The fierce tide of student activism that began in the 1960s and 1970s continued to sweep through the 1980s. Students continued to speak out on critical issues of race, ethnicity, feminism, and gay liberation. But the 1980s were far from a mere extension of the 1960s and 1970s. Student efforts in the 1980s resulted in meaningful changes to Stanford’s economic investment policy, free expression and discrimination policies, tenure proceedings, and core curriculum design.
Segal sculpture vandalism
During this decade, student activists expanded their focus to include new areas of activism: LGBTQ rights, women's rights, and social justice overseas. Issues previously ignored or sidelined came to the forefront of student consciousness as activists made their voices heard, such as at a "Speak Out" against violence aimed at gay and lesbian Stanford students. Shortly after its installation on campus in 1984, vandals defaced George Segal’s “Gay Liberation” sculpture. The vandalism of the sculpture, which commemorates the Stonewall riots, set off student demonstrations opposing violence and harassment of members of the campus LGBTQ community.
The Rainbow Agenda
In 1987, the Asian American Student Association, Black Student Union, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), and the Stanford American Indian Association united to form the Rainbow Coalition and drafted a “Rainbow Agenda,” a set of demands that highlighting the shared needs of these communities, including increased recruitment of students and faculty of color, improved curriculum and ethnic studies, a permanent ban on grapes, and a renewed commitment to discourage Indian mascot fanatics. Rainbow Coalition actions included protests against the ethnocentric Western Culture requirement in 1988, and the takeover of the President’s Office in 1989.
Rainbow Coalition demands and actions pressured the administration to investigate racial bias, discrimination, and quality of life for students of color in greater depth through the University Committee on Minority Issues (UCMI), whose final report (March 1989) documented the need for more minority faculty and staff, and support for minority students.
Spotlight: Western Civilization Requirement
Problems of Citizenship, introduced in 1923, was the first required survey course for Stanford freshman designed to examine the “fundamental political, social, and economic problems of the American people.” By 1935 it had evolved into Stanford’s History of Western Civilization requirement. Course materials revealed ethnic, ideological, and cultural biases of their time, including deep-seated racism. Starting in the early 1980s, students began to critique the university’s introductory “Western Culture” humanities curriculum, and demanded a more inclusive and less Eurocentric course of study that included ethnic minority and women authors. On January 15, 1987, as many as 500 students, along with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, rallied down Palm Drive chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go." The curriculum debate drew national attention, and in 1988, two weeks before what would be the 20th anniversary of the BSU “Taking of the Mic,” Western Culture was formally replaced with a Cultures, Ideas, & Values (CIV) program that included more inclusive works on race, class, and gender.
Even as Stanford set an example nationally by instituting a Feminist Studies program in 1981, one of its first faculty members, Estelle Freedman, herself a pioneer of the field of feminist history, faced a long and arduous tenure battle with the theme of institutional gender discrimination at the fore. Hear Estelle Freedman reflect on the 2017 Women's March in the oral history interview below.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first federal civil rights legislation to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities and to require recipients of federal funding to provide them equal opportunities in programs, services and activities. In 1982, in response to this legislation, Stanford formed a university-wide committee made up of university administrators, faculty and students to assess disability access for students, staff and faculty on campus. The committee developed a transition plan, which consisted of a timeline and a set of guidelines for prioritizing the removal of architectural barriers and providing equal access on campus. In addition, the university established the Disability Resource Center (DRC) to provide academic and housing accommodations to students with disabilities. Jim Boquin was appointed director of the DRC in 1983 and he, along with several students with disabilities at Stanford, were actively involved in identifying accessibility issues in student residences, community centers and throughout campus. (Today, the DRC is known as the Office of Accessible Education (OAE) and provides housing and academic accommodations for over 1,000 students who are registered with the OAE.)
The ongoing fight against apartheid in South Africa
Students continued their efforts to combat racism on a global scale by advocating for Stanford’s economic divestment from South Africa’s Apartheid regime. In the spring of 1985, one thousand students, led by BSU-affiliated group Stanford out of South Africa, marched to President Kennedy’s office and posted a sign on the door demanding divestment. The next day, 2,000 students rallied in the inner quad. A black student was arrested and beaten after a non-violent sit-in in Old Union. The Black Voluntary Student Organizations rallied together in protest. In June of 1985, the university created a Commission on Investment Responsibility, comprised of faculty, students, staff, and alumni to review the university’s portfolio and create formal investment policies. Protests continued over the next few years, and Stanford retained its case-by-case review process for investments.
Residents of Stanford’s Ujamaa ethnic theme dorm, which celebrates Black culture and heritage, experienced racial attacks brought on by their fellow students. Between October 1-14, 1988, just weeks after a campus speech against racism by President Kennedy, two Ujamaa posters were defaced in a racist manner. The incidents resulted in the “Grey Interpretation” of Stanford’s Fundamental Standard: Free Expression and Discriminatory Harassment policy. The Grey Interpretation maintains that use of racial epithets or their equivalent is a violation of the Stanford student code of conduct.
Spotlight: Takeover of President’s Office
Frustration with the administration's handling of racial issues, building for decades, exploded in May 1989 when the Agenda for Action Coalition took over Building 10, the office of Stanford University President Donald Kennedy.
Demands included the hiring of an Asian American History Professor, a rescinding of a recent 8% tuition hike, increased financial aid grants, the creation of a full-time dean for the Chicano/a community, and establishment of a Discrimination Grievances Board. Fifty-five students were arrested, leading to several follow-up demonstrations. Black Student Union vice-chair Louis Jackson, the only African-American to address the protest, was the only person to face charges. Over 800 students signed a petition in protest.
After the Takeover, the University committed to increase funding for all cultural centers, and to add new ethnic studies programs and expand existing ones, including hiring at least three faculty of color each year.
The students’ concerns also pressured the administration to investigate racial bias and discrimination in greater depth through the University Committee on Minority Issues (UCMI), whose final report (1989) helped document the need for more minority faculty and staff and support for minority students.