ASSU Town Hall on Coming Budget Cuts Exposes Greater Problems Within the Student Body

In the spirit of protecting student interests, ASSU Executives Jonny Dorsey and Fagan Harris called a town hall meeting to discuss the current state of university finances. On January 23rd, over 100 students crammed into an upstairs room in Old Union to discuss the ASSU’s priorities and field any questions or suggestions about the budgeting process. Students raised questions about faculty diversity, the cost of palm trees, staff retention and areas at risk for cuts. While our executives responded professionally and thoughtfully to each question, the student body at times seemed misguided about where Stanford’s priorities really lie.

For example, one student called for faculty layoffs and/or salary cuts before front-line staff would be laid off. His rationale was that faculty can “go and get a job somewhere else.” I sympathize (as did our executives) with the potential layoffs of some of our front line staff members but also recognize the importance of faculty retention. Dorsey and Harris emphasized that our Board of Trustees puts academics and the retention of our world-renown faculty as our top priority. Stanford University is one of the top universities in the world because our faculty members are at the forefront of research. Many have also earned Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes. We are not known for our cleaning, cooking or landscaping (though perhaps we’d like to be as well). It sounds callous, but this is the reality of the situation. Stanford’s prestige outweighs the salaries of lower-paid wage staff members.

In another display of misguided interests, a student suggested that we curb the use of palm trees on campus since each tree “costs a student’s tuition.” While our executives and those in attendance appreciated the idea, the actual cost of Stanford’s palm trees is relatively low. A simple Google search yielded a Stanford Daily article from January 18, 2008. According to the article, the trees on campus have an initial cost of around $2,000-4,000 with maintenance costs at the rate of $400 every 3-7 years. If we eliminated all of the palm trees on campus, we would save around $50,000 a year in maintenance costs. Not quite the dent in the budget that was suggested at the town hall meeting.

The ignorance on display didn’t end at the question and answer session. When our executives asked students to discuss ideas in small groups, the lack of knowledge about Stanford and current economic condition came into full purview. For example, students suggested cuts in programs such as athletics and IHUM. As much as I would like to see IHUM disappear, these types of programs are endowed with monies that can only be spent on those programs. To cut those programs is to do nothing toward balancing our budget.

Some suggested developing campus lands into housing subdivisions and selling million dollar homes. But Santa Clara County places strict restrictions on how many square feet Stanford can develop each year. Further, with home values plummeting, more than one hundred homes would have to be sold every year to offset our budget crisis.

The ASSU town hall and subsequent follow-up meeting coincided with the circulation of an internet petition that outlined the four undergraduate priorities as determined by the ASSU. Students were asked to sign in support of the ASSU’s four priorities: academics, wellness, community centers, and front-line staff. While academics, student health, and the presence of essential staff are important to the academic experience, the value of maintaining the community centers is questionable. Let’s not be mistaken, the ASSU and university should have student-funded groups. After all, ASSU refunds can be obtained if students do not want to help subsidize groups they don’t support. The real issue lies with the university community centers, otherwise deemed “specialized” student unions.
 
In the midst of budget cuts, the university has a golden opportunity to reevaluate the necessity of campus community centers. I’m not suggesting that cutbacks or elimination of these centers will solve our budget crisis, but rather that we question the necessity of these centers. These centers, which supposedly provide support, guidance, and advancement for marginalized groups, really offer students the opportunity to self-segregate by race, sexual orientation and culture.
 
In essence, the university is insinuating that either these students are horribly oppressed and cannot succeed on their own without these centers (if so, how did these students get here to begin with?) or that these students are incapable of achievement without specialized and directed assistance. In other words, the university is advancing a perception of victimization rather than self-sufficiency among so-called minority students. As provocative as this may sound, shouldn’t we consider cutting back or eliminating these centers since they segregate our student population and discourage diverse interaction and relationships within the student body?
 
The university will make its cuts without acknowledging a growing problem—Stanford’s student body grossly lacks diversity of thought and real world experience. When suggestions like eliminating faculty before staff are openly considered and the mere recommendation of cutbacks or elimination of community centers is taboo, an obvious problem arises that extends beyond the current budget crunch.
 
The impending $100 million in cutbacks provides a rare opportunity for students to exhibit leadership, wisdom, and understanding of the current economic situation. Instead, elements of the student body are resisting reality in a futile effort to maintain the Stanford Bubble. If and when the Bubble bursts, will our generation grow up and make the tough but necessary decisions?

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