The Important Distinction Between the University and its Students

Posted by at 6:12PM

Very briefly, I want to point out a disconcerting issue that has come to light in the wake of, but is certainly not limited to, the Daily’s article on the course list available to athletes and the subsequent reaction to it. No matter what is said, the entire debate seems to have failed to distinguish between the athletic department and student-athletes themselves, which is a very dangerous conflation. The argument is focused on ‘athletes vs. non-athletes’ or ‘some students vs. other students.’

Let me be very clear: I am deliberately refraining from making any commentary on the article itself, or its merits or flaws (commenters, I’m serious about this). I am neither defending nor supporting the article. That is a debate for another place, and this is a commentary on the state of discussion, not on the specifics of this case.

The idea of combining together the policies of an institution with the actions of its members is one that I believe very negatively contributes to discussion and makes it very hard to sort out some of the more important issues at stake. The policies of the athletic department, like those of the University as a whole (or a company, or a government, etc.), should be open to criticism; student-athletes themselves, or all students and their contributions and merits, should not be. I think most, if not all of us, can agree that student-athletes work incredibly hard both on the field and off of it; this does not mean, however, that all athletic department policies are ideal, or even good, just as criticizing Stanford itself for many of its policies is not a criticism of the students who attend, feel a part of, and are the life and blood of this school. When the discussion becomes centered on attacking or defending the behaviors of students, it quickly loses sight of the real issues at stake and the possible fruitful outcomes of the discussion about the policy are lost.

As a policy student, allow me to offer up a politically-based analogy. Many people, myself included, disagree with the Bush tax cuts for those Americans earning over $250,000 per year. I think this policy is a bad one. But does it mean that I think all people who make over $250,000 per year are bad? Absolutely not. Nor do I believe that these people contribute less to society than other citizens. Criticizing the tax cuts is not a criticism of those who are affected by the policy–it is a criticism of the policy itself.

Again, I am not judging or commenting on the merits or content of the ‘list’ article, and this is obviously a simple commentary on a very complex and multifaceted controversy that affects many members of the Stanford community. But to promote full discourse on any subject, now or in the future, we will all be better served if we keep in mind the crucial distinction between the policies of an institution and the actions of its members.

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2 Responses to “The Important Distinction Between the University and its Students”

  1. Andrea says:

    Josh,

    I agree I with your statement and think it is important to highlight this very important issue. It is completely unreasonable to equate the policies of a institution or group with the individuals who are affected by those policies. But I disagree that the debate around the “list” exemplifies this unfortunate behavior. I was actually amazed and impressed by the number of people who stood up in defense of athletes and their intelligence while simultaneously condemning the list as dumb and unnecessary. I think you should give students – particularly bright students like those on our campus – more credit for their ability to distinguish between those responsible for a policy and those to whom it applies.

  2. ’11 says:

    While I agree that the students should not be blamed, nor is the list even something to criticize, you could make the argument (if you are morally opposed to the list) that athletes who use the list could be criticized for trying to take the “easy way out.” Of course, everyone does that, but uses different resources to find easy classes. Again, I don’t think that athletes are taking some easy route, but the situation is kind of fundamentally different from the Bush tax cuts.

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