Palin's Campus Outpost

October 2, 2008

You can’t see Russia from Stanford University, but one of its newly decorated dorms sure feels like Sarah Palin’s hometown.

The all-male ground floor of the Serra building is designated for the “First Dudes,” and the women’s floor is reserved for “Hockey Moms.” Posters of snowmobiles, oil rigs and polar bears are smattered across the walls, and students who live in the building are known to don T-shirts that proclaim “Drill Baby Drill.”

It’s a longstanding tradition for Stanford’s student staff to decorate dormitories in themes drawn from popular culture, and traditionally movies and television shows have provided the inspiration. But when resident assistants from Serra dorm started brainstorming this year, they quickly gravitated toward a Palin theme. The Alaska governor, who had just accepted the vice presidential nomination, was becoming a phenomenon, and “Serra Palin Dorm” was born.

Ross Shachter, the resident fellow for the dorm, was initially a bit squeamish about the theme. He said he didn’t want to do anything that would be viewed as partisan or make students uncomfortable.

“When they picked this [theme], I said ‘you’re going to be walking a tightrope,’ ” said Shachter, an associate professor in management science and engineering who lives in the dorm.

In walking that tightrope, students have focused more on portraying Palin’s Alaskan roots and personality than her policy positions. When students moved into the dorm, they were greeted with bags of trail mix and beef jerky. They were also invited to pose for photos with a cardboard cutout of Palin. And it wasn’t just students who got in on the action. As the Stanford Daily reported, President John Hennessy and other administrators have posed with Palin, too.

Photo: John McCain's 2008 Campaign for President

Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, was the inspiration for dorm decorations at Stanford.

Other Palin spoofs in Serra include a skylight on the top floor now known as the “glass ceiling;” references to Palin’s days in the PTA; hanging fishnets; and pictures of barracudas – an homage to the nickname Palin earned on the basketball court.

Some ideas, however, received Shachter’s veto. References to “Troopergate,” a controversy involving Palin’s former brother-in-law, were thought to be too partisan.

“We’re not supporting her candidacy, but we’re not making fun of her either,” Shachter said. “Every student can take it however they want.”

Allysia Finley, opinions editor of a conservative campus paper called the Stanford Review, said she was surprised that the decorations suggested “a note of support” for Palin on an otherwise liberal campus.

“If they had tried to dig up some dirt on that state trooper [controversy] or the book banning [allegations from Palin’s past], that is kind of rumorish and gossipy thing that would have been objectionable,” Finley said. “But it doesn’t really seem that they tried to mock her. It’s satirizing, but it’s not mocking. They’ve walked the line very well.”

The dorm decorations make no direct references to the two men at the top of the Republican and Democratic tickets, but there are a few subtle allusions. Sen. John McCain’s campaign logo – featuring a white star between two gold lines – was drawn on posters that bear dorm residents’ names. As for Sen. Barack Obama, there’s a sign on Shachter’s door that reads “community organizer.”

The dorm themes at Stanford are introduced during move-in week each year, and the decorations often stay up for months. Ashwin Mudaliar, president of the Stanford Democrats, said he thinks Serra residents may soon regret turning their dorm into a Palin palace.

“If you ask me, they certainly jumped the gun on that,” Mudaliar said. “I think her star has fallen very fast.”

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