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Blog Entry

Do Trees Have Standing?

By Charles Schott (AB 74; MBA 83)

Fear the Tree! That’s what they say about Stanford students, both past and present. But Stanford’s administrators apparently don’t respect that view. Those who brought you Stanford’s “war on fun and social life” now assert that they are not accountable to students and alumni. .

Which raises the question, “Do Trees have standing?

Last year, Stanford expelled the Theta Delta Chi fraternity from campus for an unprecedented six years, tantamount to a death sentence, and chose at the same time to seize their house at 675 Lomita Drive – the same house constructed with funds earlier TDX alumni generously donated at the behest of the school. 

What prompted that action? A Theta Delta Chi fraternity brother died after ingesting counterfeit Percocet, which was actually fentanyl, unwittingly supplied to him by a drug dealer who was a childhood friend (not another Stanford student). It is fair to say, then, that this young man died by accidental poisoning (rather than a typical drug overdose) by using deadly substances. While the unprecedented dangers of fentanyl have now been well-documented, its pervasiveness on college campuses, including Stanford, had yet to be fully appreciated by Stanford leaders at that time.

Instead of recognizing this TDX member’s death as a legitimate accident, Stanford characterized it as a fraternity misconduct case, even though it was found that nobody in the house was at fault (see , where Mona Hicks states “To be clear, the OCB investigation was not about assigning fault or responsibility for the student’s death.” You could also link to our press release entitled “Stanford Alleges No Culpability for Theta Delta Chi in Weiner Case”). The university “solved” that “nobody else at fault” problem when it applied its doctrine of “collective responsibility,” whereby everyone in a student group at Stanford can be punished for the “wrongdoing” of one of its members.

The TDX alumni, who have provided leadership and significant financial support to the university over many years, have been forced to sue the university to insist Stanford follow its own rules in dealing with the fraternity and its house, which they had not done. Incredibly, Stanford recently responded that the fraternity’s Stanford alumni do not have standing to bring the case. 

Clearly, Stanford alumni have standing when the university wants to raise money. So if they do not have standing when it comes to insisting that the university follow its own rules and procedures in important matters, then they are simply sheep to be herded or cows to be milked. Similarly, Stanford students are today treated as children, not as adults, and quite often they are treated by the school as “employees,” rather than the customers that they are. 

In fact, these days, student organizations are subject to “performance agreements” that reflect university objectives. These objectives are tracked, and if the organization does not perform according to the university’s wishes, the university can punish them. Evidently, the university today views students as accountable to the university, rather than the other way around. This is a major issue even more important for Stanford to address than the “collective responsibilty” doctrine.

Apparently, the “trees don’t have standing” position originated in the Stanford general counsel’s office, helmed by Debra Zumwalt. She is the same person who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of Harvard against Asian American students on the very same day Stanford apologized to the Jewish community for discrimination in the 1950s.

These views are also supported by Provost Persis Drell, whose office works closely with the general counsel. Together with Stanford Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole, they are responsible for this bleak state of affairs. Essentially, they do not appear to believe that they are accountable to anyone, least of all to those pesky trees: the alumni and students. 

While these administrators may give lip service to the idea that they are accountable to Stanford’s Board of Trustees, the reality is that their view appears to be that primarily it’s the Board’s job to raise substantial sums and to otherwise leave Stanford’s administrators undisturbed.  Apparently this is so that they can continue transforming a once great place to learn (and, not incidentally, to have fun). I would hope that the Board does not share this conviction, because it is completely out of step with their fiduciary obligation to the University. 

This sentiment apparently has also led to the Board taking its eye off the ball at times, such as during the run-up to the admissions scandal, the 36 Sports Strong fiasco, and most recently, the university’s seriously flawed system of addressing student mental health concerns and the related systems of disciplinary procedure and punishment. 

It is time for the administrators responsible for the policies that have led to terrible outcomes for students to do the right thing and consider offering up their resignations. President Tessier and the Board should see to it that this happens.

Charles Schott AB 74 / MBA 83 is a public policy expert as well as a lawyer, management consultant and venture capitalist.  Over the years, he has been active in Stanford alumni matters and was there with the Theta Delts when the Axe was last stolen from Cal in 1973.  In 1982, he led a Stanford-in-China Alumni group to hang an appropriately sized “Beat Cal” banner from the Great Wall (see below).  The banner is now stored in the Hoover Institution archives.