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The Dualist: What do we owe Stanford?

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To what peculiar set of obligations, written and unwritten, have we committed ourselves by choosing to attend this university? I can imagine a variety of responses, including but not limited to donations, excellent citizenship, adherence to the charter, tuition or nothing.

These seem like reasonable obligations at first glance, but the first, at least, fails to check out. Stanford, with an endowment of $26.5 billion, has a fair amount of money already, so your donations could probably go further elsewhere. Moreover, the idea of being obligated to donate sounds like a contradiction.

So let’s set donations aside. The remaining four obligations — excellent citizenship, adherence to the charter, tuition and nothing — fall roughly into two categories: Stanford as a service or Stanford as a community. If we consider the University as doing little more than rendering a service, then we owe nothing beyond tuition. You can chat about machine learning with your professor, swipe into Arrillaga Dining or study blockchain in Green Library, but in the end going to Stanford is like going to ARCO. You fill up your tank with sweet, sweet knowledge, and promise to pay the cashier back later.

But most of us don’t, in fact, consider Stanford a service. We participate in clubs, read student-run newspapers, go on Stanford-sponsored trips, study abroad, get Stanford internships and so on and so forth. None of these activities are part of the minimal Stanford/ARCO experience — after all, there are no requirements besides enrolling in 12 units a quarter and eventually graduating with enough units — but they seem to be an important part of being at Stanford.

Indeed, there are certain aspects of Stanford’s mission and directive that have, since its inception, gone above and beyond mere service-rendering. Jane and Leland Stanford did not found the University because they believed in churning out clever boys and girls, but because they wanted to make the world a better place. Our “end,” as President Casper put it, is in “the promotion of the public welfare.”  

Woven into the fabric of Stanford’s history is a commitment to the social good, a good that goes beyond Stanford campus. The reasons why this obligation is asked of Stanford students, in particular, are numerous. Many rest on the incredible privileges and abilities that we gain by attending the University. I will not rehash them all now. I would only like to call attention to the fact that you chose freely to come here and participate in the community.

Accepting membership into a community like Stanford means accepting a set of moral obligations specific to the community in question, including obligations to the other members and to the reason why the community exists and continues to exist. The mission statement, charter or constitution is the first place to look, and we have considered that sort of historical source above.

But these sources are ideals, and ideals are not always as informative, or even as truthful, to a community’s reason for existing as they ought to be. Fundamental as Stanford’s commitment to social good appears on paper, in day-to-day life the Stanford administration does little to impress and impart that commitment on the undergraduate body.

As freshmen, we get a spiel about doing good — I expect to get another one at graduation. But during the intervening four years, Stanford demonstrates a conspicuous lack of pedagogical motivation and creativity in service of the public good. A commitment to the public good just isn’t a big part of our culture, nor does Stanford push it to be so. Certainly, the Haas Center is a fantastic resource, but it’s a small part of most of our lives, and decidedly optional. If, as the University claims, we are obligated to do good as a result of being Stanford students, a stronger effort must be made by Stanford in support of that obligation.

Consider, for example, another phrase from President Casper’s convocation speech: “You are about to begin one of the most elevated, noble, honorable forms of public service that I know. That is, you will promote the public welfare through the increase of knowledge.” There is a very narrow interpretation of things in which we as undergraduates, by taking classes and writing six-page essays, are serving the public through the increase in knowledge. This narrow interpretation is not what Jane and Leland Stanford had in mind when they founded the University.

President Casper gets it wrong here: Our commitments are and ought to be greater than that. Fulfilling our commitment to the social good isn’t as easy as taking classes and then joining Goldman Sachs or Google. Rather, it must be renewed and justified continuously. Stanford graduates may have originally founded JUUL in service of a social good, but the company has since then disappointed its social-minded origins. Don’t be like JUUL. Our moral commitments are not the sort of thing that can be met once and then abandoned.

Similarly, the University’s commitments to its students, one of which is apparently developing socially-minded students, are not the sort of things that can be acknowledged once and then abandoned until graduation. They must be renewed throughout a student’s time here. You may feel, as I do, that Stanford does too little to support and spread the message which is, allegedly, so essential to its existence.

I don’t have the answers as to how Stanford can do better in this regard, but possibilities abound — a public service WAYS requirement, a social good in the major course, a clear expectation set by the administration. At the same time, we want to avoid creating more requirements that students simply want to get out of the way or have a “community service” requirement that patronizes students. The issue is undeniably complicated. But Stanford has never shied away from lofty goals and complicated problems — and our social commitments should be no exception.

Contact Quentin Chi at quentinc ‘at’ stanford.edu.