Widgets Magazine


Editorial Board: Stanford’s funding transparency problem

Earlier this year, a Daily reporter working on part of a series on community centers asked if Stanford could release basic numbers on centers’ funding, either broken down by group or in aggregate.

It’s a straightforward question — and a necessary one for informed discussion of an issue students have been talking about for years. The numbers would allow us to gauge where centers’ resources stand a decade after recession-era budget cuts that several sources told us the centers have not fully recovered from.

While administrators in Student Affairs gave The Daily generous interview time, the University declined to provide budget data, which as far as we can tell is not posted anywhere online.

“We do not feel that it is appropriate to discuss funding models for the centers in general, but particularly while we are in the middle of budget planning for the next fiscal year,” Student Affairs Director of Communications and Web Strategy Elaine Ray wrote in an email to The Daily.

Stanford’s lack of openness on an issue that matters to so many community members is concerning, and the challenges we encountered in writing a piece about funding reflect a bigger issue at Stanford.

Without concrete figures, it’s hard to hold the University accountable in its allocation of resources, or to suggest a reallocation that might align more closely with community values. And with a price tag of as much as $60,000-plus per undergraduate student per year, Stanford is expensive. How can students and donors assess whether Stanford is spending this money wisely?

Life here is full of costs that might be called frivolous. There’s the theater in Roble Arts Gym that sits largely unused — occupied only by the occasional production — while student performance groups scramble for space. There are the ResEd-funded international trips, the fancy new soap dispensers and the champagne-and-opera events on study abroad trips.

These displays of wealth are part of what makes Stanford so alluring: We go to a school where these sorts of luxuries are commonplace. But they come with opportunity costs, something the community has debated in the past. In the ongoing long-range planning exercise, postdocs called for greater investment in subsidized university housing. One proposal called on Stanford to make a significant financial commitment to global poverty research. And predictably, some called for the long-sought increased base funding for community centers that spurred The Daily’s recent coverage. Those are just a few examples of the many ideas competing for priority.

Our ability to discuss resource reallocation on any given issue is constrained by the University’s transparency.

As we noted in a previous Editorial Board piece about the University’s long-range planning process, as a private university Stanford is not obligated to make much of its spending public. But if the administration is serious about improving communication with the community, it can’t stick with the status quo.

Transparency isn’t easily attainable: Stanford student government, too, has sometimes struggled to stay open about its operations (secret meetings, anyone?), but it gets some crucial things right. ASSU election ballots include a budget breakdown for each group seeking special fees from the student population. Voters pondering where their money is justified can check out how much each organization is requesting, as well as learn how everyone from The Daily to Bhangra to the Stanford Robotics Club will spend that money. Similar transparency from the University would lend solid numbers to otherwise nebulous debates over who deserves more funding.

Stanford’s 146-page public Budget Book for 2017-18 gives important big-picture information, but in a place as complex and sprawling as Stanford, those statistics are only a small subset of what could be useful to anyone interested in our school’s finances. While the book gives budgets for individual schools, expenses are broken down into just two categories: “Salaries and Benefits” and “Non-salary.” A bird’s-eye view of University money may not be the right place for further detail. However, we believe it’s important that such detail be available to those who want to dig.

In recent months, the University has created new platforms to make its policies more transparent to the community. We call on Stanford to make a blanket statement on the classes of financial information it can disclose to community members and to strive to match public universities when its comes to accessibility of key data. Our campus conversations about resource allocation will be more constructive as a result.


Contact the Vol. 253 Editorial Board at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

About Vol. 253 Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board consists of President and Editor-in-Chief Hannah Knowles '19, Executive Editor Fangzhou Liu '19, Managing Editor of Opinions Regan Pecjak '18, Senior Staff Writer Samantha Wong '18 and Opinions columnist and Managing Editor of Graphics Josh Wagner '20. To contact the Editorial Board, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) at opinions@stanforddaily.com or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at eic@stanforddaily.com.