In their first quarter at Stanford, freshmen are required to come together in dorm lounges across campus to participate in a group event, unaware that they are about to be asked to reveal the most intimate details of their lives — deeply private things, embarrassing things, unfortunate things, regretted things and things they may not have shared with even their closest friends or family — to a room full of strangers. Freshmen have not been warned that they will have to do this. They have not been given a choice to participate. And they have not been provided a compelling reason why they should be required to make these details of their personal lives public to people they do not know nor trust. The event is called Crossing the Line (CTL) — a name that is appropriate because it crosses a line no university ever should.
In the weeks leading up to Crossing the Line, students receive multiple emails and announcements reminding them that the event is mandatory, unless they have an unavoidable absence like an exam or medical appointment. Though students have no choice in the matter, house staff also tell students they would not want to miss it. They say that many students come away thinking CTL was one of the most important events of the year — one which students would look back on fondly. The Diversity and First-Gen Office, which oversees the event, describes it as a “pivotal moment” in the student experience at Stanford.
The procedure is simple: you cross the line if the prompt read aloud by the facilitator applies to you. Then you turn and stare at those who did not cross. Sometimes, those who have crossed stand in the relative safety of a crowd. Other times, they stand alone. The activity begins with simple prompts: cross the line if you “wear glasses,” “were born outside of the United States,” “are the oldest child in the family.” But they gradually become more personal: cross the line if you “are an adopted child,” “have ever lived in a foster home,” “have ever experienced homelessness,” “your parents have been divorced,” or “feel isolated from your family.” The questions strike at the most private and painful parts of one’s life: cross the line if you “would describe your family socioeconomically as lower class,” “have struggled with disordered eating,” “feel physically unattractive” or “are a survivor of sexual harassment or abuse.” Facilitators ask students to confess the moments when they were at their worst: cross the line if you “have personally engaged in ‘classist,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘homophobic,’ ‘racist’ or ‘body-shaming’ behavior.” And they ask students to confess to politically incorrect speech or thoughtcrime: cross the line if you “have ever thought or said anything like ‘that’s so ghetto,’ ‘that’s so gay,’ ‘white trash,’ or ‘bougie’” or “have ever told a racist joke.”
According to the Diversity and First-Gen Office, this event is meant to allow students to “take appropriate risks” to “discuss identity, status, and community,” but there is nothing appropriate about these prompts. As the Diversity and First-Gen Office will proudly attest, CTL is meant to foster “intentional exposure,” exposing students to others in their dorm, most of whom they will never be close to, but will have to live with for a year. Participants are not allowed to explain why they cross; they’re just expected to reveal and be judged accordingly. The facilitator at my dorm even stated that they felt, but fought, the urge to protect those who crossed alone or for particularly controversial prompts. This feeling is expected, and in the closing discussion, students are asked about those times when they wanted to “protect someone.”
Under the guise of protection, students are also asked to “suspend judgments.” However, it is not only expected, but intended, that students will come to define each other — to judge others — by their responses, taking away their ability to define themselves. Facilitators ask attendees, “How does this program change your impressions of this community?” and “How might this program change this community’s impressions about you?”
Concerns about CTL have been a subject of discussion for years. In the recent Associated Students of Stanford University elections, multiple candidates for Undergraduate Senate campaigned on reforming CTL for, among other reasons, “tokenization” of minorities. Two years ago, an op-ed in The Stanford Daily argued that the “formatting” of CTL was problematic because it does not allow students to explain their choices for crossing, leading to misunderstandings. And an article published in The Stanford Review last year criticized the event for “being mandatory,” “forcing exposure,” “instilling guilt,” celebrating “emotional exhibitionism” and fostering “mob mentality.” The author correctly argued that, in its attempts to free people from boxes by not requiring uniformity, CTL had the opposite effect.
Cierra Gillison, who oversees the training of CTL facilitators, maintains that the event is not mandatory and participation is a matter of personal choice, a claim other officials from the Diversity and First-Gen Office echo. They note that house staff may request that CTL be held in their residences, but that there is no requirement by Residential Education to do so. This response obscures more than it illuminates. While it may not be mandatory for a house to host CTL, the house staff, employed by Residential Education, can make the event mandatory for residents. The staff of 14 of the 18 houses with freshman that hosted CTL in 2018 told students that attendance was mandatory. The vast majority of freshman are therefore required by Residential Education to attend the event. Some students even face retribution for refusing to do so. The house staff in one residence admitted that absence from CTL contributed to a student being barred from attending an annual dorm ski trip, as has occurred in previous years.
Despite requiring attendance, the Diversity and First-Gen Office emphasizes that CTL is an “opt-in experience,” instructing housing staff to “Let the residents know that they will not be compelled to share any information that they are uncomfortable sharing.” But once again, the Office speaks from both sides of its mouth. They state that “Everyone who attends the program is expected to participate” and “Attendees may not leave early … after the program has begun.” Facilitators warn students that “If you stand still you are responding to the prompt by not crossing.” In other words, it is impossible not to answer a prompt, as both crossing and not crossing is a form of response. In short, attendance is mandatory and, through attendance, participation becomes mandatory too.
In some cases, particularly with very intimate questions, there is an attempt to soften the sense of mandatory exposure. The prompts are qualified: “cross the line if you want people to know” or “would like people to know,” followed by the prompt. But qualifiers alone cannot protect student privacy, as pressure to respond comes from other students. For example, several students admitted to coming out to their entire dorms as gay in response to the prompt, “cross the line if you want people to know you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer” (emphasis added). But some students crossed not because they wanted others to know, but because some confidants in the dorm already knew they were gay, and they did not want to appear ashamed of being gay or even of being dishonest. This risk is also present for prompts regarding students’ political beliefs or actions at Stanford.
CTL does require facilitators to tell participants that, “What is said here, stays here.” But this admonition ignores that it is just as problematic that personal information becomes known to people inside the dorm as outside it. Privacy is already limited in a dorm environment, and CTL destroys what little remains. Given the importance of privacy and the nature of the privacy interests at stake, including one’s home life, struggles with mental health and history of sexual abuse, a slogan borrowed from a Las Vegas tourist association is simply not enough.
When it comes to events like CTL, which raise difficult issues, there are rules in place to protect privacy and autonomy. CTL flaunts those rules. The ethics code of the American Psychological Association prohibits “requir[ing] students or supervisees to disclose personal information in course- or program-related activities, either orally or in writing, regarding sexual history, history of abuse and neglect, psychological treatment, and relationships with parents, peers, and spouses or significant others except if … the program or training facility has clearly identified this requirement in its admissions and program materials.” None of the announcements about CTL make clear what the event entails. The APA ethics code further states that when personal information of this kind is sought, “the informed consent of the individual or individuals” must be acquired. Students do not consent to a mandatory event. Because of this, and all the other concerns raised, CTL is invasive, nonconsensual and unethical.
None of this is to suggest that the subjects raised by CTL are not important or worthy of a university’s attention. On the contrary, it is important for a university to provide assistance to anyone in need of counseling and to respond to red flags in behavior when they are apparent. But a university crosses a line when it violates student privacy by forcing students to expose themselves to strangers and forces those strangers to witness a metaphorical public disrobing under the guise of community building.
When freshmen arrive in September, New Student Orientation welcomes them with a promise of new beginnings. They are told that college is a place to reinvent oneself, to forge a future unburdened by the past. To honor that promise, we must remove Crossing the Line.
Contact Willoughby Winograd at willjw ‘at’ stanford.edu.