“Theta Chi House is a fine example of the Spanish Eclectic style of architecture and the work of a master architect, Will G. Corlett” reads the history of Chi Theta Chi (XOX) conducted last year. XOX is more than fifty years old, and is thus considered
a an historic property. This fact has played very little into the recent events surrounding the decision by Stanford to not renew XOX’s lease. The University cited health and safety code violations and a lapse in corporate status as reasons for not renewing the lease, while XOX countered with protests about community and independence. However, the House itself is key to the debate, superseding more philosophical questions.
A Stanford administrator, who declined to go on the record in light of continuing negotiations between the University and XOX’s
alumni board, described how the House itself factored into the decision not to renew the lease: “what happens really is that you have these very big, large historic houses, that require extensive maintenance and upgrade. This is real care, not painting the living room, but specialized care.” The administrator went further: “their free spirit attitude was neglect to the point of vandalism. They don’t even see how it looks. It’s a combination of obliviousness and arrogance.” Currently, XOX House is in desperate need of repair. Floors and woodwork will need to be replaced or restored, bathrooms updated, and electrics rewired. The scope of the necessary maintenance is beyond what full time students can accomplish, and beyond what XOX’s alumni board can afford: it will take an estimated hundreds of thousands of dollars and several months to restore the property.
Last year, issues came to a head when it became necessary for XOX to replace windows whose wooden frames had rotted out. Administrative officials visiting the house found broken windows that had not been boarded up or replaced, broken bottles and furniture, and the house in general disrepair. In addition, XOX demonstrated a patent disrespect for the University. Outside the house, there was a sign describing a list of violent and obscene actions that would be taken against anyone who parked there. The sign was especially concerning because of Chi Theta Chi’s proximity to the Pearce Mitchell Houses, private homes owned by professors and alumni. Chi Theta Chi responded to a request to remove the sign by citing their free speech rights and left the sign up.
A more serious example of XOX’s disrespectful behavior was the theft of the portrait of J. Henry Meyer. Meyer, a successful San Francisco businessman, was a director of Wells Fargo Bank and the Spring Valley Water Company, as well as president of the California Street Cable Railroad Company. The Meyer family’s gifts to the University have included the support of the construction of Lane Medical Library, the establishment an endowed professorship in the Graduate School of Business in 1961 and the donation of a collection of valuable Western Americana addition to the popular J. Henry Meyer Library. Last year, administrators found the portrait of J. Henry Meyer, which had been stolen from Meyer Library, hanging above the fireplace in the XOX library. The eyes had been blacked out. Despite the seriousness of the incident, no police report or charges were ever filed. Under California Penal Code 487, the theft of an item valued at over $950 is considered Grand Theft and may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. The portrait was restored and rehung, but within a month had been stolen again.
Tours of Stanford’s historic buildings go by XOX, and the display the house puts on for visitors does not fall in line with
what Stanford’s image. For example, there have been complaints of broken glass outside the house as well as empty wine bottles collected in full view of the street. Stolen road signs have been displayed in the windows. In one instance, a yellow thunderbolt parked outside the house was covered in Post-It Notes that had penises drawn on them. The individual guiding the tour estimated that as many as five hundred visitors to Stanford got a glimpse into that particular side of student life. Neglecting the upkeep of the house, combined with disrespectful incidents such as these, have been sufficient to convince the administration that XOX’s lease should not be renewed.
While none of these incidents directly contributed to XOX losing its lease, they speak volumes to the disconnect between XOX and the Stanford Administration. In an environment where these occurrences are the norm, it is clear how XOX could neglect to maintain their property and communicate appropriately with the University, and how the administration could see not renewing their lease as a viable option: “they have a culture of free expression. I understand that. But if they can’t take care of the property themselves then they do not deserve to have it…with freedom comes responsibility.”
When dealing with historic properties, there is the question of whether the amount of work is beyond what can be handled by a students
self-op. This is not to say that self-ops student owned houses are not viable in the eyes of the Stanford Administration. Sigma Chi, the other self-op house which has a lease-hold agreement with Stanford on campus, is an example where students and alumni have cooperated with the Administration to successfully maintain both the property and their independence. Sigma Chi has quarterly inspections to ensure that they are not in violation of health and safety codes, and that the house is being properly maintained.
When asked whether it would be possible for XOX to get their lease renewed, our source within the administration said “I cannot
imagine an appeal that would work. They don’t have the money to fix the problem. They don’t see the problem–they think the Administration just hates them.” Counter to what students may think, outcry from the student body over XOX’s lease mostly falls on deaf ears, and the silence from University in response to student protest has been deafening. The University has no reason to more transparent about its stance on XOX. Any response is fuel for student and alumni protest, and no reading of the situation is particularly favorable towards the University: either they appear to be acting unjustly towards XOX or they look ineffective for letting the situation escalate to the point where not renewing the lease was the only option.
Our source within the administration cited three things it would take for a
self-op house which has a lease-hold agreement with Stanford to be able to maintain a an historical property. First, the property would have to start in good condition. Second, there would have to be significant oversight, from an active alumni board if not from Stanford itself. Thirdly, there would have to be mechanisms in place for the work and maintenance required for a an historic property. However, it is possible. “It’s not the case that [self-operation] has to fail as a model, but it takes some accountability. If you save their community, you are throwing their house in the trash […] the only way to save it is to move XOX out.” At Stanford, Sigma Chi is an example of a functional self-op. Berkeley, which has very little student housing and a high concentration of historic buildings, has many fraternities and other student groups that self-operate successfully.
At this point in time, despite the lobbying of the alumni board, XOX has no credibility with the Stanford Administration. If XOX wanted to retain it’s lease this next year, the changes would have to be extraordinary. Our source described the lengths that XOX would have to go. First, XOX would need a famous alumni to sponsor their bid to the University. That “angel” would need to have responsible backers, wealthy alumni involved in the community. While XOX needs to demonstrate heavy hitting leadership, no high profile alumni have publically championed XOX. It’s not out of the realm of possibility; a list of XOX alums would include such recognizable names as Packard as well as several Olympic medalists. As of now, however, XOX is effectively guaranteed to lose its lease. A statement made by Greg Boardman, Vice Provost for Student Affairs, and Shirley Everett, Senior Associate Vice Provost for Residential & Dining Enterprises, in the Stanford Daily on May 14th made it clear that Stanford was maintaining its stance to not renew the lease.
This means that as of September 1, 2012, the University will assume legal ownership of XOX. The protests from the student body have centered on the threat to XOX’s independence. However, the University statement says that while Stanford will have ownership of the property, they will only collect student funds for housing and pay for repairs: “Our expectation is that the alumni organization of Chi Theta Chi will take the next two to three years to demonstrate the sustained ability to manage house staffing, establish corporate self-governance, and create an effective partnership with the University.” In short, the attributes that members of XOX cite as central to its independence, the direct management of the house, will remain under their control. The deal that the University and the alumni board seem to have brokered is that the University will collect student funds for housing for one to three years, and in return will make all necessary repairs to the property. At that point, if the alumni board has demonstrated its ability to ensure that the historic building is cared for, as well as meeting health and safety standards and maintaining corporate self-governance, XOX will earn back the lease.
Those who worry that XOX’s lease is gone forever should be comforted by Stanford’s history of disciplinary action. Stanford effectively uses slap-on-the-wrist housing punishments when necessary (see Kappa Sigma, who will be reinstated in 1035 Campus Drive next year). It might be prudent of XOX to look at the benefits they gain from losing their lease. They effectively maintain their independence, and Stanford pays for the repairs to the historic property that XOX can neither afford nor implement. It’s the equivalent of a bailout: XOX has fallen so behind on maintenance that Stanford will step in and complete the necessary repairs for them (an irony that must surely grate on students who have been fined for room damages). Once repairs have been made, XOX can get their lease back. In the mean time, XOX must demonstrate that they can reconcile complete independence with the upkeep of
a an historic property.
EDIT: Thanks to Anna, Sophi, and Evan for pointing out the conflation of self-op with ownership of the lease. XOX is a co-op, and the article has been edited to reflect this.