Stanford in 1968
Richard Lyman arrived at Stanford as an untenured associate professor of history in 1958, a time when the pastoral setting and sleepy campus climate prompted a colleague to comment that, “anyone in search of intellectual excitement would have to journey 50 miles to Berkeley.” Another characterized the University’s role as “educating the children of the middling rich of Los Angeles.”
When Lyman was appointed provost eight years later, much of that had changed. Stanford’s admission rate had gone from seven-of-every-eight applicants in 1951 to one-in-five by 1965. Between 1960 and 1963, graduate enrollment increased by more than 1,100. Although still overwhelmingly white and male—the University did not rescind a decades-old resolution limiting female enrollment until 1972—the undergraduate population was becoming more diverse, with more students of color and more from outside California.
By 1966, inspired by the civil rights movement and hardening antipathy toward the war in Vietnam, student activists were challenging Stanford on many fronts. Sit-ins and campus demonstrations targeted admission policies, University governance, the draft, ROTC and classified research. One of the most consistent targets was the Stanford Research Institute, a lab located in the Stanford Industrial Park. Formed in 1946 as a wholly owned subsidiary of the University, SRI was conceived as an innovation center aimed at economic development for the West Coast. In the mid-’60s, SRI received much of its funding from the Department of Defense, and its contracts included work on chemical and biological agents with potential military applications.
Contentious but mostly peaceful in the beginning, the activism turned violent in 1968 when arsonists burned the naval ROTC building to the ground and destroyed the office of outgoing president J.E. Wallace Sterling, PhD ’38. Sterling’s successor, Kenneth Pitzer, inherited a campus bristling with rancor. He resigned just 19 months later, replaced by Lyman, who became Stanford’s seventh president on September 24, 1970.
In his 2009 memoir, Stanford in Turmoil: Campus Unrest, 1966–1972, Lyman describes the events that took place at Stanford during the most disruptive period in the history of American higher education, and reflects on Stanford's particular expression of Sixties radicalism.
In the book Lyman describes a memorial service in Memorial Church after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., during which members of the university’s Black Student Union calmly took over the stage and read from a list of demands, including calls to increase the number of minority students and faculty at Stanford, to a standing ovation. By the end of the week, wrote Lyman, the administration had met most of the demands in spirit, if not exact detail, and refused only one: to fire a top university official.
“When situations of this kind are analyzed, it is usually assumed that the establishment—in this case the Stanford administration—aims to yield as little ground as possible, just enough to avert disaster. Applied to the hectic days of April 1968 the assumption is quite simply wrong. Our mood and attitude toward what we were doing were a strange mixture of fear and exhilaration: fear that big and unmanageable disruption might take place, of course, but also exhilaration that we were being compelled, by the force of history as much as by the pressure from the Black Student Union and East Palo Alto and their on-campus allies, to do the best we could to begin the process of righting huge historic wrongs.”
Adapted from Stanford magazine’s January 2009 cover story, “At the Hands of Radicals,” with additional research from the Stanford News Service.