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Practice what you teach: The need for empathetic leadership in the face of crisis

Over 80 percent of GSB students (over 700 people) have signed a petition asking for a significant tuition reduction from Stanford. Over 1,000 professional school graduate students from across Stanford have signed a similar petition asking for a tuition waiver and protections for workers. I was one of the dozen students who collaborated to pen the first of those two petitions, because I was sad to see Stanford fail to support its students and workers, while so many other organizations have risen to this critical occasion.

Students across professional graduate schools clearly feel strongly that the cost of attendance needs to be adjusted because we are no longer having an immersive, in-person educational and social experience, but rather a series of online lectures. We very much support the administration’s prioritization of public health and consequent decision to move education online. What we do not understand is why, now that the administration has acknowledged that the spring quarter will, in fact, be a disappointment, there is no compensation provided to students for this lesser experience. When other institutions swap out products, prices change. Why does higher education get an exemption from this standard practice?

To address some of the points brought up in the Town Hall hosted by our administration on Wednesday, March 25:

a) GSB’s costs will stay the same or increase as a result of virtual education

Tuition policies should be informed by value delivered to students, not costs to the institution.

b) We reserve our endowment for long-term financial support

As the administration stated, this is a crisis. If there were ever a time to call upon emergency funds, now would be the time. The endowment can be replenished by an institutional capital campaign. Students cannot mobilize high net worth individuals to donate, nor offer tax-exempt status, in the same way Stanford as an institution can.

c) The Provost has already advanced the policy

Yes, and it does not meet the needs of students. The MBA Student Association has worked with student government leaders at the law and medical schools to procure a meeting with the Provost. But there are several levers, from increased financial aid to stipends to continuing education credits, that are within the control of the GSB administration while the Provost conversation on tuition is in progress.

d) Many peer institutions have made the same decision

Quid pro quo arguments are not compelling. If Stanford views itself as an institution that values empathetic, bold leadership, now is the time to prove it.

Of course, I’m upset about not being able to take Project You with Tyra Banks (I’ve watched eight seasons of America’s Next Top Model in the past two months to prepare). Of course, I’m upset about not being able to perform at the C4C dance-off when we’d assembled such a killer dance crew. Of course, I’m upset that my parents and sister will not get the opportunity to meet my friends’ families at graduation.

But I am more upset at GSB and Stanford leadership for failing to recognize their own power and privilege. There is a massive power differential between a $27 billion institution and its students, many of whom financially support their families (a question never asked during the GSB’s financial aid process). There is an even bigger power differential between a $27 billion institution and its hourly service workers, including vendor workers like Arbuckle staff, who have been unceremoniously laid off in this crisis. For all the talk around community, leadership, and feedback, Stanford and the GSB have decided to ignore student and worker concerns and hoard resources in a time when we most need to distribute them.

I implore Stanford to be loyal to the people who give their institutions life. Stanford, unlike small businesses, has a $27.7 billion dollar balance sheet. If it chooses to support its community in crisis, Stanford has the resources to provide a discount to students, pay expected wages to workers, including vendor workers, and maintain all staff and faculty positions. Yes, this will mean more work because the institution will need to rebuild the endowment after the crisis is weathered. But this extra effort is a small price to pay for Stanford and the GSB to prove their commitment — in actions, not just words — to our broader GSB community.




An online magazine written by and for the Stanford GSB community.

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Alissa Orlando

Alissa Orlando

Gig economy operator (ex- Uber , Rocket Internet) turned advocate for better conditions. Jesuit values Georgetown, MBA Stanford GSB. Twitter: @AlissaOrlando

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