The Cost of Greatness

Much has been made of the Study on Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), and rightly so; when a world-class institution of high learning chooses to conduct an exhaustive overview of the ways in which it pursues the mission of education, people should rightly be paying attention.

However, regardless of what the committee ultimately unveils to us, only half of the greater issue will be tackled. Academics is an oft-overlooked core component of the Stanford “undergraduate experience,” but on a campus with a 12 billion dollar endowment, 600-some odd students groups and more mental health issues than you can shake a stick at, the “everything else” category is an essential part of what the University has become, and where it is going.

Stanford has indeed become one of the preeminent universities in the world. A brief glance at some of the pressing campus issues, including the Gaieties controversy and the ROTC question, however, leads me to believe that the campus faces a pitched battle in defining the future of Governor Stanford’s Farm. And there are more than enough divergent voices, and thus subsequent drama, to make the struggle all the more gripping.

To make sense of the present situation, I think a look into the past is necessary. Before the onset of the Sixties, Stanford was a radically different place. The admission rate hung around the 50% mark. A robust, 24-chapter fraternity system housed well over a third of the male student population. Lake Lag was full, and every spring Stanford welcomed the smart (and overwhelmingly white) sons and daughters of California into the Cardinal fold.

The 1960s largely dismantled the Farm of yore. The decade saw the rise of Stanford as a fundraising machine, and the destruction of the traditional Farm ambience. Student protests and campus unrest helped oust two presidents. A greater push for minority admission, representation, and visibility was undertaken; the BSU took the stage in MemAud to make demands of the University at an event following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By 1970, the Greek system was almost halved, the windows of the President’s Office were boarded up, and the occasional riot had police and sheriff units making trips to Encina and Old Union.

What has since come from this great undoing? For starters, the Farm has gotten more diverse, both in student population and faculty hiring. Stanford students now hail from a variety of backgrounds, hometowns, and socio-economic conditions, making for a more open and more tolerant institution. Stanford’s investments in tech departments and research, coupled with the rise of Silicon Valley, have brought billions of dollars into University coffers, making the Stan one of the best-endowed institutions in the world and crowning the campus with a wealth of world class facilities. And presumably, the students have gotten smarter. The admission rate has veered into single digit territory, and seems to be intent on staying there.

But for all the forward momentum, there is also a less-than-sunny side to the Farm’s ascendance. “Diversity,” and whoever can most forcefully claim ownership of its definition, has become a virtual third rail of the campus community. In large part because of the University’s historical failings, the current policy seems to be a reflexive kowtowing to the vague concept, without a reasonable discussion about what in fact we are actually talking about.

An inward-looking focus, begun in the first days of freshmen year, has helped feed a tribalistic student culture, with the building blocks of fraternities, houses, or student groups doing more to separate and categorize students, than to unite them. A virulent anti-Greek sentiment almost killed the system off entirely in the 1980s, and now matters of liability, ResEd and Housing squabbles, and “NSO policies” threaten fraternities and Row Houses alike. Even the Band has largely been neutered. And nationally, the current crop of college freshmen is the most emotionally distressed (and unhealthily intoxicated) in recent memory.

In its quest for worldwide acclaim, Stanford gave up portions of its identity. Not all of the losses should be mourned: we owe most of our wonderful campus resources to Stanford’s ascendancy. But where we have come from matters greatly in shaping what is yet to come. If Gaieties disappears (or worse, is subjected to several more layers of bureaucratic control), if ROTC is kept off campus by a small angry faction and majoritarian apathy, if student services are further eroded or “reprioritized,” then the cost of Stanford’s greatness has indeed risen too high.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review