Stanford’s War on Social Life

Maxim Babichev/450 Serra Mall, Stanford University

JP’s favorite college story is the night he built an island. In the fall of 1993, JP was a junior in Stanford’s chapter of Kappa Alpha. The brothers were winding down from Kappa Alpha’s annual Cabo-themed party on the house lawn. “KAbo” was a Stanford institution, a day-to-night extravaganza that would start sometime in the morning and continue long after midnight. The girls wore bikini tops and plastic flower leis, and the boys wore their best Hawaiian shirts.

That year, the brothers had filled the entire main level of Kappa Alpha’s house with a layer of sand six inches deep. The night was almost over; the guests were leaving and the local surf rock band had been paid their customary hundred dollars in beer. The only question was what to do with all the sand.

No one remembers who had the idea to build the island. A group of five or six brothers managed the project. One rented a bulldozer; another shoveled the sand off the floor. Their house was not far from Lake Lagunita, the mile-wide lake on Stanford’s campus. The only holdup was the strip of university-owned land between the house and the lake.

It was JP who talked to Stanford’s head groundskeeper and convinced him to let the bulldozer pass. In the end, the groundskeeper admired their spirit. “If anybody asks you about it,” he said, “just send them to me.”

Later that year, the brothers installed a zipline from the roof of their house to the center of the island. They also built a barge, which they would paddle around the lake on weekends and between classes.

The Winds of Freedom

It is hard to imagine someone at Stanford building an island anymore. In fact, it is hard to imagine them building anything. The campus culture has changed.

Today, most of the organizations JP remembers from Stanford are gone. The Kappa Alpha boys have been kicked out of their old house. Lake Lagunita was closed to student activities in 2001, ostensibly to protect an endangered salamander that had taken up residence in the artificial waters. Eventually, Stanford let the lake go dry. JP claims you can still see his island though, now a patch of elevated ground in a dry, dusty basin.

Stanford’s new social order offers a peek into the bureaucrat’s vision for America. It is a world without risk, genuine difference, or the kind of group connection that makes teenage boys want to rent bulldozers and build islands. It is a world largely without unencumbered joy; without the kind of cultural specificity that makes college, or the rest of life, particularly interesting.

Since 2013, Stanford’s administration has executed a top-to-bottom destruction of student social life. Driven by a fear of uncontrollable student spontaneity and a desire to enforce equity on campus, a growing administrative bureaucracy has destroyed almost all of Stanford’s distinctive student culture.

What happened at Stanford is a cultural revolution on the scale of a two-mile college campus. In less than a decade, Stanford’s administration eviscerated a hundred years of undergraduate culture and social groups. They ended decades-old traditions. They drove student groups out of their houses. They scraped names off buildings. They went after long-established hubs of student life, like fraternities and cultural theme houses. In place of it all, Stanford erected a homogenous housing system that sorts new students into perfectly equitable groups named with letters and numbers. All social distinction is gone.

Whenever Stanford empties out a fraternity or theme house, the administration renames the organization’s former house after its street number. Now, Stanford’s iconic campus Row, once home to dozens of vibrant student organizations, is lined with generic, unmarked houses with names like “550,” “680,” and “675” in arbitrary groupings with names like “S” and “D”.

Stanford’s motto is Die Luft der Freiheit weht—“the winds of freedom blow.” But Stanford has become a case study of how overzealous bureaucrats can crush natural social expression, and how the urge to excise danger can quickly devolve into a campaign to whitewash away anything remotely interesting. In the aftermath, all that is left is the generic: empty walls, names scrubbed off buildings, and kids safely, or not so safely, alone in their rooms.

The West Goes Global

Through the late 1990s, Stanford functioned primarily as a dream school for the children of well-off Californians. It was selective—not The New York Times satire selective, but a goal worth chasing—and featured a wacky campus culture that combined collegiate prep with West Coast laissez-faire. Stanford was home to a rich patchwork of wild and experimental campus life. Communal living houses (“co-ops”) encouraged casual nudity, while fraternities threw a raucous annual “Greek Week” and lit their houses on fire. Until 2013, Stanford hosted a fully student-run anarchist house, where residents covered the walls with eccentric murals. On the campus, student-created co-living houses proliferated so rapidly that students once joked about starting a “Nonpracticing Episcopalian” theme house.

Zach, a Stanford ‘81 graduate, recalls Stanford as weird and wonderful, a four-year fever dream. When I asked Zach to describe the campus social life in the eighties, he laughed. “What kind of drugs do you want to hear about?” One boy in Zach’s class built his own generator on the lawn outside his dorm. Later, he claims, that same boy went on to become “a very important computer person.”

Stanford’s support for the unconventional pioneered a new breed of elite student: the charismatic builder who excelled at “breaking things” in nearby Silicon Valley. Stanford students were aspirational and well-rounded, confident enough to perform in a bucket hat and floaties and make out with strangers during Full Moon on the Quad. For a time, Stanford experienced a brief golden age when a spontaneous, socially permissive culture combined with a class of 5%-acceptance rate baby geniuses.

Stanford’s already formidable reputation grew, in large part, because of the way these lessons translated into the work and lives of its graduates. Between 1998 and 2013, Stanford students founded Google, Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat. New grads were turning down $350,000 starting salaries to try their hand at changing the world, or at least beating their classmates at making their first million. Soon, breathless articles described the mythical school where money grew on trees, where America’s academic wonderkids went to make their fortune under the California sun.

Starting in 2013, Stanford was consistently ranked first by students and parents as “America’s Dream School.” Stanford was elite, but unlike most elite schools, what made Stanford the object of such national obsession was that it was also fun. Stanford had created a global talent hub combined with explicit permission for rule-breaking. As a result, students learned a valuable lesson: they had agency; they could create their own norms and culture instead of relying on higher authorities.

Stanford had become a global symbol — of privilege, of excellence, and of a college admissions process gone mad. Suddenly, the inner workings of Stanford were of intense interest to outsiders. And the very culture that made Stanford unique—including the drugs and naked houses—became a liability in the eyes of the bureaucracy. Their presence spawned the salacious articles about Stanford traditions and Stanford students gained a reputation for “unprofessional irreverence, even as they were increasingly judged as representatives of a global brand. Something had to give.

In 2013, the administration took over the student-run anarchist house and painted over the old murals. The next year, Stanford drained the remnants of Lake Lagunita, where students used to gather to host bonfires, and ended the annual anything-but-clothes party known as Exotic Erotic. And the year after that, in 2015, the administration put the notoriously anti-establishment Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band on “super-probation,” the culmination of years of increasing restrictions on their antics.

Stanford’s decision to sanction the Band was a sign of things to come. In response to their sanctions, which included a travel and alcohol ban, the Band leadership penned a forceful rebuttal and noted that Stanford’s signature winds of freedom seemed to have “slowed to a light breeze.” They promised to never be silenced and continue “rocking the f*ck out.” But over the ensuing years, the Band mostly lost its raucous, fraternity-esque culture, and stopped doing anything particularly controversial. Once, the Band mocked Stanford’s rivals with crass marching formations; today, the Band designs all their pranks based on pre-approved themes from the university and clears the final plans with a panel of administrators. 

The University sent a clear message with its treatment of the Band. Spontaneous organizations, particularly when they could become chaotic, controversial, or otherwise a space for breaking rules, were now something to be controlled. Rather than treating freedom and spontaneity as strengths, the dynamic became one where students had to justify their projects and ideas while under suspicion from administrators. Student life was becoming dominated by restrictive bureaucracy.

The change was only noteworthy as long as people remembered what it had replaced. College students necessarily turn over every four years. Over time, students mostly forgot about the Band. By 2016, Stanford had moved on to the white whale of debaucherous student life: fraternities.

Encircling the Frats

One of my first memories at Stanford, in the fall of 2018, was walking down the Row with a sophomore friend. We walked by a charming yellow house, a Greek-style manor with a lawn perfect for beer pong. I told him that I had just been to a party there, at the yellow house called “550.”

He snapped. “Don’t call it 550.”

“What?”

“It’s not 550. It’s Sig Chi. They tried to scrape the crest off but you can still see it.”

He pointed, and I did see it: a faded black square a few feet above the doorway. “This is their plan, you know,” my friend continued. “I feel bad for you guys.”

During my freshman year, the cracks in campus social life were already beginning to show. One night, I was biking home late from the Caltrain. I made it halfway back to my dorm before I realized that something was missing. Music. It was a Friday night, but the campus was completely silent.

Unlike Harvard, which abruptly tried to ban “single-gender social organizations” and was immediately sued by alumni, Stanford picked off the Greek life organizations one by one to avoid student or alumni pushback. The playbook was always the same. Some incident would spark an investigation, and the administration would insist that the offending organization had lost its right to remain on campus. The group would be promptly removed.

Over time, it became clear that their decisions only ever went one way—fewer gatherings, fewer social groups. The campus spirit waned year by year.

In the middle of my freshman year, I started noticing that students, particularly older ones not in a housed Greek organization, seemed quite aimless and very lonely. At Stanford, students who are not in a housed social organization are sent to one of the dozens of now-cultureless dorms scattered around campus. Students in these dorms tend to slink around campus, without a defined community or on-campus identity, until they graduate.

If they had more options, maybe it would be different. But with every unhousing, another 150 students who had a home and a culture are pulled apart from each other. And for every subsequent year, another group of freshmen comes to Stanford that would have found their place in that group, only to find white walls and locked doors.

As a result, a concerning number of upperclassmen had persistent anxiety that they were being “forgotten about.” Given the university’s anonymization of housing, it makes sense. When students live together, united by a shared identity, they tend to look after each other. The boys in one fraternity sleep together in a pile on the floor. Girls in housed sororities leave their doors open and treat their clothes like a communal wardrobe.

In contrast, students in “bad housing”—the labyrinth of themeless, meaningless dorms awaiting most Stanford students—rarely bother to learn their neighbor’s names. Hallways are quiet and doors are locked. Without a strong existing support network, these students can easily bounce from anonymous dorms, to lecture halls, to cavernous dining halls without anyone acknowledging their presence for days.

Sometimes students come to the conclusion that no one would really notice if they disappeared. During my freshman year, I overheard one junior boy speculating how long it would take someone to find his body if he died in his room. I remember that he settled on a range between four and seven days. Like many elite universities, Stanford has a suicide rate far above the national average.

In the fall of 2017, Stanford established a new “Committee on Residential Living” (CORL) designed to police the few remaining housed social organizations. Previously, Stanford monitored student organizations through an assortment of haphazard bureaucratic arms. Now, with CORL, all housed organizations could be called in front of a three-person committee for one “major violation” or three “minor violations.” Violations can be almost anything within the range of normal college life, from harboring illegal drugs to subletting your house. ​Of course, a bunch of frat boys were going to screw that up. Whenever an organization ends up in front of CORL, the committee can vote to kick them out of their on-campus housing, which they often do.

Within three years following CORL’s founding, Stanford successfully unhoused three more housed fraternities: Sigma Chi, Kappa Alpha, and finally a quirky, dissident fraternity called TDX.

TDX survived all the way through my sophomore year; they kept a large stuffed giraffe in their basement and maintained a room with pop-art posters of famous dictators. Since their eviction, eight former members have taken up residence together in a themeless house by the lake, throwing parties and living out their senior year. Next year, the boys in the lake house will graduate, and the remnants of their strange little group will be gone.

The old house was renamed “675.”

With every additional unhousing, it became increasingly apparent that Stanford’s revealed preference was to rid the campus of all distinct social groups. Two years after founding CORL, Stanford hired the same Harvard administrator who led the campaign to rid the campus of Greek life and Final Clubs. Harvard had overplayed their hand by trying to purge all major social organizations at once. But at Stanford, they found more success picking them off one by one.

A Golden Opportunity

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Stanford suddenly had a golden opportunity: they could accelerate the process of sanitizing campus life without students being able to react in real-time. By the time students returned, it would all be fait accompli.

The first thing Stanford announced was the introduction of a new housing system, designed to promote “fairness” and “community” on campus. Under the system, new freshmen would be assigned to one of eight artificially-created housing groups called “neighborhoods,” each containing a representative sample of campus housing. To avoid the potential controversy of actually naming them, the administration punted the decision and called the neighborhoods S, T, A, N, F, O, R, and D.

An administrator named Mona Hicks was tasked with explaining the vacuous names to the Stanford Daily. Her response was bizarre. “There are eight letters in the word Stanford, and therefore each neighborhood has a letter from Stanford,” she said. And so, “while we are uniquely different, we’re all tied together, especially now in this time.”

The reality of the neighborhood system is that it strips students of their ability to form distinct personalities or formal friend groups. I am in Neighborhood S. Some of my friends are in Neighborhood N. It doesn’t actually matter. The neighborhoods are not based on geography—many houses in the same “neighborhood” are on opposite sides of campus—and have no personalities outside of their letter name. They are distinctions without meaning.

In order for the neighborhoods to be fair, Stanford had to divide the remaining Row houses equally among all eight letters. But the Row, whose twenty-four houses were built by culturally distinct fraternities in the early 1900s, has always been a cohesive social center and a neighborhood in itself. Now each house is defined by some letter, an invisible category pulling them all apart.

To ensure all the neighborhoods were truly equal, Stanford also had to remove student groups that were too popular or differentiated. As Greek life had declined in the late 2010s, Stanford’s social scene shifted to a group of four European theme houses clustered near the upper Row. The French and Italian houses, in particular, were known for hosting elaborate white-tablecloth dinners for upperclassmen with pizza and crepes. Those had to go. In fact, they all did, German and Slavic too. Without so much as an email, Stanford quietly slashed all four houses overnight. The first three were renamed 610, 620, and 650, respectively.

Had Stanford announced the changes while students were on campus, I imagine they might have actually rioted, or at least caused a stink. But the new freshmen, who had never even been to Stanford before, were far more likely to accept their new numbers.

When Stanford could not remove a student organization for bad behavior, they found other justifications. One such case was the end of Outdoor House, an innocuous haven on the far side of campus for students who liked hiking. The official explanation from Stanford for eliminating the house was that the Outdoor theme “fell short of diversity, equity and inclusion expectations.” The building formerly known as Outdoor House was added to Neighborhood T.

Next year, Outdoor House will be reinstated, but only because house members promised to refocus their theme on “racial and environmental justice in the outdoors.” Upholding diversity, equity, and inclusion is the first of four “ResX principles” that now govern undergraduate housing. Stanford reserves the right to unhouse any organization that does not, in their opinion, uphold these principles.

One of the houses on the lower half of the Row is Columbae, a vegetarian co-op where students cook and eat together. I am sure that their house, a stately brown manor, used to be some sort of fraternity. But at least the co-op residents are still enjoying themselves. Groups of them are always out on the lawn, reading and sunbathing. Someone set up a red slackline in the front yard. The same boy practices on it every day, balancing a worn stack of books on his head.

In 2025, co-ops like Columbae are scheduled to go through the CORL process and be made to re-justify their existence like every other house. I try to imagine the brown mansion renamed “549,” becoming yet another numbered house with an empty lawn.

Today, Stanford is technically back to normal after COVID-19. But it will never be the same. Sometimes, I like to walk up and down the Row. Even in the daytime, you can feel the missing energy, the ghosts humming in the white columns.

One weekend last fall, there were two parties on the same day, like old times. One of the parties was KAbo, the same party that sparked JP’s island-building escapades in the 1990s. With Kappa Alpha on probation, the party is technically hosted by the themeless house next door. Still, it was a beautiful day. The girls wore bikini tops and carried drinks with plastic umbrellas. Someone had set up a patch of sand on the lawn. We partied outside, on the edge of the dry lake.

I met one current Kappa Alpha brother who lamented the lime green wristbands we were all wearing. “I wish we could invite everyone,” he said, “but it’s too dangerous now.” A resident of the host house was checking names at the door.

Much of the excitement of college is cracking a new social scene, exploring the nooks and crannies of campus, and finding your place within it. Now, everything worth exploring is dark, closed, or on probation. When there are parties, they are typically locked-up “friends of the house” events designed to avoid university scrutiny.

It doesn’t always work. In October, a group of freshmen boys was so desperate to get into an event at Sigma Nu, one of the few remaining housed fraternities, that they snuck around the back of the house and smashed through a window with their bare hands.

Lonely, frustrated students are less safe than happy ones. Within four weeks of school starting, ten students had to be taken off-campus to get their stomachs pumped, a Stanford record for alcohol-related “transports” in such a short period of time. Occasionally, my Row house is rented for parties which are always overrun with freshman and sophomores. They’re not particularly good ones; still, I see freshmen in the corner of the events, drinking until they pass out. Despite the safety rhetoric, the new atomized campus culture isn’t even safer.

An Office for Every Problem

There is a little neighborhood on campus where students never go, with four beautiful old buildings clustered around a tiny central square. The little neighborhood is only about a five-minute walk from the base of the Row and hidden behind a line of sycamore trees. It felt like home. Most students barely know about it; I only found it because I volunteered at Stanford’s Bridge peer counseling center my freshman year, which has an office there. Every Sunday, I would walk through the leafy enclave to take anonymous calls from my peers. The ones who would call the Bridge for support usually only had one or two friends.

During my counseling shift, I sometimes wondered about the other houses in the neighborhood. Across the street from the Bridge, there is an international “community center.” Another building houses five separate administrative offices, including the “Residential Leaseholder Office” and Title IX. Later, I learned that the fraternity that used to live at the international center was kicked out of their house in the 1960s. Every house was clearly built to be used by students, each with its own wide lawns and plenty of extra rooms. Stanford took the little neighborhood with the most beautiful homes on campus and turned it into office buildings.

It sounds so good: “community center.” How could you be lonely on a campus with so many community centers? At Stanford, we have an office for every problem.

Mental health is a Big Problem in our generation. About 71 percent of college students say that they are “very sad.” I wonder how many sad kids are just lonely. Our former fraternity houses have been filled with offices to help us feel better, and we are sadder and sicker than any generation before. If you are sad, Stanford has an office building with a number you can call and a series of “community conversations” about neurodiversity. But what if you are just unhappy spending your days alone, in your lettered house and numbered room?

Stanford students live in brand new buildings with white walls. We have a $20 million dollar meditation center that nobody uses. But students didn’t ask for any of that. We just wanted a dirty house with friends.

When I tell current Stanford students the story about JP and his island, I swear their eyes pop out of their heads. Everything was so different then. It sounds like a story from another school—the house, the lake, and the groundskeeper who let the boys pass. But mostly, what feels foreign is the spirit expressed by the six brothers, the wild unfettered joy.

As organizations fall away, any remaining exuberance feels like an aberration, an unnatural imposition on the status quo. The fraternity brothers loping around campus for another round of Frisbee Golf look out of place now, a taunting symbol of what everyone else is missing.

Without the nudist co-ops and wild parties, Stanford is not a campus more focused on its core mission. Those things were the fruits of an environment built around student agency and attempting to create your own, better social norms. Fostering that creative environment was Stanford’s core mission, and what made it distinctive from other elite schools.

We have so many words to describe the ways an institution can be problematic. It is easy to find faults, scrape crests off walls, and feel like you have done a good deed. But there are far fewer stock phrases to articulate what is lost when an organization is destroyed. There are no parties anymore. I want to live with my friends. It’s hard to name the pain of absence.

An empty house is safe. A blank slate is fair. In the name of safety and fairness, Stanford destroyed everything that makes people enjoy college and life.

Today, I live across the street from Sigma Nu, the largest fraternity house on campus. Whenever I look out my dorm room window, I can see them playing beer die on their front lawn. They never stop. I think they are trying to make a point. They play like the world is ending, blasting music across the empty Row.

Editor’s Note: Names in this story have been changed to preserve privacy.

Ginevra Davis studied Symbolic Systems at Stanford and now works in art and design. She writes about technology and youth culture.