by Luke Wigren, ’11
I ask you to consider, first, how our campus culture has adopted “infantilism” into our language and social imagination. Think about the quaint, joking comparisons of Stanford to Disneyland, or students and professors likening our campus to a “bubble” – the latter which has always struck me, a little eerily, as resembling the womb. Think about the larger bubble of Palo Alto, the fro-yo, the pro-fros, the co-ho, and the way you always feel like you’re going a little farther than mom and dad said you could when you cross the 101 into East Palo Alto to get your Ikea furniture. There does seem to be a definite tendency for students here to solemnly recognize, yet be perfectly content with, this fuzzy, intoxicatingly gleeful, but awfully disconnected, reality.
We live in a place where no spill goes uncleaned and our biggest crises are what to wear to Exotic Erotic. And, because of this, some have argued that we are indifferent. However, it seems more correct to suggest, rather, that we are hyper-insulated and thus unable to become truly, viscerally critical of the very pressing world issues of our time – issues such as our nation’s perpetual foreign occupations, virulent racism in the form of anti-immigrant sentiment, and runaway corporate greed, creating enormous concentrations of not only wealth, but land and resources, in what has become a kind of global feudal slavery.
I guess, with all that in mind, I can’t blame us. Who wouldn’t want to be five years old again, at least for a little while – say like four years – to be able to ignore the endemic social injustice in our economic and political systems? Still, isn’t it a little disturbing to think that we simultaneously want to be future leaders?
Now, before I get on a tangent, I would like to guide your attention to cooperative home Chi Theta Chi’s (XOX’s) current situation and a new perspective that all is not well here in the “happiest place of higher-education on earth.” See, if Stanford is a Disneyland, and its palm tree studded bubble is an unwalled magical kingdom, then I believe that inhabiting its campus-loop moat are students increasingly in a state of intellectual serfdom, where, being unable to find shared ownership over an ounce of land or even the walls of our dorm rooms, our relationships with each other and with our very own decision making has been co-opted (no pun intended) by bureaucratic forces within the university, namely ResEd and Student Affairs. Going beyond what Karl Marx describes as industrial capitalism’s “alienation of labor,” under these hyper-restrictive, yet seemingly free environments, we come to an even more devastating total alienation of ourselves from our very own desires and companionship.
After the tumult of the 1960s on college campuses, it may be that those in power learned their lesson not to be quite so contentious or blunt in their repressions of student grievances and demonstrations. The status quo, it turns out, is much better guarded by devising an illusion of freedom and conditioning people to accept it. Why waste energy breaking student protests, occupations, and highly publicized sit-ins, when you can work less hard over a longer period of time, to convince every student that they would be crazy to want life any other way. At Stanford and most elite colleges, we responsibly handle the repression of self, ourselves, these days, as we are persuaded into thinking that buffet-style dining halls, buildings permanently (and repeatedly) under-construction, a nearly invisible low-wage cleaning staff, year-round green grass, and spacious living quarters are the acceptable norm. At the same time, somewhere along the way, we also got the idea in our head that occupations and strikes are a waste of our precious time and that, if we really want to change the world for the better, we should go work behind a desk at an NGO.
Still, even if you don’t subscribe to any of these beliefs, and recognize the truth that no freedom struggles throughout history have ever been won without massive collective actions and grassroots community organizing, it’s hard not to be buttered up when you hear over and over, “You deserve it! You deserve it all!” But behind all the fanfare, if one listens closely, what we really hear Stanford ingraining into our heads is the phrase, “We know what’s best for you!” It burrows deep into our subconscious, so deeply in fact, that we begin to believe it, allowing the university to assume a lulling power of paternalism over us which promotes the mute passivity to which we have become accustomed.
The university’s invasive behaviors, aimed at manufacturing consensus, are nowhere near as alarming as at XOX, which now – even after working congenially with Student Affairs and disproving ResEd’s deceptive claims of “pressing life safety issues” – has received confirmation after closed door negotiations, that they remain intent on terminating the lease. The administration’s behavior, we must now recognize clearly, is seizure of alumni-owned property, and no “two year interim period” can cover up that fact, nor can we excuse their unwarranted abuse of our lease agreement in the first place.
Furthermore, the more recent accusations by an unknown “administrator X” (whose anonymous diatribe shamefully used a student journalist to hide behind) have exposed an even more disgraceful and manipulative side to the administration’s motives. The anonymous administrator’s allegations that Chi Theta Chi has been irresponsible “to the point of vandalism” acting in “obliviousness and arrogance” towards their home, are neither qualitatively accurate, nor are these things, in any legal sense, grounds at all for the termination of a lease. Instead, beyond indicating what continues to be a shocking lack of transparency in administrator motives, it points to a much more serious issue at hand: that the university has pathologically begun to think of and treat its students like small children to be punished and pushed around, and not as the leaders it claims to want to empower.
What’s worse, XOX has for three decades been an independently owned, up-to-code, completely functioning house and is, by some accounts, “the last free social space” on campus. Not to mention, for students on financial aid, the fact that the home has control of its own finances allows for its residents to bypass the university’s 96% monopoly of undergraduate student housing, and save over $4,000 per year on their room and board bill ($8490/year versus $12,721/year), an amount that, even when compared to the several university-owned cooperatives, ranges from $1,365 to $1,865 cheaper.
Even if you don’t care for the XOX community in particular, I urge you to consider the ramifications of the far-reaching privatization, propagandizing, and administrative bureaucracy encountered at Stanford on your own life – with the invasive regulation of our housing communities, the coddling of students with hedonist comforts, and actions the Board of Trustees and President Hennessy have taken that continue to encourage an entrepeneurial-dominant campus atmosphere. It is becoming increasingly obvious that at this university, students have little to no say in any of our school’s major developments or in guiding how best to follow our school’s academic mission to “promote the public welfare.” Case in point, the Board of Trustees approval to dole out community space for a $345 million dollar Nike funded business management school at the heart of our campus (completed in 2011), though probably a good business move, does little for Stanford students other than further inculcate the old “go-it-alone, at-all-costs” mentality of monopolization, which we are beginning to see worldwide is a failing model – certainly in terms of contributing to the general public welfare.
Taken together, by witnessing our school’s seemingly never-ending explosion of business opportunity, while simultaneously watching a slow dismantling and neutering of all our school’s most meaningful and free communities, the cumulative effect is that we are slowly being led to believe that community has absolutely no value whatsoever. So, instead of committing to one another, we commit to our majors. We spend time networking and scheming on start-up ideas rather than making friends. And, instead of reasoning morally, we begin thinking monetarily, coming frighteningly close to believing free-enterprise and free-will are one and the same. On and on this goes until even on a campus as vast and breezy and sunny as this, we find it alarmingly easy to put our principles indefinitely on hold and, like children in a large sand-box, more-or-less willingly, resign ourselves to becoming corporate pawns so long as it is “fun” and can provide us snacks.
My main issue with this is not that I loathe business or am not grateful for technological advancement like the “resolutionary” iPad3, but simply that I think we are making a grave mistake if we believe we can go through life content, either, with having limited or institutionally coerced decision-making. This is especially true in these formative post-adolescent years. How can our state of “willful arrested development” not adversely effect our ability to make ethical judgments throughout the rest of our adult life? How – and against what real issues – can we hammer out our moral compass? More pressingly, why have our highest aspirations strayed from maintaining local communities and involving ourselves in meaningful political struggle, to beginning start-ups with narrow social agendas and two-syllable names that sound like a child in the early ‘babbling’ stage of speech development?
The rigid normalization of student life and infantilization of our desires by an unaccountable, undemocratic, and nontransparent administration, is detrimental to the life of the mind and the heart of the curious student, which together thrive on cooperative problem solving and the disorder of even simple things such as cooking one’s own dinner or cleaning a filthy toilet. Chi Theta Chi’s residents have a handle on this, sometimes all too well. Residents of XOX have also begun to recognize a key anthropologic truth, which is that our personal identities are reflections of both our communities and our physical surroundings and so follows, that when put in asylum-like conditions – where we are unable to affect, share ownership, or construct an organic feeling of home in these places – we easily slip downwards until we become emotionally stifled and mentally enslaved ourselves. Sure we might end up looking good on the outside, with a well-manicured Curriculum Vitae and a heavily watered ego, but beneath the surface could be hiding a reality which is deeply dissatisfied and emotionally unstable.
The ultimate tragedy is that, here at Stanford, by systematically isolating us from meaningful decision-making and shared community – things that have been understood within sociology as some of the most extreme sources of pleasure for human beings – I fear that we as students will submerge ourselves deeper and deeper into a state of anomie, nihilism, and meaninglessness, that threaten to undermine the truly liberating potential of higher education.
Our only option then, beyond not caring and taking another piece of german chocolate cake from Arrillaga dining, is to collectively organize and save Chi Theta Chi from the thieving grips of a faceless, undemocratic institution! But then again, why, once we have the momentum, would we want to stop there?
More than a century ago, before there was any mention of a 99% or Occupy Wall Street, it was our school’s founder, Leland Stanford Sr. himself, who warned of the social inequality our nation would encounter if labor and scholarship were placed at the mercy of industry and large accumulations of wealth. He foresaw the nefarious problems that would arise if power were left unchecked in the hands of private enterprise and vulture capitalism. So, in a stroke of benevolent wisdom, it was Leland Stanford Sr. who wisely placed “co-operation” at the heart of our school’s mission statement, declaring in his writings, that “the principle of co-operation of individuals is a most democratic one…It is the absolute protection of the people against the possible monopoly of the few.”
Had Leland Stanford Sr. been alive to see his school overrun, as it is today, with industrial forces and the corrosive obsession with money and status, he may have told us to grow up and one can imagine him rolling over and over in the mausoleum at the thought of losing XOX, the last independent cooperative on campus. Furthermore, the miserly control of our $16.5 billion endowment would seem practically criminal, especially as it lacks what would seem to be obvious stipulations barring investment in companies that commit ethics violations, like those of companies and banks, today, who continue to make record profits off of the same global economic and political instability that they are causing. Should Stanford University have anything to do with the companies and banks taking part in the military weapons industry (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman), anti-immigrant and drug-criminalization fueled mass-incarceration (CCA, Geo Group), and land, labor, and resource exploitation both foreign and domestic (too many to list just a few)? The answer, I hope, is, “Absolutely not!”
So, in honor of a besieged XOX and in the hopes of creating a more just world, could we not (over the next two-years, as XOX sits on the chopping block) organize a related campaign to divest from these unethical companies if, by simultaneously assuming cooperative responsibility for ourselves as the Stanford Daily recently suggested (i.e. cleaning, cooking, democratically guiding our curriculum, and – better yet – creating new cooperatives), we were also able to eliminate the administrative offices of Student Affairs and ResEd altogether (no offense Greg Boardman and Deborah Golder), and thereby cut costs on our university’s $4.1 billion operating budget of which a whopping 54% goes towards salaries and benefits? Think about it, with the money saved by students self-organizing, we could free up endowment funds to reinvest into companies and projects that directly address human needs such as providing affordable education, housing, food, and healthcare to more than just the most privileged few who have happened to make it here. In other words, by pursuing cooperative living right here locally, we could help solve economic inequality globally!
Maybe I am too idealistic. Maybe I should be the one growing up to face the cold facts of life, bowing before the almighty dollar. But, then again I feel like idealism and looking for alternatives is what college is all about. And luckily, having come to Stanford and having had the opportunity to live at XOX, I feel and, in fact, know, that I am in good company. Not only did my wonderful fellow XOX residents demonstrate the advantages of a cooperative lifestyle to me day after day – but I also now firmly believe that it was a dream of Leland Stanford Sr. that “co-operation” become both a blueprint for our university and an antidote if we ever found ourselves, like we absolutely do today, in too dangerous an impasse with corporate monopolies. Stanford believed that principled reasoning and brotherhood could elevate us high above the messiness of human greed and lust for power and, therefore, he did all he could to ensure that it became a part of our school’s academic mission.
Beginning with a fight to protect XOX from university monopolization, we, the students, workers, and faculty of this university, have an opportunity to push back even further, building a movement which transcends XOX becoming a broad fight for cooperation and community democracy on our campus as a whole. Such a movement could eventually steer ourselves and this school back on its historically intended course, allowing students and faculty to take the reigns in guiding how this university sways its influence locally and globally. We need no longer be children at the hands of a university which seeks to coddle us into passivity and emotional vacancy as we crawl towards an entrepreneurial future.
Instead, let us come together to seize on this urgent moment of campus, national, and global transformation, which just this year has grown, before our eyes, to become a showdown between global capitalism and grass-roots community democracy. Let us join together on the side of community independence, free expression, shared common spaces, and true student democracy (as well as a more just world).
And, finally, I ask you to join in as I share with you the popular cry of solidarity from my weirdly beloved home, Chi Theta Chi, as we call upon our university to move onward and upward towards a “cooperativist” future, triumphantly hollering “Bring us with us!” Say it aloud. Trust me, it’s fun.
Luke Wigren is a 2011 graduate of Stanford University in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity with a concentration in “Art, Community Organizing, and Social Movements.” He is working on cinematic projects about “revolutionary tourism” and, though he will – like most – be moving on in life, would like to continue to be able to call Chi Theta Chi and the Stanford community home and actually mean it. Otherwise, it’s been a good five years. Nice to know you.