The One Lesson We Do Not Learn At Stanford

The One Lesson We Do Not Learn At Stanford

Fairy tales often warn against training someone in the art of power without also ensuring that they will wield it well. This warning is immortalized in stories like Star Wars, Harry Potter and Kung Fu Panda, as well as in catchy phrases such as “with great power comes great responsibility.” Of course, fairy tales are not real, but it would be quite unwise to ignore their lessons.

Stanford trains many soon-to-be-powerful people for leadership in the outside world. I find myself continually awed by the tremendous ability of my classmates and know many will go on to hold prominent positions in politics, finance, tech, and media: positions that will influence the lives of billions. Acknowledging this privilege comes with a grave responsibility — we must make sure those who do rise to power use it for good and not for evil.

Perhaps I was naive, but I used to believe that Stanford students were going to be a light in the darkness, that we would go out and fix all that was broken in the world. While I still hope, I no longer believe. I fear that instead, many of us will continue to perpetuate all that is already wrong in society.

It is easy for us to criticize the world from afar: the Wall Street banker who embezzles from his hedge fund, the politician who lets bribes sway what she believes is right, the media mogul who deliberately sacrifices truth upon the altar of the almighty click. Yet many of them were once students at institutions like this. Equivalently stated, some of us will become them. Maybe this future is not as far away as we would wish. Here at Stanford, we already violate ethical standards, namely those on deliberate mismanagement of club funds and academic dishonesty.

It is no secret that club funding is poorly managed. Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE) manages approximately twenty million in assets that the ASSU uses to fund club activities, with its leadership selected by a team of students. Three years ago, the CEO of SSE (a fresh graduate from Stanford) resigned amid a scandal of extreme financial mismanagement in which he created a paid position specifically for his girlfriend and ditched his job to work part time at a rival investment firm without informing his superiors. Though I want to believe that this selfish, dishonest behavior was an isolated incident, I do not think it is.

No mistakes are more blatant than those involving alcohol. Clubs under Stanford’s jurisdiction are forbidden from spending official funds on hard liquor, and alcohol is difficult to reimburse in general unless it is specifically preapproved and follow a whole list of other stringent conditions. And yet it abounds at Stanford club events.

To be fair, I am sure that many clubs follow the proper procedures of registering, getting approval, and/or paying for alcohol out of pocket if necessary. But many do not. As one club officer prepared for a party while sipping a mixed drink he had just embezzled, he bragged (to a couple people he had just met) about a number of ways clubs use to get around such restrictions. To buy hard alcohol (or anything really) with club funds and get it reimbursed, merely purchase the illicit goods with your own money, buy something else relatively innocuous with club funds, and gift it to yourself. Examples of such innocuous reimbursements include filling up your entire gas tank for driving all of one mile to Trader Joe’s. Or perhaps buying large quantities of snacks, ostensibly for a club event but actually for your own midnight munchies. Even storing equipment and then “forgetting” to return it to the club. Or cleverest of all, simply returning the purchased item after the reimbursement goes through. Use your own imagination.

Just to be clear, the problem is not so much that college students are running around buying Jack Daniels and Natty Lite. That is news to Absolut-ly nobody. The problem is that we are willing to engage in fraud and embezzlement to do so!

The other part of our culture that worries me is academic dishonesty. In the last few years, cheaters at Stanford made headlines in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, with the latter exposé reporting that just three years ago, twenty percent of the students in CS 106A were investigated for cheating. One in five! Nor is the problem merely in the past. A ring of students is currently being investigated for looking up answers on their phones during the HISTORY 140A midterm, a fall class on the Scientific Revolution. So much cheating happened in CS 229 (Machine Learning) that the TA’s were completely overwhelmed and “initially planned to handle the [Honor Code] cases by deducting points for suspected violations rather than notifying the Office of Community Standards.” Closer to home, we all know the temptation to copy our friend’s problem set when it’s 10PM Thursday night and we stare at our own blank solution page. But it is never just one particular class in one particular year. For every incident caught, many more slide through unseen.

It is not the random extra marks awarded on exams and homework that concern me. I would hardly care if I thought our delinquency would end after leaving Stanford. But I worry it will not. We all voluntarily sign the Honor Code and the Fundamental Standard and agree to follow the principles that form the bedrock of the academic system, yet crush them without remorse in four key presses: Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V. Instead of producing future leaders others can trust to wield power, we produce graduates who believe the rules do not apply to them and abandon their values for small personal gains.

The link is even more concrete for financial misconduct. Imagine an embezzler at work. Anywhere will do: JP Morgan, your favorite nonprofit, Uber headquarters, maybe even church. It usually starts out small. A couple of bucks. Random rounding errors here and there. Perhaps even a genuine mistake in your favor made while you were busy dealing with your daughter’s broken leg. Soon you realize you got away with everything and push the boundaries just a tiny bit more. You may stop to think about what you are doing, but dodge the blow by pointing to your colleague down the hall who steals even more and by realizing that few ever get caught. Until one day, you wake up abruptly to the horrifying realization you have gone far too far.

The fallacy of slippery slope is asserting that everyone will fall into this trap. The fallacy of megalomania is proudly asserting that you never will, even as your legs are dangling off the cliff.

Some may counter that this problem is insignificant because as the stakes grow, so do the punishments. Supposedly such a threat should deter malfeasance. Yet punishment is a poor deterrent when few get caught and especially when the rewards grow equally fast. Malfeasance here at Stanford may buy us extra Starbucks lattes or bump our GPA by a hundredth of a point, but upon ascension to positions of real power and responsibility, we may find ourselves offered fortunes and prestige beyond our wildest dreams. If we fail to develop the type of character needed to resist temptation when the stakes are so low, how can we be trusted to resist them when they are higher?

What we do at Stanford is less harmful than the failings of the powerful. But it is only less harmful because our power is yet limited. When those in prominent positions act as we do, we rightly fear for society’s well being.

We need a cultural overhaul. This is not about following every rule to the letter of the law: this is about becoming the kind of people who deserve power. Stanford students are held to the highest standards in academics, athletics and extracurriculars, and I am proud to say that we rise to meet them! Let us also hold ourselves to a higher standard of ethics instead of pointing emptily to an unrespected Honor Code. The dark seeds of the future are already planted all around us, but they are not yet fully grown. Will we let them blossom into a choking field of twisting, thorny vines that strangle us away from the light before we move to cut them down? Each and every one of us must draw a line. Write it down, clearly and explicitly: the reasons behind our actions and most importantly where the limit lies. That way, when life hits us hard — crushing midterms or club drama, impossible deadlines at work or the death of a loved one — we will still know where our line is and whether we have crossed it. If we truly believe that the duty of a university is to prepare us for our responsibilities in the world beyond these idyllic palm trees, then the most important lesson we can learn here at Stanford is the age old lesson of integrity: the ability to do what is right even when no one is looking.

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