“An Affirmation of Life’s Beauty:” A Letter to President Hennessy on Chi Theta Chi

Posted by at 11:51PM

The friendly residents of Chi Theta Chi.

The following letter is from Dana Edwards ’14.

Dear President Hennessy,

I lived in Chi Theta Chi this past fall quarter, and I am saddened and taken aback by the university’s move to assume control over the co-op. Dr. Hennessy, I respectfully ask for you to exercise your executive power and prevent Residential and Dining Enterprises from terminating our lease. In order to illustrate why Chi Theta Chi means so much to me, to my 35 brothers and sisters who currently live in the house, and to hundreds of Chi Theta Chi alumni–and in order to illustrate why stripping us of our autonomy is tantamount to stripping away the very soul of this place–I will tell you my story. It’s a little long-winded, and riddled with generalities, but it’s extremely honest. I cried when I wrote this. For this reason, I ask that you read on.

Like many Chi Theta Chi residents of past and present, I hated my freshman dormitory, but found a loving home in this historic building. As a wide-eyed freshman on the first day of New Student Orientation, I arrived at a certain freshman dorm in Wilbur Hall to hear my name screamed by dorm staff who were somehow already familiar with my face.  It was a demonstration of the RAs’ dedication, to be sure, but also a taste of the sort of giddy artifice that has come to define the freshman residential experience, annually laying the plumage for the newest flush of Stanford Ducks.

As 21st century Stanford matriculates, we were a remarkable group of young adults–sensitive, hard-working, intelligent–and yet the culture in our dormitory did not encourage intellectual cross-pollination or creative vision, or provide an open environment to discuss our very real fears and frustrations; instead it reveled in intolerable fakeness. It was Camp Stanford, and I was not a happy camper. I was depressed. (Given, I had just returned from Burning Man, perhaps the most open and expressive of counterculture environments, so the transition to artifice was made all the more abrupt.)

The building itself made me feel like a pampered inmate: white cinderblock walls and frameless hydraulic doors, a prison of fluorescent sterility attended by an anonymous custodian. Awkwardness abounded, disingenuous dorm pride supplanted everyone’s secret feeling of not belonging, and the cheering of our oddly offensive cheer forever rang in the air and turned my stomach.

We were the future world leaders and academics, and we were acting like immature idiots, unable to honestly engage with one another, to experiment, to love one another, to grow in all the ways I hoped college could help you grow. (Let me make it clear that the residents of this dorm were on the whole wonderful people, including and especially the RAs. I even made a few good friends. I speak out not against my fellow classmates, but against the institution and the culture–or lack thereof–that it fosters.)

Early on in the year, in an apparent effort to engender a deeper form of understanding among the residents, we all wrote anonymous quotes on a large sheet of paper titled, “Hidden Identities”, which was later taped to the walls of our common room. The quotes were very real and often very serious. Some spoke to traumatic childhoods and broken homes, some to deep anxieties and psychological problems. But rather than bringing us closer together, these quotes stood as a flagrant reminder of just how far apart we were. They were the embodiment of the Stanford Duck’s hidden underbelly, a reminder of just how frantically everyone was paddling while on the surface appearing calm and collected, like–well, like ducks.

I prayed (in a non-theistic way) for a more open environment, for a place outside of the duck pond, where everyone didn’t act happy and relaxed, and then secretly work their feathered tails off, possessed of some narrow-minded, capitalistic version of success, a blind ambition that was nonetheless crucial to their admission. I prayed for a place where I could learn to be a better person, to love my life and to love others. I prayed for a place without white cinderblock walls, one that didn’t feel like a plush mental ward. I prayed (once again, I’m an atheist, so this was proverbial prayer) for a bubble within the Stanford bubble, a bubble of love.

What I prayed for was Chi Theta Chi. I wandered into the building during a party in the winter quarter and fell in love with the place. There were beautiful murals on the walls, contributions from students of years past. There was an open courtyard with couches and flowers, a garden, a rooftop, creaky wooden stairs, a huge kitchen filled with healthy food to nurture the soul. The place was a haven for creative expression and real–thank god, real!–interaction among the residents. It was an affirmation of life’s beauty and an opportunity to find it in yourself.

I’m a lot happier now than I was my freshman year; this house and its loving family were more therapeutic than the admittedly well-intentioned employees of Vaden Health Center’s Counseling and Psychological Services.  At Chi Theta Chi I felt at home.

If the university assumes control of Chi Theta Chi, our spirit will be broken. We will no longer manage our own finances. (For one thing, our financial manager, capital improvements manager, and fix-it managers will be out of a job, and really, in this economy, we need to be thinking about job creation.) We will not be able to work on large projects at the beginning of every year during our work week: painting walls, building sheds, trimming hedges, and reseeding lawns. We will not be able to live here over the summer. We will lose contact with our alumni and our alumni board, which remains a close network largely due to Chi Theta Chi’s spirit of autonomy.  Our murals will be painted over. Our furniture will be replaced with standard university furniture. Little by little, ResEd will encroach and homogenize.

This place has a rich history as an independent house, a history that will be trampled upon by the university administration should it follow through with its plan to revoke our lease. Legend has it that when Sigourney Weaver was at Stanford, she lived in a platform in the tree in our courtyard, apparently dressing up like an elf on a regular basis. Our basement walls are plastered with photos from nearly forty years of students who found this lovely place.  In efforts to allay our anxiety, ResEd has claimed that our “spirit” will not be lost in the transition to a university-operated home.  They say that our lives will not change. I say that this is categorically false. The very essence of Chi Theta Chi is in its independence. Sequestering power from our alumni-board would be like cutting Samson’s hair, slitting Achilles’ heel. We simply will not be able to go on.

It’s unfair and hypocritical of the university to boast to the world (à la US News rankings) its status as the proving grounds for future world leaders, and at the same time treat its students like they can’t lead their own lives, like they’re incapable of maintaining an independent community. I don’t want to be treated like a prodigious infant. Stanford needs to provide environments for its students to learn to live well. Partaking in the tasks integral to the maintenance of Chi Theta Chi as an independent house builds crucial life skills and an empowering do-it-yourself-mentality, while fostering a close community around the collective ownership of this building.

Now, you might think that all of my testimony is irrelevant because Stanford is assuming control over Chi Theta Chi due to legal matters, matters that cannot be argued against with personal anecdotes. I am not the official spokesperson for our progress with the legal issues cited by ResEd in their letter outlining the termination of our lease, but as I understand it, we have addressed all of the matters listed. We remain financially solvent, up to date with our taxes and the ID numbers under which those taxes are filed; we’ve retained our status as a corporation, and we’ve passed all kitchen and fire inspections with flying colors. My hypothesis, then, is that, since not some but all of the issues have been addressed, the university has some other motivation for taking control of the house. Perhaps it has long term plans for Munger-style construction across the street; perhaps it is simply uncomfortable with the idea of an autonomous island operating within an ocean of streamlined Stanford bureaucracy. Whatever the reason may be, I ask that you keep Chi Theta Chi as it is right now for the benefit of the greater community, because this house in its independent state serves a singular role as a haven for those seeking to learn to live as well as to study, for those who–like me–wandered the halls of their freshman dorms lonely and wanting to transfer.

Dr. Hennessy, I understand that you are a busy man. Responsibilities-wise, you’re in a whole different league than I am. You run one of the world’s great universities, a place buzzing with life and potential, and a place that I love despite a few issues I take with the campus culture. But I sincerely ask that you take a few minutes out of your busy schedule to reply to this letter. I hope that your eyes, the eyes of President John Hennessy, are reading this line and the few that follow, and I hope that you reply with you own words. I ask that you reply in one of two ways: either 1. Standing by ResEd’s decision to revoke our lease, or 2. Pledging to exercise your power to prevent ResEd from terminating our lease. A neutral stance would not, in my opinion, constitute a valid option, as it would undermine the gravity of our cause and sidestep your role as the ultimate authority on university affairs, the one with the power to affect the outcome of this predicament. If you reply with option 1, I would sincerely like to hear justification for why the university intends to destroy our community. If you reply with option 2, I will be eternally grateful.

Sincerely (and sincerely looking forward to your reply),

Dana Edwards

Stanford Class of 2014



One Response to ““An Affirmation of Life’s Beauty:” A Letter to President Hennessy on Chi Theta Chi”

  1. Erp says:

    Hennessy is on sabbatical right now and for the next few months. Etchemendy is acting president.


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