This past week, a Daily columnist wrote an article entitled “In Defense of Standards of Excellence.” Her argument in favor of the administrative process that recently unhoused the TDX fraternity (before the decision’s reversal) was well written and, on a superficial level, reasonable. However, the foundation upon which many of her claims lie is a fundamentally flawed one. Stanford’s “Standards of Excellence” (SOE) and the administrative machinations that underpin it are inherently regressive mechanisms whose implementation speaks volumes about the University’s ability to fairly judge Greek organizations.
Much of the author’s claims were informed via her own organization’s largely positive experience with SOE. This perspective is a somewhat unsurprising one given that her multicultural sorority (SYZ) was (alongside SigEp) the first and thus-far only group to be awarded a residence via the SOE process. Such a reductive view, however, denies the possibility that other houses may have had a markedly different experience with the standards of excellence program.
She states, “Every fall quarter, SYZ’s leadership spends hours compiling information about how the organization contributes to the Stanford community through scholarship and service on campus. Our presentation to SOE also delineates how decently our internal and external development processes work. We convey why it’s worth Stanford’s while to have us living together and collaborating as scholars, community change agents and friends.” Newflash: Every Greek organization does this exact same thing. Nobody is claiming that Theta Delt failed to put in many hours, assembling and presenting a report that discussed the merits of their continued existence on this campus. Rest assured, they did.
The issue, however, and the fundamental discrepancy that seems to animate the entire debate over SOE’s existence, is how fairly those committees are judging each organization. Because while SYZ may have received a passing grade from the process, it’s clear that the margins between “meets expectations” and “needs improvement” are both obscure and rapidly shrinking. And as TDX’s brush with oblivion shows, the consequences of all this are more damning than ever.
Any argument in favor of SOE hinges on the assumption that the system judges all organizations equally, with objective and consistent criteria. Many who have dealt intimately with the process, however, will readily confer that this isn’t the case.
SOE is not an unbiased system. Because its procedures are so opaque and Kafkaesque, there is almost nothing to hold it accountable as an institution. Beyond these basic flaws in its design, SOE also largely fails to educate Greek communities on what is expected of them.
By way of example, try and Google “Stanford Standards of Excellence.” The relevant results consist of two articles from The Daily, one a news piece describing its creation and the other the aforementioned column. There is not a single link, document or website that could help enlighten a student seeking more information on SOE from a clear-cut source. This lack of an online footprint is indicative of a process that makes almost no effort to explain itself to the broader Stanford community. And when so few people understand the system — and what it does and doesn’t expect of the organizations it regulates — it makes it far easier for its administrators to make controversial decisions with little to no input from anyone outside the walls of their cubicles, much like the one that nearly gutted TDX.
When searching for answers on these matters, organizations also find it incredibly difficult to know exactly whom they are accountable to. The Standards of Excellence program is nominally run through The Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL), a part of the office of Residential Education (ResEd), which is itself a branch of the Office of Student Affairs, although their findings can be influenced by the Office of Community Standards (OCS) and Organization Conduct Board (OCB), among other offices and administrative groups. Confused yet? Allowing so many different strands of bureaucracy to meddle with the process delegitimizes the notion that SOE is a unified, consistent tool for organizational improvement. A more streamlined program would seem like a prerequisite for having a fair and equitable system. Without it, there are far too many avenues for bias and residual resentment to play a role in SOE’s decision-making.
Worse than its shortage of accountability is SOE’s track record of legitimate guidance. The improvements that the Standards of Excellence reports suggest — and thus the improvements that are apparently necessary for a Greek organization to maintain its survival on this campus — are rarely concrete. For example, TDX’s 2017 SOE feedback states that its “Areas for Improvement” included three items: “Membership Development,” “Chapter Operations” and “Chapter Purpose.” One would be hard-pressed to think up three items that are half as nebulous. Even worse, the report included next to no actionable items that would allow these goals to be achieved, beyond vague platitudes and calls for change.
This is the sort of abstract, administrative nonsense that uniquely characterizes the entire SOE experience. It’s understandable that, when calling for improvement, exact metrics and precise measures are not always available. When the entire system, however, hinges on these vagaries, one can’t help but question the legitimacy of the decisions that are made and inflicted upon Greek houses.
In her column, the author specifically defended SOE on the grounds of it being “meritocratic.” Just because the system has historically favored her organization and her preferences, however, makes it neither “meritocratic” nor worth defending. The argument effectively reads as “sure, the system could be more transparent, but we’re doing well so we don’t really care what the criteria are.”
And if an organization is doing well, there would be no reason to do so. However, when a fraternity or sorority does not know exactly what it must do to improve, its survival is immediately jeopardized. And unfortunately, that is all too often the case. The author correctly points out that Theta Delt failed to achieve a passing grade over the course of multiple years. Nevertheless, when the SOE judges choose to use moving goalposts and changing criteria in judging these houses, all the time in the world wouldn’t be enough to placate them. In TDX’s case, the Standards of Excellence documents readily stated that the fraternity had improved in many of the areas that the panel saw as needing attention. As soon as these improvements were made, however, the University consistently found new sources of criticism. And while those renewed complaints may have indeed been legitimate, the University’s history of anti-Greek bias and past treatment of TDX make it difficult to dissociate the conjecture from the justifiable.
None of this hypothesizing would be necessary were the system more explicit and transparent. And in an era of increasing suspicion towards Greek life and single-sex institutions, it is understandable that the University would desire some method of formalized calls for improvement from fraternities and sororities. Standards of Excellence, however, is not that. It is instead an arbitrary instrument that the administration can bluntly wield against whichever group has fallen out of its favor.
I happened to write all of this before it was announced that SOE’s decision would be revoked, a decision ostensibly made due to the office’s failure to disclose details of its decision-making process to TDX. And frankly, I owe the Standards of Excellence group a thank you. Because nothing I possibly could have written here could make SOE look any worse than what it managed to do itself by botching its own decision. The fact that an undisclosed procedural error was all it took for the administration to originally take Theta Delt’s house is the only evidence one needs to make a judgement on the abilities of SOE to make fair and rational decisions. The process is not clear, not transparent and not unbiased. And although TDX may have gotten lucky, the reversal of its decision does not justify the Standards of Excellence’s current form of existence. This university cannot allow such a flawed process to dictate the fates of students ever again.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.