenomenon of activist burnout — the progressive loss of energy and sense of wellbeing in activism — not just as an inevitable outcome of difficult and meaningful work but also as a symptom of the administrative structures that pit students’ deeply held convictions against their ability to function.
If the administration isn’t accountable to its students (or its workers as protests last year demonstrated sufficiently — compare Harvard’s recent parity policy), to whom or what is it accountable? The University’s academic research?
In the case of divestment, it appears that’s not the case. In response to SU Prison Divest’s and Fossil Free Stanford’s divestment requests, the Board of Trustees highlighted Stanford’s academic research in criminal justice and climate science as a justification for choosing not to take institutional action.
“As trustees, we believe Stanford has gone well beyond establishing goals and commitments to achieving significant results that have made it a leader in combating climate change,” it wrote last year, all the while insisting that the University continue to invest in exactly the institutions that its research condemns.
In this system, the University hides behind its own research on the severity of climate change or the injustice of America’s criminal justice system to vindicate its investment decisions, though it’s clear to all that these “significant results” are ultimately secondary to considerations of financial profit.
In its current Statement on Investment Responsibility, the University is clear that the Trustees’ primary imperative is “to maximize the risk-adjusted financial return on endowment assets [of which] nothing in this Statement should be read to change or diminish.”
Obviously, the administration will continue to prioritize the University’s institutional interests — the Board and upper administration will solicit money from donors and manage risk to prevent lawsuits where possible. But with an endowment of nearly $25 billion (in 2017), we need to be skeptical and critical of any false sense of parsimonious pragmatism that encourages us to disregard the obligations we owe our workers, students and our wider community.
Too often, the administration has contented itself with collecting student input via surveys and town-halls or by giving select students a few representative seats on boards or committees. But when it comes to decision-making, students have been functionally disenfranchised. Stanford administration needs to move to meaningfully involve students and workers in more of its decision-making bodies — moreover, the administration needs to compensate students and workers for the labor they provide in sitting in on those committees.
To that end, we as students are cautiously hopeful about our future work with the administration to work on future divestment proposals — that is, just as soon as the University delivers what it has already promised.
Contact Justin Wilck at [email protected]