On February 17, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne refused to officially label Stanford a “sanctuary campus” for undocumented students. Depending on who you ask, taking on sanctuary status means Stanford would not enforce federal law on immigration on university-owned land, and would obstruct federal enforcement agencies such as ICE whenever possible.
The student-led drive for Stanford to become a sanctuary campus seems to have two primary goals. Many want to protect friends and community members facing potential deportation. Second, many students want Stanford to become an example of openness for a country that seems to be turning away from the liberal ideal of flexible borders and free movement of peoples.
While both of these goals are worthy, only the former, more Stanford-specific cause has a chance of success. The campaign for Stanford to become a model for national openness is doomed to fail, in part because the administration is understandably unwilling to incur the wrath of the federal government.
Stanford simply cannot afford to openly defy the federal government over immigration. In 2011, the university received $656 million from the federal government for R&D alone, and it has a responsibility to kowtow to Washington that was highlighted by its recent (mostly theoretical) commitment to continue to enforce federal law on marijuana, even though the drug will soon be legal in California. Recent events at Berkeley showed the President isn’t hesitant to threaten universities with a withdrawal of federal funds.
Since the election, the center of resistance to national immigration policy has moved from the city to the university. As sanctuary cities give up the fight, universities like Stanford seem to be the political bodies stepping up to the plate instead.
But are universities even the right places to fight the fight against an immigration crackdown? Eminent travel writer Pico Iyer argued during his recent visit to campus that universities like Stanford have demonstrated — with their international, racial, and economic diversification over the past several decades — the bright future of a liberal, cosmopolitan world order. While I have my doubts about this rosy characterization, it’s hard to dispute that in many ways universities like Stanford are crown jewels of the globalizing project that Trump and his nationalist kin seem keen on dismantling.
Yet, universities remain badly positioned to be the standard-bearers for the beleaguered ideals of liberal democracy. Beyond university dependence on national goodwill, there is another issue: universities are not themselves democracies. Student parliaments like Stanford’s ASSU have no authority over policy beyond allocating money to student organizations and events. The university is in fact ruled by its administration, which is not only non-elective but also profoundly non-representative. The citizens of a university are its young students, but its government is composed of older non-students. The modern university traces its origins to the learning institutions of the Middle Ages (primarily those of Paris, Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca), and, sure enough, a university more resembles a kind of medieval-style monarchy than it does a modern democracy.
Even more worryingly, Stanford seems to be becoming less, not more democratic. Outgoing provost John Etchemendy warned in his farewell speech of a “threat from within”: growing intolerance at the university, which he argued is even “more damaging . . . than cuts in federal funding or ill-conceived constraints on immigration.”
In both government and culture, Stanford does not behave like a liberal democracy. So instead of acting out of a spirit of defiance and moral superiority — which is both misplaced and not likely to help the cause — campus activism should temper its rhetoric, narrow its scope, and focus on securing concessions. We can, and should, fight to keep vulnerable community members from deportation without openly defying the federal government or portraying Stanford as a city on a hill.
Luckily, there’s already a precedent for this kind of realistic activism: Stanford recently joined other top universities in a legal brief as part of a pending case against the government’s travel restrictions. The brief neither portrays Stanford as an exemplar of liberal democracy nor criticizes the aim of the executive order, but rather calmly explains how much harm the restrictions would do to the university. This brief should serve as a model for the university’s temperate resistance to the most potentially damaging aspects of the nation’s new immigration policy.
Student activism is most effective when it is pragmatic about students’ limited political agency and strictly local in scope. During our time at Stanford, we should concentrate, as the Epicureans would say, on tilling our own garden. We should save our desires to reshape America for a time when we are more fully citizens of that democracy rather than citizens of the academic monarchy of Stanford University.