‘Not a place of belonging’: Discrimination allegations plague Stanford admissions office

Five sources included in this article requested anonymity due to fear of professional retaliation. Many former employees expressed concern about speaking on experiences in the admissions and financial aid office because of ties between Stanford’s office and the broader admissions community.

The Daily also used gender-neutral descriptors and withheld specific dates and other information, instead using general timeframes and descriptions, to protect sources’ identities. Pseudonyms were used to improve readability.  

Alice, a person of color who was a former admissions officer, said Stanford’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid “is not a place of belonging” for employees of color.

Other former employees of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid allege that the office’s troubling culture extends beyond labor issues and promotional opacity to repeated racism. According to them, racism within the office also influenced application decisions, affecting the makeup of Stanford’s undergraduate community.

Former Associate Director of Admission for Diversity Outreach and External Relations Latif Legend, who worked at the Admissions Office for six years from 2017 until 2023, is suing the University for racial and disability discrimination, workplace retaliation and wrongful termination.

Concerns about workplace racism and bias

Seven former employees reported experiencing or witnessing repeated microaggressions within the office, such as the mixing up of names of employees of color and racially charged jokes and comments about employees of color’s qualifications and educational backgrounds. 

Four employees said they believed that the lack of diversity within the office contributed to racial microaggressions and biased behavior. Three added that racially-based cliques formed within the office, with white colleagues exclusively spending time with one another, isolating themselves from colleagues of color.

“My manager was a white woman, most of my team were white women. Suddenly, I realized, ‘Oh this is a cliquey-ass office,’ where it’s basically the white group, the white girls, versus the [people of color]. ” said Peyton, a former admissions officer who is a person of color.

Currently, the four most senior members of the admissions office are white — former employees said they shaped the office’s culture. Some said this culture comes from the top, starting with the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Richard Shaw, who has held the position since 2005. 

Shaw declined to comment personally multiple times and directed The Daily to University spokespeople. 

“At the end of the day, it’s also a lack of holding leaders in the office accountable,” Alice said. “If you have a majority white leadership team who seem to be promoting or who seem to be hiring certain individuals over others, you should then be questioning why that is happening.”

Five former admissions officers said qualified and experienced employees of color were often passed over for promotions and the positions were given to white employees. This “happened several times and continues to happen in the office, where there is a lack of transparency in regard to how promotions are happening,” Alice said.

Former admissions officers said that the office’s promotion structure and system were inconsistent and unclear. Due to this lack of transparency, many have chosen to leave the office in favor of other institutions and other careers. 

Three former admissions employees who worked in the office more than 10 years ago reported that the office when they worked there was relatively diverse. However, recent employees said the culture has since changed dramatically. 

Chris, a former admissions officer of color who worked in the office over 10 years ago, said they believed political polarization influenced the change. “In the last 10 years, a lot has happened. Trump has happened. Lots of political discourse [has happened], Black Lives Matter movement really skyrocketed. That could be something that’s polarized the officers,” they said.

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid refused to provide data on the racial makeup of the office. This information is accessible for other University departments.

University spokesperson Luisa Rapport wrote that “Stanford cares deeply for and values all employees, including those working diligently to embrace the admissions process with integrity.”

Ripple effects from officers to candidates

Final admissions decisions happen in committees. After the individual officers assigned to an application review independently, they advocate for and discuss applicants in committees based on geographic background. Most former employees who spoke to The Daily said that they believe racist workplace conditions shaped committee applicant decisions and prohibited fair assessment of applicants from diverse backgrounds, in turn impacting the makeup of the undergraduate community.

Peyton said that they felt like the process was “stacked against” them as an employee of color because they found it hard to communicate context for applicants of color to white colleagues. 

Six employees said that applicants of color were scrutinized more than white counterparts and microaggressions happened frequently during reading sessions. 

For example, former admissions officers said that whether applicants of color “actually wrote their essays” was discussed, and they were instructed to read applicants of color’s essays as “exactly written” since committee chairs believed admissions officers of color were rewording applications to give applicants an advantage. Former admissions officers said that these instructions and comments were not directed toward white applicants or their essays. 

Multiple former admissions officers mentioned a similar scenario of how this kind of racism affected committee decisions: If two applicants, one a person of color and the other a white person, applied with the same classes, activities, GPA and both spoke of depression in their application essays, the white applicant would be accepted as they would be given more “benefit of the doubt,” allege Alice, Peyton, Jordan, another former admissions officer who is a person of color and former employee Pat, who is white. 

Former officers also explained that admissions officers would often perceive white applicants as better positioned to thrive at Stanford. Depression, in this scenario, is something that a white applicant can overcome and boosts their application while it’s perceived as a hindrance to applicants of color.

“There’s definitely discrimination, I don’t know if [discrimination] is the right word, but it might be. There’s definitely a lot of hesitation with students [of color] who share about mental health issues in their application,” Jordan said. “It’s almost like they’re expected to resolve it. So that there’s less risk in admitting them, which is ridiculous because Stanford will say ‘Oh, we have all of these mental health resources.’”

Alice remembers “constant questions of applicants of colors.”

Officers allege that the diversity of admissions employees directly connects with how applicants of color are reviewed. 

“Understaffed POC equals less POC in the room, equals the way that you present [applicants] or even [what] you might be speaking [not getting] through to either the chair or anyone else in the committee,” Peyton said. 

Multiple admissions officers including Peyton, Alice and Legend mentioned that admissions officers of color had to play “political games” as a way of admitting applicants of color. 

They mentioned how often they would have to present an applicant of color simultaneously with a wealthy and/or legacy applicant, who most often was white, in order for the committee to fairly hear their case for the applicant of color. Former employees believe they had to play these games due to their racial identity. 

“You have to play the bureaucracy involved in all of this,” Alice said. “You have to defer to modes of communication that are more palatable for people who come from privilege.”

Former employees of color spoke of hesitation to speak out due to fears of being perceived as “the angry person of color.” 

“I think that in those instances where you hear commentary or comments that can be perceived as microaggressions or even have racist undertones…in committees, it is very unlikely that you will feel empowered enough to speak up,” Alice said.

Biased advancement opportunities

Former employees allege that the pay and performance review concerns present in the undergraduate admissions office particularly affected employees of color. Former employees of color said that due to the office’s unwelcoming culture, they did not feel comfortable speaking up against racist and microaggressive behavior. 

In contrast to white colleagues, former employees of color said they felt as though they could not take on leadership roles. Alice said this shapes promotion opportunities because others view employees of color as lacking leadership quality: “They haven’t led projects, or they’re not as well spoken or vocal.”

Alice said this is a “process of white supremacy.” 

Former employees further allege that white employees were recognized and congratulated more than employees of color, furthering disparities in promotions.

“[The admissions office is] trying to bring diversity within their office, but then they didn’t support us, and then they wondered why we all wanted to leave,” Pat said.

According to Pat, limited opportunities for growth privileged admissions officers who relied on partners’ or parents’ salaries. “You can’t have an office full of people who have all had access to money admitting all the students of the institution,” Pat said.

University spokesperson Dee Mostofi wrote that human resources provides guidelines on individual salaries. Practices are designed to “ensure that pay is managed in a consistent, equitable manner regardless of funding sources,” Mostofi wrote.

Lack of DEI trainings

Former employees speculated a lack of robust diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings drove the biased culture in the office.

“Even when affirmative action was still here, there was not enough diversity training at all levels,” Alice said.

Additionally, multiple former officers shared that most sensitivity training did not change following the Movement for Black Lives in 2020, despite requests they made for more comprehensive training. 

Former employees said that there was sensitivity training around reading applications from school shooting survivors, but nothing on applicants from over-policed communities, even at the height of the 2020 movement. 

“When it comes to race, especially in those years of the [racial] reckonings in 2020 and beyond, I don’t remember any training about that,” Peyton said. “Or like calling out, ‘Oh this student’s from Minneapolis or a place where… Black lives are being affected.’”

Following the movement, Peyton said that not much changed. They especially did not see “a dramatic shift” in learning to evaluate test optional applications with sensitivity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sam Krow-Lucal, a former employee in the financial aid office, which is housed in the same building as the admissions office and which also reports to Shaw, echoed concerns about the lack of DEI training. He said training stood in sharp contrast to positions in the bursar’s office, student services and his current position in the Stanford Land, Buildings, and Real Estate (LBRE). “It’s disheartening, but it doesn’t actually surprise me… I never felt like there was any effort to be a leader of any sort on campus.”

In contrast, Krow-Lucal said the LBRE established a comprehensive DEI council with funds, staff and mission and vision statements. DEI is a focal point at every LBRE meeting, he said.

Concerns raised in lawsuit against Stanford

Following six years at undergraduate admissions, former Associate Director of Admission for Diversity Outreach and External Relations Latif Legend, who is Black, is taking legal action against the University. Legend’s lawsuit alleges that his mistreatment in the workplace was due to his racial identity and criticizes a broader discriminatory culture.  

When Legend returned to work after recovering from cancer, he said he developed carpal tunnel syndrome. He requested accommodations for his workplace injury and subsequently went on medical leave. 

Legend said that his requested accommodations, including an ergonomic chair and keyboard, went unfulfilled for months.

Legend said that after facing months of inadequate support and retaliatory actions from his supervisors, he was terminated in January 2023 due to significant absences from various medical leaves. He filed a lawsuit in April that cited workplace retaliation, wrongful termination and racial and disability discrimination. 

“Stanford often hides behind ‘unconscious bias’ to justify discriminatory or retaliatory behavior, and their solution is often training for staff that does nothing to change the deeply rooted systemic issues that allow violence towards BIPOC communities,” Legend wrote in a statement to The Daily. “Their favorite tools to utilize are lack of transparency and accountability.”

He characterized the prevailing attitude as “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.”

The Daily reviewed documents and emails between Legend, supervisors, medical professionals and other University officials. 

Prior to his leave, Legend contacted Human Resources (HR) to request accommodations, as advised by a supervisor. He was directed to Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S). Later, he was told the University lacked the funds — around $300 — to provide accommodations like an ergonomic chair and a semi-vertical mouse. His lawsuit alleges this violates its legal obligation to provide disability accommodations.

It took five months for Legend to receive the ergonomic chair, according to emails and other documents obtained by The Daily. He did not receive the other requested accommodations like a keyboard tray or mouse until October 2022, a full year following his request.

Following his request, Legend said supervisors who “admonished” him for contacting HR and not the Occupational Health Center (OHC), even though this was the instruction from his direct supervisor. 

As he awaited accommodations, Legend said his condition worsened, prompting another medical leave.

While on medical leave, Legend worked part-time and started to receive negative performance reviews, which were starkly different from previous evaluations. Legend describes the process to obtain accommodations and his treatment afterwards as “traumatizing.”

He characterized as retaliatory several “special projects” assigned between leaves, with the expectation he would work on them while on medical leave.

His attorney, Frank Zeccola, told The Daily this was to create a case for termination. “There’s never going to be an email that says he was terminated because he’s sick…  Black or disabled,” Zeccola said. “So the employer is going to then overload that person with projects. They’re going to give them a performance improvement plan, that’s going to have a million items on it, it’s going to be impossible to meet.” 

Legend was terminated in January 2023 due to 16 months of absence during his 38 months as associate director, all from approved and documented medical leave for his workplace injury, cancer, COVID-19 and emotional distress caused by his treatment in the office.

While employed, Legend raised concerns about his treatment and filed a grievance report following a corrective action email on March 30. His concerns led to multiple internal investigations and an external investigation by the Oppenheimer Group. Some took more than a year to complete and concluded following his termination.

Investigators found no wrongdoing on the University’s part.

In February 2023, Legend went public with his treatment in the admissions office on social media and has since actively criticized racism in admissions practices online. 

“I want Stanford to be accountable. I want Stanford to have integrity,” Legend said.

The University declined to comment on pending litigation.