Stanford goes socially anodyne

June 16, 2022 • 10:00 am

I don’t know squat about Palladium Magazine, but here’s what it says about itself:

Palladium Magazine is a non-partisan publication that explores the future of governance and society, through responsible slow publishing, long-form analysis, political theory, and investigative journalism.

A reader sent me the article below by Ginevra Davis, a Stanford student, and I don’t know what to make of it. This is one of two articles I’ll write about briefly today, as I’d like to hear readers’ take on them. In this first one, Davis describes how Stanford University, which 30 years ago used to be an excellent school (it still is), but one that fostered an eccentric student body. According to Ginevra Davis, the school has now become a quiet and boring place, with many students feeling socially unconnected since fraternities and other venues for social life have slowly been dismantled by the administration.

Click to read (it’s free):

The destruction of the social life of Stanford, insofar as it’s really happened, appears to Davis to have something to do with increasing equity, but the connection between the two factors is unclear.  A few quotes from the article:

Since 2013, Stanford’s administration has executed a top-to-bottom destruction of student social life. Driven by a fear of uncontrollable student spontaneity and a desire to enforce equity on campus, a growing administrative bureaucracy has destroyed almost all of Stanford’s distinctive student culture.

What happened at Stanford is a cultural revolution on the scale of a two-mile college campus. In less than a decade, Stanford’s administration eviscerated a hundred years of undergraduate culture and social groups. They ended decades-old traditions. They drove student groups out of their houses. They scraped names off buildings. They went after long-established hubs of student life, like fraternities and cultural theme houses. In place of it all, Stanford erected a homogenous housing system that sorts new students into perfectly equitable groups named with letters and numbers. All social distinction is gone.

Whenever Stanford empties out a fraternity or theme house, the administration renames the organization’s former house after its street number. Now, Stanford’s iconic campus Row, once home to dozens of vibrant student organizations, is lined with generic, unmarked houses with names like “550,” “680,” and “675” in arbitrary groupings with names like “S” and “D”.

According to Davis, Stanford not only produced a gaggle of Google-like people, but was a fun place to be:

Stanford’s support for the unconventional pioneered a new breed of elite student: the charismatic builder who excelled at “breaking things” in nearby Silicon Valley. Stanford students were aspirational and well-rounded, confident enough to perform in a bucket hat and floaties and make out with strangers during Full Moon on the Quad. For a time, Stanford experienced a brief golden age when a spontaneous, socially permissive culture combined with a class of 5%-acceptance rate baby geniuses.

Stanford’s already formidable reputation grew, in large part, because of the way these lessons translated into the work and lives of its graduates. Between 1998 and 2013, Stanford students founded Google, Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat. New grads were turning down $350,000 starting salaries to try their hand at changing the world, or at least beating their classmates at making their first million. Soon, breathless articles described the mythical school where money grew on trees, where America’s academic wonderkids went to make their fortune under the California sun.

Starting in 2013, Stanford was consistently ranked first by students and parents as “America’s Dream School.” Stanford was elite, but unlike most elite schools, what made Stanford the object of such national obsession was that it was also fun. Stanford had created a global talent hub combined with explicit permission for rule-breaking. As a result, students learned a valuable lesson: they had agency; they could create their own norms and culture instead of relying on higher authorities.

It was about then that Stanford begin to get rid of social organizations—not just fraternities but any kind of social “house” with a theme (like the “Anarchists House”), as well as and virtually dismantling one of America’s weirdest college bands: the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band, known for its on-field antics and eccentric players. Here’s performance after the Rose Bowl in 2013:

. . . Unlike Harvard, which abruptly tried to ban “single-gender social organizations” and was immediately sued by alumni, Stanford picked off the Greek life organizations one by one to avoid student or alumni pushback. The playbook was always the same. Some incident would spark an investigation, and the administration would insist that the offending organization had lost its right to remain on campus. The group would be promptly removed.

Over time, it became clear that their decisions only ever went one way—fewer gatherings, fewer social groups. The campus spirit waned year by year.

. . . With every additional unhousing, it became increasingly apparent that Stanford’s revealed preference was to rid the campus of all distinct social groups. Two years after founding CORL, Stanford hired the same Harvard administrator who led the campaign to rid the campus of Greek life and Final Clubs. Harvard had overplayed their hand by trying to purge all major social organizations at once. But at Stanford, they found more success picking them off one by one.

The University also ended the annual clothes-optional “Exotic Erotic” party (we used to have a similar fête at Chicago, which also was banned), closed down an “Outdoor House” devoted to hiking (it will be reopened under DEI stipulations), and created a new housing system. The descriptions below make me think this all had something to do with “equity”, but that still doesn’t explain everything (my emphases below):

The first thing Stanford announced was the introduction of a new housing system, designed to promote “fairness” and “community” on campus. Under the system, new freshmen would be assigned to one of eight artificially-created housing groups called “neighborhoods,” each containing a representative sample of campus housing. To avoid the potential controversy of actually naming them, the administration punted the decision and called the neighborhoods S, T, A, N, F, O, R, and D.

An administrator named Mona Hicks was tasked with explaining the vacuous names to the Stanford Daily. Her response was bizarre. “There are eight letters in the word Stanford, and therefore each neighborhood has a letter from Stanford,” she said. And so, “while we are uniquely different, we’re all tied together, especially now in this time.”

. . .When Stanford could not remove a student organization for bad behavior, they found other justifications. One such case was the end of Outdoor House, an innocuous haven on the far side of campus for students who liked hiking. The official explanation from Stanford for eliminating the house was that the Outdoor theme “fell short of diversity, equity and inclusion expectations.” The building formerly known as Outdoor House was added to Neighborhood T.

Next year, Outdoor House will be reinstated, but only because house members promised to refocus their theme on “racial and environmental justice in the outdoors.” Upholding diversity, equity, and inclusion is the first of four “ResX principles” that now govern undergraduate housing. Stanford reserves the right to unhouse any organization that does not, in their opinion, uphold these principles.

One of the houses on the lower half of the Row is Columbae, a vegetarian co-op where students cook and eat together. I am sure that their house, a stately brown manor, used to be some sort of fraternity. But at least the co-op residents are still enjoying themselves. Groups of them are always out on the lawn, reading and sunbathing. Someone set up a red slackline in the front yard. The same boy practices on it every day, balancing a worn stack of books on his head.

In 2025, co-ops like Columbae are scheduled to go through the CORL process and be made to re-justify their existence like every other house. I try to imagine the brown mansion renamed “549,” becoming yet another numbered house with an empty lawn.

It seems bizarre to force organizations to reorganize their themes and make the priority of all of them DEI initiatives, but this doesn’t explain the elimination of other actions and social groups, like Anarchists house, the draining of a lake where students used to party, or the banning of the clothes-optional party. Perhaps another key is in Davis’s penultimate paragraph:

An empty house is safe. A blank slate is fair. In the name of safety and fairness, Stanford destroyed everything that makes people enjoy college and life.

I suggest that part of this dismantling of “fun” involves “safety” of the in loco parentis form: students are not to do anything that could look bad, rowdy, or even be dangerous, like drinking at parties. Lukianoff and Haidt see this kind of atmosphere as “safetyism” resulting from overparenting and a desire to protect adolescents and teens from every sort of harm. The “equity” bit comes in as part of the rules for new or revamped social groups, but can’t in itself explain the dismantling of fun and eccentricity that, according to Davis, was one attraction of Stanford.

I have no idea what’s going on, or even if Davis is exaggerating, but those are some thoughts, and if you’ve gone to Stanford, or know something about it, read Davis’s piece and weigh in.

h/t: Luana

15 thoughts on “Stanford goes socially anodyne

  1. This entire story makes me think of a comment made by transgendered author Caitlin R. Kiernan back in 2018. To quote:

    “And, in the end, no one ever said anything ever again that could possibly offend anyone, so great was the fear of retribution. It was safer not to speak. No one felt oppressed or triggered ever again. Outrage and offense became a thing of the past, along with comedy and art, literature and casual conversation, film and, for that matter, sex. And there was peace and bland silence and a smothering grey stillness where once there had been a vibrant culture.”

    1. This is, incidentially, the very theme of the anerisian principle, as opposed to the erisian one (from Eris, Greek goddess of strife). It’s a sort of social entropy where harmony is achieved by drifting apart so that no interaction, including none of the strident, offensive, or problematic variety could possibly take place.

  2. … Stanford University, which 30 years ago used to be an excellent school (it still is) …

    Not according to Jim Carey’s Mensa-level sons in Me, Myself, and Irene:

  3. Fun and eccentricity, like humor, hiking, and many other inclinations, suffer the defect that they distract from the full-time, single-minded worship of the holy trinity of D, E, an I. Universal DEI worship and piety will also be the goal at lower academic levels in the Golden State. A report in Minding the Campus tells us the following.
    “As universities’ obsession with race and pursuit of racial “equity” continues apace, the Board of Directors of California Community Colleges has decided that the system will now grade its employees, including, of course, its faculty, on the extent to which they promote “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility.” The guidelines of a March proposal “include DEIA competencies and criteria as a minimum standard for evaluating the performance of all employees,” and, in case a staff or faculty member was uninterested in this mandatory goodthink, the rules firmly “provide employees an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of DEIA and anti-racist principles.” ”

    Administrations in other states are following the same campaign, as best they can. If it succeeds generally, higher education in the US will enjoy the same placid unanimity that Biology departments in the USSR enjoyed in the 1950s, and will no doubt resemble their intellectual qualities.

  4. Between 1998 and 2013, Stanford students founded Google, Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat.

    Don’t forget Theranos…

  5. Bureaucrats, who seem to run colleges now, prefer uniformity and order over eccentricity and messiness. Authoritarians even more so. An extreme example, but remember how the Nazis banned all social organizations, and forced everyone to go into government organized social orgs? Aside from the fact that Stanford admins probably don’t like the Greek system, and object to other some social groups on principle, it makes everything so much simpler if you don’t have to deal with annoying variations or exceptions. Having achieved that, it would be much easier to push ideological conformity, and to monitor it.

    1. Yes, this gets to the core of the issue. I didn’t go to Stanford, but I went to another elite university with the same type of kids who go to Stanford. Most of the older freshman/sophomore dorms at my school were built on a cluster style, so that you would get to know the people living close to you and bond with them, which is what happened my freshman year with the students in my group. The newer freshman/sophomore dorms, by contrast, were long hallways with nearly 150 students per floor, not conducive to getting to know anyone. And likely not coincidentally, as the Palladium story alludes to at Stanford with the decline of the Houses, alcohol poisoning was a lot more common amongst residents of these dorms.

      It’s hard for administrators and bureaucrats to exercise effective control over universities if the students (and sometimes professors/faculty, the type who live in residences with students and/or sponsor and bond with them) have their own groups, i.e. “little platoons” to use Edmund Burke’s terminology. This meshes well with the DEI ideology that is so popular amongst administrators, as any grouping which is outside of the administration’s control can be cast as “hoarding privilege”, and therefore inherently exclusionary and inequitable, like the dining club controversy at Harvard, frat houses nationwide, and these Houses at Stanford. And since bureaucrats love conducting investigations, it’s a lot easier to investigate and punish one person than it is to do so to a group.

  6. If I was at Stanford, and wanted to go hiking with my friends, I would go hiking with my friends. I wouldn’t feel the need to join a university society in order to do so. If I was an anarchist, I would try to find like-minded pals to discuss anarchism with; I wouldn’t need a formal structure to do it in (indeed, the whole concept of an ‘Anarchists House’ is surely a contradiction in terms). Are Stanford students really not allowed to do what they like, within the law, in their own free time?

    1. That does seem odd, given that they are adults. But university recognition of a group means certain amenities like a scheduled place to meet, and especially access to funds for travel and other expenses.

    2. When I was at University (York, UK), you could do all of those things, organising them yourself, but the official societies had funding from the University (via the Students’ Union) which meant that (for example) the Climbing Club could organise trips to crags with transport in the form of a minibus free for members.

  7. > They ended decades-old traditions.

    There is an aspect that I do not mind. I support the idea of universities as educational and research institutions and nothing else. While I hope that students have a vibrant lifestyle, there is no reason that these communities must be bound to the university infrastructure. The same applies to school sports – if students want to participate in sports, it is not the university’s job to support or encourage them. Let students be adults and find their own social circles without relying on university infrastructure. Let multi-cultural groups, religious groups, special interest groups, fraternities and sororities continue to exist off-campus with no university recognition whatsoever.

    (I expect this to be about as unpopular as my suggestions not to segregate/privilege adults by race, gender, or age, but we’ll see.)

  8. If Stanford is acting in loco parentis, then they’re pretty uptight parents; it’s more likely that they are acting to keep away a certain type of bad publicity. The doctrine of in loco parentis would actually allow colleges to let students do more “crazy” stuff, not less, as parents have more leeway with regard to their children than mere service providers. Harvard University was one of the last institutions to adopt the 21-year old drinking age: for years it fought the Federal government’s efforts to make 21 a national standard on the grounds that the university acted in loco parentis, and was thus entitled to serve alcoholic beverages to its students. Eventually, however, even Harvard’s lawyers gave up, and I don’t know of any college that claims to act in loco parentis anymore.


  9. I was at Stanford in the mid-60s and then later in the mid-70s. Women had to live in dorms until Senior year (I was in the first group to move off-campus). We had no sororities. They were gotten rid of in the 40s, I believe, when a few girls jumped off Hoover Tower because they hadn’t got into their sorority of choice. In my day there was a quota against women (3 men to every woman). No wokeness back then.
    I think some of the theme houses were just beginning. Despite all this, I got a really excellent education, especially when I went back to do grad work. I think these current attitudes would have driven me crazy!
    The 3:1 ratio made it somewhat difficult fo have boys as friends, as opposed to datss, which I had been used to in HS. (No coed dorms). But I did a 6-month program in Florence during which I made a wonderful mixed group of friends whom I still keep in touch with.

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