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Meet President Jordan

Applauded for his guidance and vision, vilified for his pacifism and support of eugenics, Stanford's first leader created a complicated legacy.

Courtesy Stanford University Archives

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By Theresa Johnston

On a warm June Friday in 1891, a 6-foot-2 professor with broad shoulders and a bushy mustache stepped out onto the railway platform in Menlo Park, Calif. Loaded with baggage on one arm and his 2-year-old son in the other, David Starr Jordan knew he had no time to waste. In just three months, two miles down the dusty road, Leland and Jane Stanford's highly publicized university would be opening its doors. And he, a 40-year-old ichthyologist from Indiana, was going to serve as its first president.

Jordan was a surprising choice for such a visible post. Accompanied off the train by his pregnant wife, Jessie, plus two other children, he was little known outside the Midwest, or outside fish circles. His early academic career had been marked by one job rejection after another. At a time when American academies were governed largely by tradition-bound clerics and classicists, he was an enthusiastic disciple of Darwin. Still, there was something about the vigorous, unconventional naturalist that appealed to Jane and Leland Stanford, then in their 60s. As the senator told a San Francisco newspaper reporter earlier that spring, "I might have found a more famous character; but I desired a comparatively young man who would grow up with the university."

Jordan's brash progressivism, his experience with coeducation, his love of the outdoors and his camaraderie with students turned out to be well suited to the California endeavor. His long career was not without controversy, however. His self-professed tendency "to proclaim even from the housetops any fixed opinion, especially if unpopular," frequently got him into trouble, not least with the widow Stanford. In later years, faculty members accused him of wielding power arbitrarily. He was reviled during the first World War for his staunch pacifism, and his texts promoting the turn-of-the-century science of selective human breeding—eugenics—make for disturbing reading today.

Still, there's no denying the profound influence Jordan had in launching the University and keeping it afloat during its tumultuous early decades. As Class of 1907 graduate and longtime faculty member Edith Mirrielees once put it, "For 20-odd years, Jordan was himself the prime Stanford symbol. Hardly a graduate left the campus without bearing his mark." Emeritus biology professor Donald Kennedy, who researched Jordan's life at the beginning of his own presidency in the 1980s, concurs. "Jordan's own scientific accomplishments were, to be fair about it, significant but not monumental," Kennedy notes. "He left important survey work on the fishes, and a major contribution to our understanding of the importance of geographical isolation in the origin of new species. But the institutional seeds of growth he left behind germinated into something more far-reaching than any of his own ideas."


Like Leland Stanford, Jordan grew up on a modest farm in upstate New York. Though his parents were descendants of English Puritans and "very rigid as to personal conduct," they doubted the fires of hell and shunned traditional religious denominations, preferring the Unitarian and Universalist faiths. Their child rearing likewise had a liberal bent. "I was never whipped by either of my parents," Jordan recalled in his memoirs. Aside from minimal farm chores and schoolwork, he was left alone to pursue what really interested him: fishing in the millpond, playing baseball and chess, mapping out stars, writing poetry and collecting local wildflowers. When he was 14, his parents made a particularly unorthodox choice, sending their precocious "and otherwise apparently harmless" fourth child to the local girls' high school.

Four years later, when Jordan joined the pioneer class at Cornell University as a botany major, he missed the refinement of his female classmates. In other respects though, Cornell was a perfect fit for the young naturalist. Besides being affordable—Jordan was able to work his way through by digging potatoes, among other jobs—the new university was proudly nondenominational and offered a refreshingly practical set of courses. "For the first time in history," Jordan recalled, "the student was not to be driven over a prearranged curriculum. Rather he should have access to that particular training which would most strengthen and enrich his life."

After the excitement of Cornell, Jordan hit a rough patch, teaching assorted natural history courses at small stodgy schools in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. Further job inquiries—at Purdue, Princeton, Vassar, Williams, Cornell, the University of Michigan, even the Imperial University of Tokyo—went nowhere. The one bright spot came when Jordan attended a C/ape Cod summer camp for science teachers, led by the renowned Harvard zoologist and fish expert Louis Agassiz. Energized by Agassiz's motto—"Study nature, not books"—Jordan returned to Indiana and began to focus on the fishes of the Fox River and nearby lakes. In 1879, he was recruited to the natural history department at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he gained notice for his popular lab courses and field trips, or "tramps." Five years after his arrival there, trustees unanimously tapped the promising 34-year-old to run the entire place.

With a tottering faculty and few resources, Indiana University was hardly a progressive institution in the 1880s; all its previous presidents had been ordained ministers. Nevertheless, Jordan immediately began whipping up public support through speeches, lining up legislative allies and instituting an elective subject system, like Cornell's, that pioneered the modern liberal arts curriculum. Before long, enrollment at Indiana had doubled. The young president's reputation thrived. "All over Indiana, people remembered and quoted from his talks," Mirrielees wrote in her 1959 history of the Farm. One "could hardly spend an hour in Bloomington without hearing something of this vigorous, vocal, unconventional president, who however much any particular project might be disapproved, had yet the capacity of keeping himself personally liked."


On the afternoon of March 21, 1891, a luxurious private railway carriage rolled to a stop at the Bloomington station. Its occupants, Sen. and Mrs. Leland Stanford of California, likely were feeling anxious. Five years earlier they had signed the grant founding and endowing the Leland Stanford Junior University. The sandstone campus buildings, sprouting on their farm south of San Francisco, were supposed to open that fall. Yet still they had no president.

Their top pick for the job, the free-thinking President Andrew White of Cornell, had just turned them down, saying he was too settled to start a new life out West. "But go to the University of Indiana," White advised them, "and there you will find the president, an old student of mine, one of the leading scientific men of the country, possessed of a most charming power of literary expression, with a remarkable ability in organization and blessed with sound good sense."

By now wedded to Jessie Knight (his first wife had died after 10 years of marriage), Jordan had built a comfortable life in the Hoosier State. He had read "half laudatory, half contemptuous" newspaper articles about Leland and Jane's grandiose plans. Now he was stunned to learn that the couple wanted to see him at the National Hotel. "My first impressions of Leland Stanford were extremely favorable," Jordan later wrote. "His errand he explained directly and clearly. He hoped to develop in California a university of the highest order . . . There would be democracy of men, democracy in courses of study. The work, not the degree, would be the goal of effort."

Jordan worried about trading his Indiana home for an unknown future in a state "still rife with discordant elements," and he was concerned about working under the thumb of such a prominent businessman and politician. On the other hand, his educational philosophy meshed well with Leland Stanford's. They agreed that the liberal arts and sciences, pure and applied, ought to be equally fostered, and that men and women should be admitted to the new university on equal terms. There should be no set curriculum. Faculty would be encouraged in research as well as teaching. Religious services would be available but not mandatory. As for funding, the senator vaguely promised that Jordan would have "all the money he could use." Excusing himself to consult with his wife, Jordan returned early that afternoon and accepted the offer. The salary, $10,000 a year, was nearly three times what he was earning in Indiana.

Jordan's first priority, rounding up 15 faculty members to go with him to the wilds of California, proved no easy task: In the end, the pioneering professors largely consisted of some colleagues from Indiana plus a handful from Cornell. All were even younger than he. One particularly useful Cornell recruit was presidential secretary and registrar Orrin Leslie Elliott, who would help Jordan answer the bags of correspondence from job seekers and prospective students that were piling up at the Menlo Park post office. Years later Elliott's wife, Ellen, vividly described how rough the Palo Alto campus looked when the academics began arriving. "The long arcades were cluttered with barrels and boards and noisy with hammer and saw," she wrote. "The boys' dorm was building; the girls' barely begun." The Row "was still an unbroken stubble-field."


Jordan and his brood were lucky—at least they had a house to live in on campus, a modest board-and-batten cottage they quickly dubbed Escondité, in what is now Escondido Village. During their first weeks on the Farm, the president, registrar and a stenographer worked out of the property's cramped library. Later, Jordan's teenage daughter, Edith, would ferry messages to her father from the house, which had telephone service, to his new office on the Quad, which did not. Edith, Class of 1897, MA 1900, also brought lunches that Jordan ate with a jackknife on the curb outside.

Jordan's notebooks from the era, bound in red leather and kept in a cardboard box at the Stanford University Archives, reveal a man with a mountain of decisions to make and very little time. In one booklet, in small neat pencil script, he lists one urgent question after another: "What may each professor need? What books? What of scholarships? What of museum? How shall purchases of equipment be made? Shall we buy geological specimens?" In another booklet, he lists a set of rules for his own conduct: "Do not discuss with one professor the character or attainments of any other. Do not use any superlatives or over-praise anyone. Do not explain or justify any appointments. Do not make any promises of future promotions or special advantages. Never be betrayed into disparaging California. Be very cautious of public utterances of any kind before reporters."

Outwardly, the new president projected more assurance: "Nothing could be more promising than the present outlook here, and no place in the universe more delightful than Palo Alto," he wrote that summer to his Cornell friend and first faculty recruit, geologist John Casper Branner. "To do this work with a background of palms and mountains and the cool atmosphere, in new buildings, is very attractive." To Sen. Stanford, Jordan defended the need for more faculty slots and a larger library budget. "It is evident that however modest we may wish to make the opening of the university, it will be a large school from the start," he wrote confidently. "No university ever received half the advertising in the American newspapers which we have had."

On opening day, October 1, 1891, Jordan's habitual optimism proved justified. More than 400 students showed up for registration, far more than the San Francisco papers had predicted. Among them were 35 who had followed Jordan and his colleagues all the way from Bloomington, including some of that state's best athletes. As he delivered his inaugural address on the Quad under a brilliant blue sky, Jordan left no doubts about his fresh educational vision. "Higher education," he announced, "should help to free [students] from the dead hands of old traditions and to enable them to form opinions worthy of the new evidence each day brings before them. An educated man should not be the slave of the past, not a copy of men who have gone before him."


As Stanford matured, Jordan left his mark on the campus in ways large and small. He chose names for the streets: Alvarado Row for an early California governor; Salvatierra, Serra and Lasuen for missionaries. He traveled throughout the state, as he had in Indiana, making speeches that attracted students and built the University's reputation. He helped launch the Hopkins Marine Station on Monterey Bay, and coined the University's German motto: Die Luft der Freiheit weht, a quote from one of his favorite rebels, the Reformation poet Ulrich von Hutten.

A lifelong nondrinker and nonsmoker, Jordan consciously served as a role model for his young faculty. He taught one lecture course on the philosophy of biology every year, participated in scientific organizations (he was a charter member of the Sierra Club and president of the young California Academy of Sciences) and conducted fieldwork with students in the summers. "In small corners of time, which the average man might devote to a cigar or to an idle stroll in the park, Jordan wrote books and articles, reports and drafts of speeches, or perchance poetry," political scientist Edward McNall Burns noted in a 1953 biography. "There was scarcely a year of his presidency of the university when his publications did not exceed those of many members of the faculty."

Early students found Jordan memorable as well. He was renowned for his stentorian voice and for his ability to remember the names of students even years after they graduated. "The first time I saw Dr. Jordan, he was dressed in a baseball suit with a cap over one eye," recalled Robert Lewis Duffus, 1910, MA 1911. "He did not run but he could certainly hit." Frank Taylor, '18, remembered how Jordan used to amble down the Quad arcades, "tipping his hat to all students with frosh doffing their beanies in return . . . In the evenings, he would stroll unannounced into Encina Hall and start talking about any topic under the sun, and including the sun. In no time he was surrounded by an audience sitting on the floor."

Jordan's relationship with the founders was more complex. While Leland Stanford encouraged the young president to use his own judgment running the campus on a day-to-day basis, the two exchanged lengthy philosophical letters and spent many evenings on the porch discussing details of the infant University's future. Jordan's ties with Jane Stanford grew stronger during the shared financial sacrifices that followed Leland's death. Writing to Jordan's wife in 1899, after the Stanford estate was released from probate, Jane describes the president with almost a motherly tenderness. "He has been the loyal, true friend through the past dark years of sorrow and anxiety. I almost forgot to treat him merely as a president of a university. . . . I regard him as the most truly truthful, honest man I ever met—singularly pure in thought and simple in taste, untouched and unspoiled by superficial conventionalities of life."

In later years—to the delight of newspaper wags—Jordan's respectful relationship with the aging widow grew increasingly tense. He wanted to beef up the faculty, lab facilities and library collection, while her first priority was building the physical plant. She worried that Stanford was neglecting the students' souls, and she deplored the lack of discipline in sororities and other houses on campus, while he was reluctant to deal with such matters.

The most highly publicized showdown came in 1901, when Jane Stanford insisted that Jordan dismiss a popular leftist sociology professor, Edward A. Ross, who reportedly had whipped up a local union crowd with anti-immigrant rhetoric. Jordan's acquiescence dealt a stunning blow to faculty morale and the University's wider liberal academic reputation. By the final year of Stanford's life, according to humanities professor emeritus Bliss Carnochan, relations were so strained that she quietly turned to an informant, the first chair of Stanford's German department, to find out how things were going on her beloved campus. (Not well, he claimed.)

When she died under mysterious circumstances in February 1905, Jordan rushed to Hawaii to claim the body—and, some believe, to quash reports that she had been poisoned. (See "Who Killed Jane Stanford?" September/October 2003).


During the final decades of his life, Jordan increasingly turned his attention to causes beyond the Farm. His most controversial legacy is his work in the field of eugenics, a then-accepted academic discipline that considered selective reproduction as a way to advance humankind. Although he thought the idea of creating a master race a waste of time, he strongly believed that "the germs of pauperism and crime" were biologically inherited. He believed certain state-sponsored measures could improve the human species as a whole—for example, forcibly segregating "feeble-minded" people to keep them from having children. He fretted over the immigration of "temperamental" races from Southern and Eastern Europe and felt that armed conflict was particularly detrimental to the health of the human race, because it removed the strongest individuals from the gene pool. Among his myriad books and speeches on the subject were The Human Harvest (1907) and War and Waste (1913). He also served as chair of the first Committee on Eugenics of the American Breeder's Association—the first official scientific body to give recognition to the field.

No less controversial in Jordan's time was his work as a peace activist. Long a pacifist (his older brother Rufus had died of fever shortly after enlisting with Union forces during the Civil War), Jordan was incensed by the outbreak of Spanish-American hostilities, noting in an 1898 address, "The shrilling of the mob is not patriotism . . . The shrieking of war editors is not patriotism." After retiring early from the University's helm and becoming chancellor in 1913—a move gently urged by trustee Herbert Hoover—Jordan devoted even more time to pacifism. As director of the World Peace Foundation and president of the World Peace Congress, he traveled across America and Europe, giving hundreds of lectures in a futile attempt to keep the United States out of the Great War.

Once U.S. troops were on their way overseas, Jordan scaled back his antiwar rhetoric. But by then he was widely suspected of harboring pro-German sentiments. In 1916 Stanford's Board chose not to renew his three-year term as chancellor. The following year a Baltimore mob chased Jordan out of a hall where he was speaking, shouting "Hang Dave Jordan in a Sour Apple Tree." By September 1918, things had gotten so ugly that the 67-year-old chancellor emeritus felt obliged to cut ties with the Farm almost completely. In a 1995 speech prepared for the Stanford Historical Society, President Gerhard Casper quoted from an "almost pathetic letter" written by Jordan to then-President Ray Lyman Wilbur: "I have used great care not to entangle the University in any opinion of mine," Jordan wrote. "But to avoid misapprehension, I shall send out no printed matter of any kind, and shall use only plain envelopes, posting my letters outside the campus."

After Jordan's death from heart disease in 1931, his wider reputation slowly—if not completely—began to heal. Today his name adorns portions of the Stanford Quad, secondary schools in Palo Alto and Southern California, and a science building at Indiana University. His writings include more than 600 scientific papers and 50 books, including his four-volume masterwork, Fishes of North and Middle America. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel bears his name, as do some 30 species of fish. In 1986, Cornell, Indiana University and Stanford established a joint international prize in his name, to be given every three years "to a young scientist who contributes in innovative ways to one or more of the fields in Jordan's interest: evolution, ecology and population or organismal biology."

Above all, Jordan is remembered as a pioneering educator who stepped off the train in California and, with the support of the founders, created a university from scratch. As Stanford President Kennedy wrote in 1980, "Population biologists now distinguish between species well adapted for the task of colonization, which they call R-selected, and those better suited to carving out a niche in a fully differentiated, well settled environment, which they call K-selected. If ever there was an R-selected man, it was David Starr Jordan." Jordan's "tradition of academic democracy and affection for the practical arts," Kennedy said, "were just right for the newer frontier."

THERESA JOHNSTON, '83, is a frequent contributor to Stanford.

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