Widgets Magazine


Chi Theta Chi and the mission of the University

When the alarm went out over the Stanford co-op alumni networks that the administration had decided to forcibly take over Chi Theta Chi, I wondered what in the world was going on. Had Chi Theta Chi gone rogue? Had the administration gone rogue? On the face of it, for Stanford University to take possession of its alumni’s $3.5 million property against their will is an extreme act. Chi Theta Chi’s freedom meant a lot to me as a grad student – they were a domestic haven in the summers thanks to their independent democratic governance, while ResEd would forcibly shut down my main community, Synergy House.

I decided to do an independent investigation. The administration’s takeover letter claimed that Chi Theta Chi (XΘX) was a health and safety hazard. The County’s inspection records show, however, that in 2012 the XΘX kitchen was as safe or safer than 61 percent of University-owned kitchens. The Fire Marshal’s inspections of XΘX from 2002-2009 were unremarkable. The Nov. 2009 inspection said only “1. Remove chair blocking exit door in living room. 2. Review evacuation signage, does each sleeping unit have signage posted? 3. Balance of facility in good order.” But five months later, the County’s new inspector reported 18 deficiencies. The June 2010 re-inspection and February 2011 inspection showed little response from the house to the deficiencies. Something was clearly amiss for this 10-month period. XΘX was not the only one, however, to show lack of response. During this time, the Housing Office submitted the inspection reports to XΘX’s management without criticism, let alone any threat regarding the lease. The administration expressed no special concerns until the Feb. 8, 2012 takover letter. By this time, however, XΘX had already corrected the problems on its own. The Feb. 6, 2012 Fire Marshal’s inspection showed XΘX had reduced its deficiency count by 2/3, and was as safe or safer than Narnia, Slavianskii Dom, Synergy, Sigma Chi, Kappa Alpha, and Enchanted Broccoli Forest. The February statement from Vice Provost Boardman that “recurring health and fire code violations demanded university response” also begs the question – why did administrators permit students to live in this allegedly hazardous situation for two years before taking action?

To summarize, the evidence shows that Chi Theta Chi had a lapse in management for the good part of a year, from which it self-corrected. The evidence also shows that the administration had wild swings in behavior over this two-year period – from business as usual to hostile takeover. This has all the hallmarks of some kind of internal problem and reaction between parties within the administration.

The students, management, and alumni board of Chi Theta Chi have demonstrated every willingness and effort to learn from the experience to create more even management going forward. For the administration to persist in its takeover plan, against the will of the residents and alumni, would imply that it believes democratic management cannot work, that only bureaucratic force can work, and that the students and alumni of Chi Theta Chi are incapable of learning, contrary (obviously) to the opinion of the Admissions Office and contrary to the educational mission of the University.

If “Residential Education” is to mean anything, it should see Chi Theta Chi’s cooperative and independent ownership as an essential asset. Just down the block is one of the great schools of management in the nation. ResEd should steer the formidable management-education resources of the Graduate School of Business (GSB) toward supporting Chi Theta Chi’s independent democratic management experience. This would be a win-win-win solution: a win for the administration which wants to reduce any and all risk, a win for the students and alumni who would retain their liberty and property and would learn cutting-edge management methods for small nonprofits, and a win for Residential Education which would see a new opportunity for engagement between GSB faculty and students. How much better a lesson this would be than the one currently being taught: that the administration can forcibly take away alumni property and students and alumni have no recourse. Moreover, GSB expertise on organizational behavior could examine the administration/XΘX relationship as a system, shed enlightenment on how this crisis emerged in the first place and assist in creating a healthy relationship going forward.

The Administration should demonstrate its own capability for learning and self-correction. It should announce without delay its renewal of Chi Theta Chi’s lease based on a plan to ensure consistent management from Chi Theta Chi and from itself in the future – a plan based on education, not the forcible control of student life.

Lee Altenberg

Biological Sciences Ph.D. ’85

  • student

    I absolutely agree. This is a great summary of the situation, hopefully more than a few of the people involved on the university’s side get a chance to read this.

  • Alum & Stanford supporter

    I agree with Lee Altenberg’s piece and, as an alum (BS ’03), this sort of behavior from the Stanford administration will be affecting my decisions on annual giving. I’d like to think that the administration could rise to the challenge for cooperation and the win-win-win that Lee presents.

  • Steven

    I do wonder why the university hasn’t addressed any of these concerns or issues with their stance. seems pretty shaky.

  • Lee Altenberg

    Lee Altenberg’s contact email is: 
    L-Altenberg416 “at” dynamics “dot” org

  • Well said, Lee.  It’s time for a house-cleaning at Res Ed because for the last 20 some years, they have only fulfilled the ‘education’ part of their duty grudgingly.  Now it has contributed to a hazardous situation at Chi Theta Chi.  

    Re-work the relationship with Chi Theta Chi and stop the forced summer closure of Synergy.  Remove negligent employees at Res Ed and provide a new mission briefing for those remaining and the replacements.

  • I would add this addendum to my op-ed: 
    The administration can be helped by receiving a single message from every quarter of the Stanford community: taking alumni property is not acceptable behavior.The County inspection data is available at my link.

  • Amit Ganguli

    I really and sincerely hope the take over does not happen!

  • Lee Altenberg

    Charts of the Fire Marshal and Kitchen Inspection data can be found at http://dynamics.org/XOX/