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'The First Great American University'

Innovation and vision have set Stanford apart.

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

By John Hennessy

I am sometimes asked how a small, private university founded just over a hundred years ago has become one of the world’s leading teaching and research institutions.

For those of us steeped in Stanford lore, this may seem like a naïve question. After all, Leland and Jane Stanford were guided by a deep sense of purpose and a compelling vision. But this line of thinking about Stanford’s “destiny” is also simplistic in a different sort of way. The University came very close to closing its doors in the early years for lack of funds. And only 50 years ago, Stanford was considered a good regional school with beautiful grounds and architecture—but not a world-class center of innovative research and learning.

Allow me to turn to an unlikely source to flesh out the answer to this question. Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson, recently ran a story that reflected on Stanford’s rise to prominence and the challenge this presents to Ivy League schools. The story quoted Edward Fiske, author of the annual Fiske Guide to Colleges, on the differences between the revered Eastern institutions and Stanford. Those Eastern institutions, Fiske observed, are modeled on English universities—contained, intellectual settings. But Stanford’s open campus “looks out”; its fascination with science and technology and its refusal to be bound by antiquated traditions reflect distinctly American values.

“I think the point that I make about Stanford is that it is the first great American university,” Fiske told the Crimson.

Fiske’s observation provides a good point of departure for my thinking about the factors that precipitated Stanford’s phenomenal transformation into one of the most highly respected universities in the world.

From the earliest days, a key factor in the University’s success has been the emphasis on excellence with breadth. Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, said it well: “Work in applied science is to be carried out side-by-side with the pure sciences and humanities, and to be equally fostered.” In other writings, Jordan stressed the importance of balancing the goals of becoming a major research university and also becoming a first-class undergraduate college. Today, Stanford encompasses a broad range of disciplines—humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and engineering—as well as professional programs in medicine, law, education and business.

Breadth without excellence, however, would have been a Pyrrhic victory for the founders. They surely would be proud that three-quarters of our core departments and programs rank among the Top 10 in faculty quality, according to the National Research Council.

Breadth with excellence has allowed Stanford to achieve a multidimensional balance among its students. The graduate/undergraduate population is almost evenly split. Among undergraduates, there is a distribution of interest across disciplines, defying the stereotype that “techies” predominate on the Farm. In fact, in the Class of 2002, there were more majors in the humanities than in engineering, and the top five majors were biological sciences/human biology, economics, computer science, English and political science.

Another key factor is geography. Not only is the University blessed with extraordinary beauty and a pleasant climate, but it also has benefited from being able to bring together all its schools and centers on one contiguous campus with sufficient room to expand the academic initiative when appropriate. The founders’ vision in ensuring that Stanford lands were never sold was remarkably prescient.

But the beauty of our surroundings or the architecture of the campus does not guarantee success. An institution must also make wise choices. Under the leadership of engineering dean and provost Frederick Terman, science and engineering were emphasized and became a key to the development not only of Stanford, but the entire region. Terman encouraged another trend that has played a pivotal role in Stanford’s success—the development and pursuit of federal support of scientific research. By leveraging government funding, the University was able to obtain the resources to bring world-class faculty to the Farm—perhaps the single most critical element in raising Stanford’s prominence.

Federal funding alone, however, could not have been enough to achieve Stanford’s excellence. The philanthropic support of our alumni has also been critical in building new facilities, in expanding the faculty and in creating the resources to bolster innovative research and teaching programs.

Finally, Stanford has been imbued with a pioneering spirit and entrepreneurial drive that, since its founding, has set this University apart from all its peers. This willingness to chart a bold course and avidly pursue it has been nurtured by visionary leaders and passed down from one generation of faculty to the next and from faculty to our students. I believe this spirit of innovation will continue to serve Stanford well in its role as one of the world’s preeminent centers of scholarship.

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