by Luke Wigren, ’11
“It is by realizing that their condition of life is not what it ought to be, that vast improvements may be accomplished.”
-Leland Stanford, Congressional Record, May 23rd, 1890
Looking back on my time at Stanford, I find myself questioning — most of all — my own foolishness. There were the numerous all-nighters I pulled in the Toyon Eating Clubs (R.I.P.), and the long afternoons I passed doing nothing but writing lyrics on the walls of XOX’s Chapter Room (R.I.P.). Also, there was the entire quarter I devoted myself to studying famed Stanford dropout John Steinbeck in a class entitled “Holistic Biology” (R.I.P.). The class culminated in a four week research voyage, a pilgrimage of sorts, to Baja California and in true Steinbeck-ian form, it fulfilled nearly zero requirements towards my major or towards graduation.
If someone asked me to tell them what made my time at Stanford unique or enriching, these are the moments to which I would inevitably return. These are the formative learning experiences. You tend to remember dissecting 4-foot long jumbo squids at 4:00 a.m. while drenched in ink, bobbing quietly in the bioluminescence of the Sea of Cortez. Or, maybe you remember those mornings when you were stirred awake, face plastered to a book of radical Chican@ poetry by the sound of a fellow Toyon resident making a sandwich.
And yet, I have had to watch helplessly as one by one the university bureaucracy shrewdly dismantled the sources of each of these memories. And it only took two years.
I have seen so many parts of my Stanford experience erased, in fact, that it can sometimes feel, uncannily, as if the tracks I were laying down were being swept up right from behind me. But that would be too presumptuous. It is not me personally, but students like me, idealistic, insatiably curious, perhaps overly trusting — which is to say all students — for whom our school has become increasingly inhospitable. And that is why I feel foolish.
What should I have done? Was there no way to see this coming? Why — when the Toyon Eating Clubs were closed down after my Sophomore year — did I only bake a cake for the two displaced employees, sisters Lupita and Maricela, who I had come to cherish over the year? If I had only dug a little deeper, it would have led me inexorably to the fact, which we now know thanks to Mr. Unterreiner’s journalism, that Zac Sargent, the then-CEO of private food subcontractor Stanford Eating Clubs (SEC), was already holding down his future job in the very university department responsible for giving his contracts.
I came to Stanford as an outspoken anti-war activist and, while here, waited four years, putting direct action and protest on the back-burner, convinced like others that there was nothing to get indignant about, that I could somehow bank on changing the world at a later date, when I was comfortably settled in my future profession — whatever that might be. Yet, as I became disillusioned with the manufactured serenity of our campus, eventually dropping out of school for a quarter and traveling to Mexico, I realized we have more than enough to be outraged about.
The lie of neoliberalism was the same south of the border as it is on our very own campus. The corporatization and embalming of student life resembles the multimillion-dollar cavernous resorts being built all along the shores of Mexico; the multinational companies feasting on low-cost Mexican labor and spreading environmental devastation are telling the same half-truths of “efficiency” and “sustainability” as the enterprises who are currently maintaining our school; even our social and political leaders seem in both cases to be out of touch. They wage endless wars on immorality, spending more time targeting drug/alcohol abuse and petty crime, than they do tackling root issues of economic insecurity and feelings of hopelessness, the very things caused by the competitive, isolating systems that they sign off on.
At Stanford, no matter how pretty it looks, we are living in a microcosm of the greed, consumption, and blissful ignorance of the world at large. Of course, if we chose to, we could affect change on every level, simply by beginning right here at Stanford.
Facing the deterioration of student life into one of contrived and constricted experience, I would hope first and foremost, that this recent student uprising begin to lay down the foundation for a much longer-term student independence movement. Whatever happens now between Students/Chefs/XOX/SPER/SSS and ResEd/R&DE/Trustees is one thing, but alternatively one might look ahead to see that this is just one battle in what could be a longer, and more fruitful endeavor, one where students don’t just struggle retroactively to save what little independence they have left, but begin to work towards a completely bureaucracy-free, hierarchy-free campus — in short, a student/worker/faculty controlled university, or whatever you want to call it.
I feel foolish now, I realize, not because I didn’t do enough as a student activist, not because I didn’t know enough at the time, but because I didn’t wager my “Stanford Experience” more often on the possibility of carving out my own path, taking more opportunities to lead change. Maybe the truth is, I wasn’t foolish enough.
As I discovered each time I committed myself to political action, there was always someone who came out of the woodwork to lend a hand.
I tell you all of this now, not as a lecture but as an alert, because there is another bet to be made at the table this year and the “Stanford Experience” itself is at stake. The R&DE/ResEd bureaucracy are betting that Stanford undergraduates aren’t angry enough to actively resist the changes they have set their sights on making. They are acting on the belief that the “Stanford Experience” they are creating is one based on consensus, not protest, and thereby, whether in four years or forty, they will have their way — a total monopoly on student life.
However, as today is only March 19th, for a limited time proving them wrong will only require that you gather a little solidarity from your friends and fellow students, and together each incur a $250 fine. That’s right! By terminating your housing contracts en masse for Spring Quarter (or for any quarter from here on out), you can begin to both articulate and embody a new Stanford Experience, one that is the collective dream of students and not a byproduct of risk mitigation at an administrative level. Furthermore, you can actively realize some of what lies at the heart of the founding of this University, by actively living out Leland Stanford’s dream that this school would teach its students three core principles: material self-sufficiency, cooperative economics, and just government.
You can choose to do all of this fairly quietly – by taking time off like Steinbeck did, moving off campus to live in a shack of “7 square feet” — or you can do it loudly with fanfare and park an RV on palm drive, but one thing is for certain, it must eventually be done. That is, you must be a little foolish and take the risks necessary to maintain the beauty and adventure of your Stanford experience.
CSRE, Class of 2011
P.S. A note to ResEd: We are never, ever, ever, getting back together.
Luke Wigren is a 2011 graduate of Stanford University in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. He wrote his bachelors thesis on the revolutionary potential of world travel. It is entitled “¡Viva Turismo!”