At a Reunion Homecoming event several years ago, an Asian-American alumnus described what life was like at Stanford in the 1950s. To illustrate how rare students of color were in those days, he displayed a page from the Quad yearbook, waited a moment while audience members absorbed what they were seeing, then offered a droll observation: “It gives new meaning to the phrase, ‘They all look alike.’”
Howls of laughter.
Of course, Stanford wasn’t the only university in the United States whose student population was overwhelmingly white at that time. It took the 1960s to change it.
Two principal motivations spurred Stanford and a lot of other schools, slowly at first and then with great conviction, to actively recruit students of color. One was a growing awareness of the educational benefits that a diverse student body offered to a learning community; the second—no doubt inspired by the civil rights movement—was a recognition that academic institutions had a responsibility to educate students from a broad spectrum of society, not just white kids from suburban schools. Gradually, the student body began to reflect a bit more closely what the country looked like.
Along the way, though, students of color braved an often lonely journey on the Farm. Our cover story describes the experiences of five African-American freshmen who arrived in the fall of 1962. They were part of a cohort—seven in all—that then represented the largest African-American undergraduate class in Stanford history. Pause here for a moment and imagine what that must’ve been like: For every black freshman on campus, there were more than 200 white ones.
It seems inconceivable now that any university could believe it was fulfilling its mission by educating only white people. But what we take for granted as an imperative—assembling a class of deserving students from various racial, ethnic, geographic and economic backgrounds—felt more like a bold experiment 55 years ago. As one of the “’62 Seven,” Ira Hall, relates in our story, his high school dean tried to dissuade him from even applying to elite schools and was shocked at Hall’s temerity in believing that he belonged at those places. Hall went on to become extraordinarily successful, and the youngest-ever member of Stanford’s Board of Trustees at age 26.
We’ve come a long way. In the undergraduate population and throughout graduate programs in all seven schools, Stanford today resembles the multicultural world its students inhabit. On the other hand, administrators would be the first to acknowledge that there is still plenty to do in attracting and retaining students and faculty of color and nourishing an inclusive, affirming campus climate. The work goes on.
In the meantime, it’s worth listening to the stories of those students of color whose footsteps were some of the first on the path toward pluralism. They’re a reminder of why it matters, and what it took to get there.
Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford.