Stanford’s New Student Orientation is an initiation rather than an orientation: a revival-meeting designed to signal to the incoming student activists that Stanford sees them, hears them, and would very much appreciate being left out of their crosshairs.
This year, presenters focused on the Class of 2024’s “sexual projects” and the intricacies of “allyship,” but said very little about how freshmen should adjust to university life.
A prime example of NSO’s philosophy is “Beyond Sex-Ed”, a program nominally designed to introduce students to sex and adult relationships. This year it was a combination of harrowing stories about sexual assault and a grab-bag collection of downright pornographic hookup narratives. The latters’ only evident function was to reassure Frosh that no matter their preferences, as long as there is bilateral (or multilateral) communication, anything goes. Stanford’s attempt to be completely agnostic with respect to the student body’s behavior resulted in the disconcerting image of an administrator encouraging the Class of 2024 to purchase sex toys and erotic novels in order to better “discover themselves.”
Through this program, Stanford was able to both take the most permissive stance possible in the sexual culture wars while simultaneously patting itself on the back for its supposedly tireless work to reduce sexual assault. Thus “Beyond Sex-Ed” clearly illustrated the dual nature of NSO in which stray bits of useful advice are submerged in a tide of platitudes, acronyms, and confusing jargon.
Even the tamer programs contained this strange mixture of woke ideology and practical advice. “Faces of Community”, a production meant to illustrate Stanford’s diversity, included some stories that imparted valuable information for students with disabilities or those from underprivileged backgrounds. However, this advice was bizarrely combined with a spoken-word poem about a future in which “the precincts are turned into community gardens,” and unexplained video montages of people dancing.
Next came the “3 Books Discussion”, a program in which Stanford invites the authors of that year’s summer reading to converse and debate. This was advertised as a discussion on the proposition that “grit” is inherently anti-black. Stanford invited Dr. Angela Duckworth, author of the bestselling book “Grit” and Dr. Bettina Love, who is a “sought-after public speaker on … anti-racism, Hip Hop education, queer youth, [and] Hip Hop feminism.”
Predictably, the discussion lacked even a semblance of rigour. Dr. Love told Frosh, with the tacit agreement of Dr. Duckworth, that teachers are “searching for either something with which to perpetuate racism or for something to say that ‘this system works [as is],’” and that, contrary to what incoming biology majors may think, “grit and joy are already in the DNA of black and brown people,” and so “they’ve already shown grit.” Rather than start a conversation about the heritability of traits like grit to either substantiate or refute these claims, Dr. Duckworth, Dr. Love and the moderator were content to nod and move along.
The module ended with a call to be an ally “when you see transphobia or Islamophobia.” The average frosh may have been confused about how exactly these sentiments were related to the ideas of grit and anti-blackness, but, of course, the discussion wasn’t meant to be informative or even reasonable. Instead, it was designed to allow Stanford to signal its deeply-felt concern about issues of “anti-blackness” and discrimination.
Students are forbidden from recording any portion of the NSO events, a sign that Stanford understands just how ridiculous much of the programming is. This restricted format allows Stanford to market itself as in-line with the leftmost portions of American culture without agitating alumni donors. However, this strategy has provided no clear benefits to Stanford as the demands to topple statues, rename buildings, and fund new departments continue apace. It has also resulted in the annual loss of an opportunity to provide vital information and guidance to incoming Frosh.
Stanford should use NSO as an actual orientation to independent life, one that effectively introduces the incoming class to Stanford, especially in a time when novel forms of virtual learning are being tested. To accomplish this, the administration would have to shift the focus of NSO away from the pablum necessary to placate a small group of activists and towards the knowledge that students need to be successful. Unfortunately, the administration shows no sign of learning this lesson, and so Stanford Frosh can look forward to an empty NSO experience for many years to come.
Note: the author's name has been redacted.