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'Exploiting a Wonderful Opportunity'

Fifty years ago, Stanford officials clashed over accepting government support.

Courtesy Stanford News Service

Tresidder was uneasy about federal patronage.

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By Rebecca Lowen

With $566 million in federal funds flowing from Washington to Stanford this year, it's hard to imagine a time when the University did not rely on government patronage. But only 50 years ago, the relationship between Stanford and the federal government was just developing--and its future was highly uncertain. In fact, at the end of World War II, the two most powerful administrators on campus--President Donald Tresidder and Dean of Engineering Frederick Terman--clashed over whether Stanford should become dependent on federal funds.

Before World War II, some university administrators worried that taking money from Washington might subject them to political influence. This feeling was particularly strong at Stanford, where top officials, including Trustee Herbert Hoover, were hostile to the Roosevelt administration. The proper ally of the private university was private industry, they believed, and it was from industry that they sought--unsuccessfully, it turned out--the financial support necessary to lift Stanford into the ranks of the nation's top research universities. This wariness between universities and the federal government began to dissolve during the war as Harvard, MIT, Berkeley and others received contracts for big research projects. Stanford, however, remained mostly outside the loop.

After the war, Tresidder, a businessman in the Hoover mold, still felt uneasy about accepting government support. Strongly anti-communist and eager to see his underfunded University grow, Tresidder did encourage Stanford faculty to seek federal contracts for research that might bolster the nation's defenses. But he opposed Stanford becoming dependent on federal support, which he continued to regard as subject to the quirks of politics. "The hand which holds the purse strings sways the throne," he warned fellow university presidents at the 1947 meeting of the Association of American Universities. He admonished them "to tap private sources of funds" as well as public ones in order to "keep our universities free."

Terman shared none of Tresidder's reservations about federal patronage. Recently returned to Stanford after his wartime stint at Harvard as director of the government-sponsored effort to develop countermeasures to enemy radar, Terman looked at Washington and saw "a wonderful opportunity, if we are prepared to exploit it." Here were the funds that the University needed to improve its reputation as a research institution. Terman, in fact, advocated blurring the boundaries between the University and the government, advising that Stanford pay faculty salaries with federal contract funds and use freed University dollars to invest in equipment and staff that might attract additional government support. "Government-sponsored research saves the University money," Terman stressed to Tresidder. He never missed the chance to chide Tresidder for Stanford's pre-Pearl Harbor isolationism. "We are fortunate to have a second chance to retrieve our position," he said in April 1947.

Meanwhile, both Tresidder and Terman continued to seek industry support, but not for precisely the same reasons. Tresidder created the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in 1946 to attract private-sector funds as a substitute for federal dollars. To Terman, industry was not an alternative to the federal government but rather an essential leg in a triangular relationship: university-government-industry. Stanford would conduct research sponsored by Washington; industry would draw on this work and on Stanford-trained employees to develop technology for the government. In Terman's view, SRI researchers would accept government-sponsored grants that did not fit into the University's academic program. When the Institute began to pursue government patronage in exactly the way Terman was suggesting, Tresidder fired its director, William Talbot, in December 1947.

But by the late 1940s, Terman's vision had prevailed. Tresidder died in early 1948 while on the East Coast interviewing a new director for SRI. Deeply concerned about Stanford's shaky finances and reputation, he had already reluctantly agreed to Terman's plans for tying the University to government funding. By the outbreak of war in Korea, SRI and Stanford's engineering program each had more than $2 million in government contracts, amounts that would skyrocket as the Cold War progressed.

Terman understood how Stanford might help both government and industry while reaping huge benefits for itself. Stanford's rise to prominence and its pioneering relationship with high-tech industries prove the shrewdness of Terman's vision.

But that vision rested on the faith that government support was generous and never-ending. It was a faith that Tresidder could never fully embrace and that the end of the Cold War has now undermined.


Rebecca Lowen, MA '84, PhD '90, is a visiting scholar in history at the University of California-San Diego. This article is adapted from her new book, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford (University of California Press, 1997).


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