Not in our name: don’t “protect the Stanford brand” at the cost of human beings
As a community of Stanford alumni with a profound sense of commitment to our alma mater, we are deeply shaken by the latest allegations of sexual assault and abuse of power, where graduate students were left vulnerable to powerful faculty. We are shocked by the culture of impunity and normalization that allowed these crimes to occur unchecked.
The allegations appear to be part of a distressing pattern of institutional inertia: Stanford’s disappointing handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment claims by students and faculty, bureaucratic hush-ups during the Brock Turner rape case, and other actions that have hindered advocates for the victims of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Rather than launching into another iteration of crisis management and brand protection, could the university administration simply admit a problem exists and engage in deep personal, community and institutional reflection? Why do we treat survivors in this way? What incentive structures give rise to this treatment and could this system be reformed? Ultimately, what kind of culture do we wish to cultivate at Stanford? The courage of such an open approach would be far more inspirational to students and alumni than trying to sweep it under the rug, and could spark social impact beyond our campus borders.
As an example of a way forward, the Stanford Daily and the national press recently reported about Dr. Seo-Young Chu, at one time a Stanford graduate student, who was allegedly raped by a faculty member. Stanford could support redress for Dr. Chu by joining in the public calls for ASECS, a scholarly organization that had honored the alleged perpetrator until she spoke up, to “acknowledge the reason for rescinding his name from the award” and to “apologize for...violence enacted, however unwittingly, in naming this award.”
However, the issues go beyond any single case and point to a more systemic problem of power imbalances that enable abuse. In developing the university’s plans for preventing and responding to harassment, assault, and other violations of trust, and combating toxic masculinity in academia, we also encourage Stanford to seek broader and more meaningful participation by those who are most vulnerable: students.
In service of greater transparency, university leaders could better explain the conditions under which faculty who are accused or found to have committed sexual assault return to teaching, or are invited to campus to teach in the first place. To regain trust, it would also be helpful for the university to enumerate what safeguards have been implemented; avoid penalizing survivors or their advocates; and adopt clearer communication that smacks less of corporate obfuscation. Perhaps graduate student orientation could even explicitly address these issues and highlight feasible recourse for students, given an existing power structure that has not yet evolved.
If an oftentimes vapid Hollywood can express its horror at sexual assault and begin to examine the depravity of the industry’s embedded misogyny, could the Stanford English Department, or School of Humanities & Sciences, or the larger Stanford community, not do the same? Given the University’s claims to be exceptionally “innovative,” full of the “brightest minds,” and committed to “creating cultured and useful citizens in the service of humanity” could the administration find an equally innovative approach and stand out as a leader in the country when confronted by ethical challenges? Is it possible for our institution to respond with greater humanity, and to avoid resorting to callous corporate strategies that undercut the victims and obscure the issue?
After all, we didn’t graduate from a corporation—we joined a Stanford family. We see current students as our brothers and sisters. That is why as alumni, we speak out today. Stanford is not simply its brand or its reputation. It is most of all constituted by its people: students, staff, faculty, and alumni—living, working, learning and thriving together, generation after generation.
Organizational incentives gone awry have resulted in the university deflecting responsibility, silencing victims, and downplaying problems. Instead of tackling ethical challenges head on, issues are minimized or swept under the rug, all in the name of “protecting the brand.” We expect far more than anodyne corporate-speak from Stanford.
We recognize that managing a university is a complex, difficult task. Administrators bear many responsibilities, and must balance the interests of numerous stakeholders and donors. Therefore, we feel it imperative to make clear the interests of a number of us in the alumni community.
Let us be unequivocal: as alumni, we wish to prioritize our fellow Stanford family members. We care about their lives, their physical and mental health, their academic flourishing, their basic human rights. Their well-being is far more important, and far more precious, than the contrived notion of a “corporate brand.” We would never sacrifice our brothers or sisters simply to protect a brand.
We urge the University to do better: to be more transparent, to show urgency rather than annoyance, and to lead with moral clarity. Silence is complicity. We also ask Stanford to treat members of our community as human beings, not as cases to be managed. Addressing each instance of violence and harm with appropriate concern for people would better demonstrate Stanford’s values.
We urge the University to begin a period of reflection, leading to institutional change at the campus and departmental level, so that those in positions of power will treat all members of the Stanford community as human beings—persons worthy of care and respect.
We love Stanford, and in our hearts, we know it is better than this. The University has tackled some of the world’s great challenges. We hope that it will also take on this important work at home.
With love, concern and gratitude,