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Order and disorder in the Fundamental Standard

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This is the first in a two-piece collection on the use of the word “order” in the Fundamental Standard. Here, we discuss possible worrying connotations of the word order. In the next, we will discuss the presumably positive interpretations of the word’s inclusion.

The Fundamental Standard: “Students at Stanford are expected to show both within and without the University such respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens. Failure to do this will be sufficient cause for removal from the University.”

First articulated in 1896 by David Starr Jordan, who was both president of Stanford and a supporter of eugenics, the Fundamental Standard has since “set the standard of conduct for students at Stanford.” Though the Standard includes broad and oftentimes vague recommendations on how students are to conduct themselves in the realm of academics and student life, it is a clear signaling of what the University expects of its students. The Standard has frequently been cited in the debate over the limits of free speech on campus, invoked in disciplinary hearings against students and student groups alike, and recognized as the basis upon which many other values of the university are built. We think it’s immensely important to have a document that articulates the shared values of our campus community and acts as a document we can look upon when value crises arise. However, we think the current language is potentially troublesome.

Most recently, the Standard was the center of scrutiny at the latest Faculty Senate meeting held on Feb. 21. Attending professors and administrators expressed concern about its wording during a debate on free speech, academic freedom and respectful discourse on campus. At the meeting, the Senate considered the very usage of the word “order” that we, too, disagree with.

Professor of pathology and genetics Arend Sidow opened up the conversation by noting that the particular wording of part of the Standard — specifically, the “order” expected of each Stanford affiliate — was uncomfortably reminiscent of the “language of authoritarians.” While we would not go as far as to say that the wording is inherently authoritarian, our critique rests in the fact that the use of “order” does not live up to the test of our University’s history and has connotations that are antithetical to other values articulated by the University.

During the Vietnam War, for example, hundreds of Stanford students participated in protests against the University’s complicity in the war. In particular, tensions reached a boiling point in 1969 surrounding Stanford’s involvement in classified military research. That year, a series of sit-ins swept through the University. From the over 400 students who conducted a nine-day sit-in at the Applied Electronics Laboratory to break-ins and occupations of Encina Hall, students hardly followed any notions of order. Despite the clear lack of regard for the Fundamental Standard’s “order,” Stanford administrators still bent under the pressure of protest and quickly announced their resolution to ban classified military research from campus.

We strongly believe that civil disobedience has been an important tool throughout Stanford’s history. The tenacity of the students and their rejection of a highly controlled environment and the social norms of the previous generation ended up having a net positive effect on the University, and the parallel social movement had a net positive effect on the world. Choosing whether or not to include the word “order” is not a mere choice between order and disorder, however; it’s the acknowledgement that the word has some connotations and interpretations that we fully agree with, but that the Standard could benefit from replacing the word “order” or further contextualizing the word’s meaning to better align with the values of the University.

Beyond the notion that these interpretations are worrying in light of Stanford’s history, we believe that these interpretations signal certain directives that are incompatible with other values of the University.

The Fundamental Standard, which every incoming first year signs before coming to campus, operates as a type of social contract whereby the University admits us into the campus community and, in return, we agree to act in a certain manner. But many of us signed it without considering what, exactly, the Fundamental Standard really is. We want to know precisely what we’ve agreed to because the document, in its current form, can be understood in worrying ways. Specifically, the word “order” can be interpreted in three concerning ways:

  • It can be interpreted as encouraging a highly controlled environment. This could reasonably translate into tightly mandated student conduct codes which would reduce student’s ability to behave as adults and reduce their freedom to make their own decisions. This line of thought suggests that rules should be created simply because mandating action is better than allowing for chaotic choices.
  • It can be interpreted as calling for a neatly arranged campus community. It would logically follow that everything on campus should be tightly categorized, including students, programs and ideas.
  • It could be interpreted as requiring students to adhere to a particular system of social norms. This interpretation would claim that Stanford students should be required to uphold the social norms of the previous generation. This might lead to universities no longer encouraging or supporting positive change in their communities.

On a highly controlled environment: We don’t believe that the University — or the Fundamental Standard — should hold its students within a tightly controlled environment that could lead to a paternalistic relationship between University and student. Doing so would be to hinder Stanford’s mission of educating students to become independent and flourishing thinkers. Instead, Stanford and its Standard must seek to promote a culture where students are encouraged to make decisions and choices for themselves, instead of merely ingesting decisions made by University leadership.

Further, certain “bold” ideas will necessarily arise and disrupt an orderly university, and most would agree that Stanford would have failed as a true marketplace of ideas if the students pursuing these bold ideas were expelled because they weren’t “respecting order” — this dedication to bold ideas and self-determination has been seen in our campus’ history of activism and constructive protest. Stanford has stated, and we strongly support, this notion that the University should not be telling their students what is right. Their role is to guide and to equip them with the skills to come to their own conclusions about what is right, without fear of disciplinary retribution or repression.

On a neatly arranged campus community: Stanford’s identity as a university that generally encourages out of the box and risky thinking is incompatible with a commitment to being a “neatly arranged university.” Many of the best intellectual ideas throughout history don’t fit into any one department or discipline. Many of the best and brightest Stanford students don’t fit into “neat” categories on the basis of background, intellectual interest or personality, either. Adhering to antiquated norms of what “neatly arranged” means would potentially threaten the status and success of those students who continue to push the boundaries of “normal,” whether it be in the context of a risky research project or the expression of a minority personal identity. Requiring students to act in a way simply because it allows for tidy bookkeeping and “neat arrangement” holds no place on our campus.

On a particular system of social norms: Stanford University has always been a university that does not accept social, political or economic directives and/or systems simply because they are the established system. Stanford students, and college students across the country, are encouraged and expected to probe the ideas and norms of previous generations. For example, students who protested during the Civil Rights movement could have been found in violation of the Standard’s “order” defined and perpetuated by previous generations. Upholding the values of previous generations should be seen as a second order value: Only if the norms of the previous generations are good and worthwhile should students seek to uphold them. What task is more sacred in a university than this, if not to be the nesting ground for societal change and ultimately improvement?

Of the three potential misinterpretations of the Fundamental Standard, we believe the most pressing and relevant to the University is the last one, pertaining to a particular system of social norms. If the University had always abided by “order” in this context, many of the positive changes and movements we’ve seen happen on campus would likely have never happened. By tethering the University to a previous generation’s social norms and understandings of what order means in their context, the University would fail to let it grow organically and constructively. We see this as the most salient issue to address primarily because growth, change and challenge are precisely those traits that allow the University to remain consistent with the broader non-Stanford social context, to allow for the radical to become the normal.

Of course, these readings of “order” are textualist and literal. The Fundamental Standard operates as a type of University constitution, and certain literal interpretations of its barebones structure and wording can lead to vastly different present-day understandings from Stanford’s intended moral grounding. Our concerns about “order” are based on more hypothetical, literal and textualist grounds, and we recognize that the University’s use of the Standard has not and may not always reflect aberrations from its other guiding principles (like student liberty). These are concerns we are mindful of when making this critique of a specific word in the Fundamental Standard.

But the fact that the Standard could be interpreted in such ways is, at the least, concerning. Even though the Standard sets out to create a series of norms and clear mandates, the specific language in which these norms are framed and understood in today’s context leaves an uncomfortable amount of room for the Standard’s misinterpretation. Furthermore, most of the interpretive work is done in private, leaving the University community without a clear understand of how different competing values will be weighed in the future.

To counter possibly poor interpretations, the vice provost for undergraduate education maintains a quite limited, but helpful website that provides further guidance on how to interpret the Fundamental Standard. While we believe this is a step in the right direction, it’s guidance is far too specific and fails to further clarify the values at stake. It includes the following note that ostensibly points to how the usage of the word “order” is to be interpreted:

iii. Students are expected to respect University policies as well as state and federal law.

One reasonable response to our argument is that striking the word “order” from the standard will signal that breaking laws and university policy is acceptable. We don’t purport to encourage anarchy and believe that laws are generally beneficial for society, nor do we seek to recreate a narrowly and precisely written version of “order” or “disorder” the Standard. Instead, this is an effort to point out how “order” cannot reflect the University’s true values as it stands today.

So, what should be done? This is but one of many calls for the Fundamental Standard to be revised or reinterpreted. Considering it is one of the central articulations of the University’s values, it’s worrying that members of the University community feel as though it doesn’t fully embody the values of Stanford in the current day. We believe there is sufficient cause to revisit or clarify segments of the Fundamental Standard based on these connotational concerns.

In the coming week, we will propose suggestions for these changes and discuss our objections to even the kindest interpretation of the standard in a follow-up article. For now, we urge the Stanford community to consider how interpretations and conceptions of “order” may have changed from the Standard’s conception to present day, and have come to represent a stifling of ability. This is to say that perhaps a healthy respect for disorder — in its historical success and ability to allow for substantive community collaboration, change and progress — should perhaps be reflected in the University’s Standard.

Contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at elindqw ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jonathan Lipman at jlipman ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Elizabeth Lindqwister is a junior from Peoria, Illinois, majoring in history. She was the Vol. 257 Deputy Editor and Vice President. Find her at CoHo or elindqw 'at' stanford.edu.