By Layo Laniyan
Last Thursday, in an email sent to voluntary student organization (VSO) leaders and later forwarded to the undergraduate student body, Provost Persis Drell and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole lamented behaviors relating to flyering on campus that they felt crossed the line of respectful treatment. Earlier that week, members of a student group demanded entrance to Casa Zapata, the Latinx/Chicanx themed dorm. Though Casa Zapata has a policy against flyering, the group sought to advertise an upcoming lecture with Ben Shapiro and tried to enter the dorm. After being denied entrance (none of the group’s members were residents), the group returned with larger numbers, gathering outside the glass doors equipped with cameras, filming residents as they came and went. A confrontation ensued, and in subsequent days the group played victim, asserting that they had been harassed by Zapata staff and residents. Drell and Brubaker-Cole maintained the group’s “behaviors [did] not comport with [their] expectations for a caring, respectful community.”
Despite this pointed criticism, they also lamented what they saw as a breakdown in respectful discourse on both sides, imploring all to behave in “ways that are worthy of mutual respect.” The administrators noted that the ideas represented in flyers may be abhorrent to many but still urged students to discuss what they considered controversial ideas. The email ended by putting the onus on student leaders, reminding them that they too had a role to play: “We will do all we can to ensure everyone feels respected and safe, but the truth is the power to shape the environment in which we live is a responsibility that we hold collectively.”
But here is the needed context that Drell and Brubaker-Cole failed to provide in their email to the undergraduate community. The group in question, Stanford College Republicans (SCR), has comported itself in the same manner for years. In the week leading up to the event, the group actively patrolled White Plaza, filming students who were pouring water on their chalkings. Those videos were posted almost immediately after to national conservative news outlets, garnering hateful and disparaging comments. Last year, members of the same group harassed an Okada ethnic theme associate, filming them inside their home without permission. When asked to leave, SCR members threatened staff, proclaiming that “there are a hundred people who are College Republicans, you can’t keep all of us out.” The staff member spoke to the emotional distress the flyering was causing residents; the group members replied that residents needed to “toughen up.” None of the SCR members were residents of the dorm. They invited conservative author Andrew Klavan to speak on campus – a move the University itself denounced, citing concern over his fostering of anti-Muslim sentiments and the group’s “publicity tactics that have targeted Muslim students.” The list of disrespectful and disruptive behavior associated with SCR and its members goes on.
Ultimately, Drell and Brubaker-Cole’s email belies where their priorities lie: proving Stanford is a balanced arbitrator of free speech to outside stakeholders and media outlets over the safety and security of its own, most vulnerable students. When one group has continually sought to provoke students, film them and post the videos to social media, mutual respect is not the question. When one group has repeatedly attempted to force entry into homes for communities of color to intentionally upset and disrupt students, university communication should not shift the onus of civility onto the entire student body. When there has been one clear and consistent aggressor at play in this ecosystem, administrators ought not refer to collective responsibility. When marginalized communities have historically bore the brunt of this group’s actions—a trend that email fails to mention—the University cannot claim that it is doing all in its power to make students feel respected and safe.
The University makes a false equivalency in asking for “basic human dignity” from the entire student body when one group has been the clear aggressor. That the University has refused to name them (when even the group itself has commented to several outlets), in both the original email and later requests for comment, is telling. The email underscores a severe misunderstanding of campus dynamics and a fundamental failure to address the root of the problem.
It is true that the University has outside perspectives it must consider. It is variably beholden to donors, alumni, stakeholders and the national conversation, and the issue of free speech and diversity of thought on college campuses is especially fraught. Stanford faces an obligation to uphold the virtues of liberalism, a pressure to give off the semblance of ideological balance as an open research institution. But when those pressures are weaponized at the expense of Stanford’s marginalized communities, the University also has an obligation to protect its students. Administrators acknowledge that the flyers are “abhorrent to many in our community,” yet they patronize students, asking them to “engage [their] communities in discussing controversial ideas.”
That framework both rejects the reality that these ideas do not have physical consequences and unjustifiably shifts the onus onto minority communities. Racism, xenophobia and transphobia are stains on this campus. Marginalized communities must interact with hate and prejudice on a daily basis, a battle that is both debilitating and exhausting. To reduce those forces to merely “controversial ideas” is to erase the struggles of those communities. If Stanford wants to applaud its own diversity year after year, it needs to support those communities. By operating within the same framework as SCR (analogous to President Donald Trump’s infamous “both sides” remarks), the University tacitly endorses its methods. At this point, we must ask – to whom is this administration beholden? How much harm must be inflicted on this student body before it takes action?
SCR’s actions show that it does not have an interest in the Stanford community. This group films students, ultimately sharing the recorded film with conservative news sources. In just the past week, videos of students in White Plaza were posted to both The Daily Wire and the Young America Foundation website. These posts have gathered hundreds of views and likes, as well as hateful comments. People featured in these videos fear for their safety and have been forced to lock their social media accounts. SCR’s fidelity to national news outlets does not communicate a desire to improve campus discourse, as they might claim. It communicates a willingness to endanger Stanford students in the name of national notoriety. The group has shown that it has no interest in the Stanford community – it has harassed students, targeted communities and violated SAL event policy. It regularly invites academically disreputable speakers who fail both the Fundamental Standard and the standard of intellectual rigor. SCR does not act in the interest of discourse in our community, nor does it act in the interest of our community at all. The University is responsible for letting it go unchecked.
This last week has shown us that University leaders are unwilling to address intolerance at Stanford, to act in the interest of our community. We need action stronger than a haphazard “Education Against Racial Hatred” email, an event more deliberate than “Hacking Hate.” At a time when trust in the University continues to fall, leadership has abdicated its responsibility to protect students. If this administration wants to earn the trust of a student body it has neglected again and again, it needs to look internally and speak with its actions.
Contact Layo Laniyan at olaniyan ‘at’ stanford.edu.