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By withdrawing its GUP, Stanford shows the narrowness of its commitment to innovation

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On Nov. 1, in an email to the Stanford community, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced the University’s withdrawal of its General Use Permit (GUP) application to Santa Clara County, halting its plan for expanding academic facilities, housing, and transportation over the next 16 years. Stanford’s explanation for its withdrawal of the GUP, which claims an inability to come to an agreement with the Santa Clara County despite multiple efforts on the University’s part, ultimately comes down to the University’s unwillingness to provide affordable housing to its service workers as mitigation for the impacts its development would have on surrounding communities. One thing that’s particularly shocking is the discrepancy between this abrupt withdrawal of the GUP and the rhetoric of many of Stanford’s own faculty and administrators at the public hearing on Oct. 22 regarding Stanford’s proposed expansion plan. There, at Palo Alto City Hall, many of Stanford’s representatives claimed that the university’s expansion was all about a continuing commitment to “community benefits,” with a specific focus on how Stanford’s innovation in a variety of scientific and technological fields was an immeasurable asset to surrounding communities.

Yet on Nov. 1, Stanford’s rhetoric of academic innovation in conjunction with community benefits turned out to be a facade for a deeply regressive vision of community, in which the thought of accepting County requirements to provide housing for service workers was so unimaginable that the University chose to halt all its development instead. Stanford’s own claim that it agreed just this week to provide the full amount of housing requested by the county was conditional on a development agreement, which would have moved negotiations between Stanford and the County behind closed doors and given Stanford more leverage to negotiate away mitigation measures the County could in fact require unilaterally.

My interest here, though, is in the hidden social conservatism behind the language of innovation Stanford so relentlessly touts in its vision for the future — language employed by Stanford’s own representatives in Palo Alto City Hall, who regaled supervisors with stories about the cutting-edge research and facilities Stanford’s development plan would bring into the community. This language, rooted in Stanford’s reputation as the cradle of Silicon Valley’s tech-entrepreneurs, sounded anachronistic, even callous, given the contemporary collapse of a vision of technological innovation as automatically ushering in wide-ranging social change. One need only browse recent headlines to find stories ranging from inhumane working conditions at Amazon to the continuing refusal of Facebook to regulate misinformation to see this disillusionment at work. The deans and administrators who spoke seemed to draw from the faded luster of Apple’s famed “1984” commercial, with its dreams of technological and scientific innovation as inherently liberating and anti-totalitarian. According to these speakers, the inventiveness of Stanford’s world-renowned faculty and students would more than make up for the gentrification and inequality ushered in by its expansion.

By now, we know better. Silicon Valley’s infamous catchphrase, “Move Fast and Break Things,” has become an ironic signifier for how widespread market and technological disruptions can, in fact, entrench social inequality. Facebook’s global restructuring of social interaction has propped up ethnocidal violence against the Rohingya and fascist misinformation tactics in the Philippines. The speed of Amazon’s same-day shipping is built on working conditions that force delivery drivers to flout traffic rules and urinate in bottles while the company itself avoids liability for accidents.

Stanford, which draws much of its prestige from its associations with ascendant tech companies and personalities, is no stranger to this narrow rhetoric of innovation. While it wrote in its former GUP about its commitment to minimizing the University’s environmental footprint, the University in its recent contract negotiations with the local union refused to compensate workers in its 24-hour Central Energy Facility for missed meal breaks. While its School of Medicine can claim the birth of “innovations that sparked a biomedical revolution,” the University itself failed to realign the wages of service workers in the School of Medicine with fair market rates.

Ultimately, Stanford’s ostensibly radical language of innovation fails to ask the question of whose imaginations of innovation are most valued, thus obscuring a stratified hierarchy of dreaming. This is a hierarchy where Jeff Bezos’s dreams of faster shipping outweigh those of thousands of Amazon workers demanding living wages and humane working conditions; one where the Stanford administration’s dreams of new academic facilities outweigh those of the custodial staff who will clean and maintain those facilities, staff who during the GUP negotiations process had the audacity to ask Stanford to provide more affordable housing and accessible transportation for workers.

But Stanford’s narrow vision of innovation is far from the only one on the table. While the University withdraws its GUP, service workers on this campus continue to dream relentlessly of a better world, dreams that are in many ways far more radical than the “innovations” ticked off by Stanford faculty and administrators. To end with translated lines from a poem in Spanish by Doroteo Garcia, a Stanford janitor and member of SEIU Local 2007 who recited this poem outside Palo Alto City Hall in support of full mitigation and affordable housing for service workers, whose ferocious dreaming spoke to a crowd of both students and workers standing side by side:

Tomorrow, in this same place,

they will speak of economics,

history, politics. Perhaps

they’ll invent a new element.

Discover a new galaxy.

But right now, at daybreak,

a janitor dreams awake,

yearning for a better future

for his sons.

From one poet to another, thank you, Doroteo, for your voice. (Doroteo’s full poem is available to read here.) Thanks to SCoPE 2035 for their help with this article and their brave work—stay posted on their Facebook page here.

Contact Ethan Chua at ezlc327 ‘at’ stanford.edu.