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Stanford: Naming is more than just recognition

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My first introduction to Stanford bureaucracy came in the form of cupcakes imprinted with the Stanford logo. At a graduation party for a friend, their mom told me about the Kafkaesque endeavor she had undertaken to buy these logo-imprinted cupcakes. I learned from her then that Stanford has numerous offices and organizations dedicated to the protection and authorization both of who gets to use the name Stanford and what they can use the name for. Alongside manicured lawns, impossible palm trees and impossible burgers, and a litany of frosh related acronyms, this experience was one of my first meaningful introductions to the university. Stanford, in short, knows the power of names.

Writing four years later as a senior, it is hard not to feel like Stanford is often more committed to protecting its brand name than it is in utilizing its institutional power to fulfill its mission “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity.” I think of numerous occasions in the past few years in which the university has failed to sufficiently condemn circumstances which lay bare its shortcomings, including half-hearted responses to the appearances of anti-Semitic symbols around campus to the recent noose on campus. In each of these cases, the administration has posted written responses on its widely unread blog Notes on the Quad yet has failed otherwise to take significant publicly visible action. As other students have humorously noted, it’s easier to keep tabs on what the university is doing in response to water cooling curtailments than it is to see how the administration is working to combat a growing national culture of white supremacy.

This column serves to counteract my own sense of institutional resignation and to spur the university toward meaningful action. In the two short weeks since school started, I’ve noticed two of Stanford’s related yet distinct failures to name its shortcomings: the university’s refusal to properly recognize the native activists who have worked to remove Junipero Serra’s name from campus buildings and streets and the denial of Chanel Miller’s words on a plaque to give voice to her experience of sexual violence on campus.

On September 18, Stanford News published an article by Brad Hayward titled “Naming of Jane Stanford Way moves ahead.” In the piece, Hayward describes the administration’s ongoing efforts to rename Junipero Serra Way to instead honor the university’s admittedly underrecognized cofounder Jane Stanford. In addition to providing some mildly instructive topographical indications of the new-old street’s location, the article situates the street renaming within the broader context of Stanford’s campus renaming procedure, which was finalized in the past year.

Yet the article conveniently glosses over where the impetus for the renaming process to remove Junipero Serra’s name originated. Junipero Serra, the founder of the Californian mission system, is responsible for an expansive legacy of colonization and genocide against native peoples across California. When we talk about the renaming efforts to remove Junipero Serra’s name from our institution—or similar efforts to remove honorifics for eugenicists—we need to actively consider Leland Stanford’s own role in the genocide of native peoples and the university’s continued occupation of Muwekma Ohlone land. I echo students who have asked: Why did the university not utilize this opportunity to rename Serra Mall after a native person, instead privileging Jane Stanford?

Contact Justin Wilck at jwilck ‘at’ stanford.edu.