Who’s Teaching Us, Unmasked

Update: Sunday night, WTU published their own demands ahead of schedule, presumably in response to our leak. The two documents are extremely similar. The only difference in content is WTU no longer explicitly says it will abolish SLE; however, given the proposed committee to reform SLE is identical to before, it seems unlikely the outcome will be any different.

This Friday, the brainchild of six months of activist planning is set to be released. A group called Who’s Teaching Us (WTU) – composed of prominent members of every activist group at Stanford, and devoted to campaigning for faculty diversity, ethnic studies and community centers – drew up 20 demands to be presented to Stanford. The Stanford Review has gained access to a draft of these demands, viewable here.

“Who’s Teaching Us?” (WTU) is a question that deserves an answer. The truth is that we’re being taught by the best professors in the world: by people who revolutionized their fields, pursue exciting research, and challenge social paradigms with provocative thought. For WTU, though, that is not good enough.

WTUWTU sees excellence and demands diversity. As it happens, Stanford’s faculty is more diverse than that of the average American college, and Stanford hires disproportionate numbers of minorities relative to the number of minorities who graduate with doctorates. But this does not matter to a group that presents a list of “DEMANDS” – their uppercase, not ours – with vague threats of retaliation if Stanford fails to respond. When one person yells, no one else can be heard. By making demands and scorning suggestions, objections and trifling inconveniences – like, say, winning an election or referendum to gain the support of the student body – WTU has no legitimate claim to represent Stanford.

The Review recently received leaked internal WTU documents with a list of their planned demands (we have not been allowed to attend any of the ‘open’ meetings where these demands were crafted). Presuming their laundry list of requests does not change between now and Friday, their demands fall into three categories: those proposals that will never make it off the drawing board; attempts to rekindle initiatives that have already been rejected, or are already happening; and finally, the more plausible policies to further diversity.

Part I: The Hopeful Policies

***Ban Wells Fargo from Campus ***(we promise we aren’t making this one up)

According to WTU, Wells Fargo discriminates against “Black and brown neighborhoods”, and should thus be banned from Stanford. Their evidence for this is dubious. If Wells Fargo is complicit in racism for investing in private prisons, every WTU member is also complicit for paying taxes that fund the prison system. Regardless, Wells Fargo is already scaling down its prison investments, while pension funds now own 20% of the private prison market. If WTU wants to find the evil, racist financiers of the prison system, it need look no further than the nearest retirement home.

The only other evidence of ‘racism’ the Review could find were near-decade-old allegations, which Wells Fargo paid punitive amounts to settle; since then, America’s third largest bank has spent $75 million helping minorities buy homes. It is true that African Americans pay higher interest rates than white Americans, but this is because African Americans on average ask for more credit with less collateral; math, not racism, is WTU’s enemy here.

Even if Wells Fargo were discriminatory in its lending practices, other banks would overtake them and profit by providing more competitive offers, forcing Wells Fargo to lower rates to compete. Boycotts are not necessary to enable this process. Quite aside from the ludicrous burden of making students drive to Atherton to deposit a check, the University will never ban Wells Fargo. Off the bat, it seems WTU is more interested in generating noise than results.

Require That Stanford’s Next President And Provost Both Be WTU-Approved Women Of Color

Given the employment non-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act, and a litany of Supreme Court cases confirming that you cannot decide on the race and gender of a candidate before you hire them, this one might be tough to implement.  

***Classify Faculty Microaggressions as Hate Speech ***

WTU’s next brainwave is to create a “dedicated, responsive platform for reporting and tracking microaggressions”, and integrate it within Stanford’s Acts of Intolerance policy, which addresses de facto hate speech. Professors offending students may face disciplinary measures. WTU’s two-sentence description, explaining that the program will be “transparent” and confidential, do laughably little to clarify an exceptionally dangerous proposal.

The definition of “microaggression” is left entirely open to interpretation. Without a clear understanding of what a microaggression is, faculty can be reported, shamed and disciplined for speech that crosses an invisible line, drawn by and exclusive to the offended listener. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education points out, “one student’s microaggression is another’s earnest attempt to discuss difficult life experiences.” Indeed, the UC system defined“I believe the most qualified person should get the job”, “America is the land of opportunity”, and “There is only one race, the human race” as microaggressions. At Brandeis, a gallery of microaggressions was itself deemed a microaggression and shut down.

Given the inherent subjectivity of microaggressions, we can expect this policy to create a chilling effect on faculty ideas and speech. Professors, especially non-tenured ones, will most likely respond by avoiding difficult discussions of race, culture, and ethnicity entirely. The complex classes on race that WTU demands will have no faculty brave enough to teach them, or at least none of the academic diversity WTU claims to support.

WTU’s solution is compulsory “identity awareness training”, to be planned and completed in just one quarter. It remains to be seen how they might define hateful speech, but their efforts will likely be rendered moot anyway: banning microaggressions is almost certainly illegal.

Abolish SLE And Replace With A People Of Color-Oriented Program

The demand for “POC frameworks” in SLE is one thing; indeed, SLE has accommodated this by bringing in faculty from diverse backgrounds and integrating a greater variety of texts. But WTU’s call to remove SLE altogether, and replace it with a postcolonial criticism machine created by a committee of their choosing, misses the entire reason SLE exists.

SLE teaches the world’s great texts, which – as its founder, Mark Mancall, points out – were written by white men. WTU cannot turn back the clock and pretend that Aristotle was a queer liberationist. Many students seek to study SLE every year, viewing the great texts as the core explanatory force for the world – including the problematic parts. Indeed, SLE students understand that to critique our civilization, one must first understand it. If WTU wants more minority civilizational classes or an alternative SLE program – which a WTU member notes was tried, but failed for lack of student interest – that would be reasonable. But to pretend the great texts were never written and whitewash SLE from the Stanford curriculum is preposterous. Stanford students want to study important books. Why would we stop them?

Make Diversity Requirements Only About Oppression

We are told that studying the oppression of ethnic groups should be the only way to ‘engage diversity’ for credit at Stanford, as if the only true teachings of diversity concern “power, privilege, and systems of oppression.” WTU believes that studying Chinese culture and all of its achievements, for example, should not count. Rather than learn about the Chinese, African Americans, or Latinos for their own sakes, WTU demeans minorities by using them as tools, subordinate to the larger goal of indoctrination. This means diminishing the study of Chinese or African history, and making it clear that diversity is only and always a story of oppression and victimhood, never coexistence and overcoming obstacles. We are surprised to see such a limited and limiting conception of diversity from a group dedicated to its furtherance.

Part II: Haven’t We Been Here Before?

Divest from Private Prisons, and Maybe Palestine For Good Measure

Following Students for Justice in Palestine and Fossil Free Stanford, WTU “DEMANDS” divestment. This time, WTU would like Stanford to divest from all private prisons. A comment from one senior WTU member asks “what about divestment from occupied Palestine?”, so this additional twist might be thrown into the mix for all we know. In any event, the Review has explained on several occasions that divestment has zero consequential impact on the targeted companies, be they prisons or Israeli businesses.

Force Bing to Expand Non-Western Overseas Study Programs

Thanks to the generosity of the Bing family, Stanford students can study abroad everywhere from Kyoto to Santiago to Sri Lanka to Cape Town. Many of the universities affiliated with the Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP) are European, mostly because strong universities with similar curricula to Stanford’s tend to be located there. WTU, however, “DEMANDS” that “BOSP offers more non-Western European countries”. It is unclear how many more countries WTU requires, given BOSP already has offerings in China, South Africa, Japan, Turkey, Chile, Mexico and Sri Lanka. In fact, the program has been expanding rapidly all of its own accord: 8 options it offers are non-Western, whereas only 6 are Western.

Part III: Encouraging Diversity?

Finally, after a number of bizarre demands, we arrive at the core issue WTU seeks to tackle: making Stanford faculty more diverse. That said, if this really is WTU’s primary concern, it seems strange that so few of their 20 demands are tailored towards it. WTU’s general aim to diversity Stanford’s faculty is laudable. More troubling, however, is their desire to force diversity on every department – including STEM fields in which truth is objective – to essentialize academics’ racial backgrounds, and to racially compartmentalize knowledge.

Stanford has proportionately fewer white professors than average. Indeed, 16% of our professors are Asian, yet WTU did not take this as a success, writing in their private conversation, “but they’re all in the math department.” This is an uncharacteristic generalization for our politically correct friends, but it touches upon an interesting dilemma: is it acceptable for a group to be overrepresented in one field but underrepresented in another? All over the world, Chinese students enter STEM fields at disproportionate rates. Meanwhile, the piano-making industry across the world is dominated by Germans. No one has forced the Chinese to study math and science, or the Germans to make pianos. Individuals, influenced by cultural norms, expectations, and preferences, have made choices – and excelled. For WTU, this is problematic: the choices of Chinese students make it likely that there will be more Chinese professors of math, and less of anthropology, and so these choices cannot be tolerated.

There seems to be only one end for which equal distribution can be sacrificed: the racialization of knowledge. Accordingly, the discussion among WTU activists about whether to allow white professors to teach classes that merit an Engaging Diversity credit was fascinating. Since it was not enough to demand “more queer professors in all departments, but especially engineering/STEM” – as if the study of electrical engineering is altered by a professor’s sexual preferences, never mind the fact it is illegal to ask the sexuality of a job applicant – many activists believed that certain segments of academia should be off-limits to white people. Some found it “weird to have a white male teaching about racism” (indeed, what could the Jews who co-founded the NAACP and marched with MLK possibly teach our twenty-year-olds about racism?). Others did not want professors to “mak[e] a living off of others’ experiences” (a theory that could single-handedly destroy the history department). Yet another wanted to be “cautious about intersectionality,” realizing that, in the understatement of the century, it might be “hard to be 100% consistent” with professors only teaching about their own identity groups.

Another activist got right to the core of the discussion, remarking that it “goes back to whether we value knowledge of white ppl,” apparently an unresolved question in these circles. For WTU, “knowledge” is ascribed a race other than true or false; your epistemic credibility is reducible to the color of your skin. Though one student pointed out that “some white folx can teach [racism and oppression] well”, Stanford students should know that many of their leaders do not believe that teachers can teach about groups other than their own. Or is it just that white teachers must be barred from non-white fields of study? In any event, If we value academic inquiry, we must reject the restrictions and condescensions of racially compartmentalized knowledge. Let’s pursue truth – not White truth, Black truth, or Pacific Islander truth, but truth.

Stanford is making steps towards a more diverse faculty, but it is more complicated than WTU would have you believe. As Columbia University’s diversity initiatives have demonstrated, even affirmative action does not solve the biggest problem: few minorities stay in academia long enough to become tenured faculty. If WTU imposes strict quotas, and compromises on quality to get there, it will be papering over the cracks by making it appear as if there is no problem with the candidate pool in the first place. Such a policy damns the very people WTU claims to help.

Conclusion

WTU cannot be taken seriously. They have framed themselves to the Review as an alternative to Western Civilization, and they present themselves to the student body as the future of responsible, grassroots Stanford activism. Yet their twenty “DEMANDS” more closely resemble the list of a child who used his first wish from a genie on ‘unlimited wishes’ – and then wrote a rambling and disconnected sequence of demands before running out of ideas – than a tailored political manifesto.

Some of WTU’s individual proposals – such as more funding to community centers, a co-op for students of color, or greater student body diversity – have merit and can be considered. But students should refuse to march to the beat of a group that deems it appropriate to bundle these initiatives with absurd boycotts, divestments, and bans, and takes it upon itself to choose our University’s next President and Provost.

If WTU really cared about who was teaching us, perhaps they would show the restraint to restrict their discussion to this issue, rather than sixteen others. In trying to be everything to everyone, they will accomplish nothing for anyone.

A list of WTU’s original working-group demands can be found here, with names redacted. Some evidence in this article is taken from comment threads between WTU members, which we have chosen not to release at this time.

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