Camaraderie and Cheesecake at the Center on the Hill

November/December 2002

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Lunch is gourmet fare—chicken jambalaya, black bean soup, an overflowing salad bar and a sliver of cheesecake—and the view of the Stanford environs from the patio tables is equally dreamlike.

Which just might be the point. Scholars who are invited to the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, up in the Foothills near the golf course and observatory, are expected to reflect, cogitate, theorize, converse, analyze and dream—big time. “Lots of our fellows think of this as the mother of all summer breaks,” says director Doug McAdam, a Stanford professor of sociology. “We hope they’ll use the time here to open themselves up, explore new possibilities and launch new projects.”

McAdam, who specializes in social movements and so-called contentious politics, spent two years as a fellow at the center before being appointed director one year ago. He remembers what it was like when there were no—what?—telephones, way back in the mid-’90s. “The culture of the place historically has been almost like a monastic retreat,” he says. “You were not to be distracted from the important work you were doing, and that meant there weren’t any phones in the studies. If you got a call, you were apprised of it, but you were encouraged not to take it. And if you did take it, you had to sit in a little phone booth with the rain pouring down outside.”

Although the center is now wired for laptops and Internet gizmos, the pace is laid back, even by California standards. Blue herons and the occasional nonpoisonous snake make appearances, and the daily volleyball game is a favorite with many. “It was the wonderful physical and laugh-filled break in the day that I needed before returning to my writing,” says education professor emeritus Larry Cuban, PhD ’74, who spent the 1999-2000 academic year on the hill and is one of more than 160 Stanford faculty members who have been awarded fellowships. He not only completed two books there—Oversold and Underused: Computers in Schools (Harvard University Press, 2001) and How Can I Fix It: An Educator’s Guide to Solving Problems and Managing Dilemmas (Teachers College Press, 2001)—but also found near-nirvana. “It was the closest I have been to the university ideal of a community of scholars.”

The center’s library holds more than 1,200 books that have been written on the premises since the doors opened in 1954. Sitting on Stanford land but governed by an independent board of trustees and funded by private foundations, the center does not accept applications, but rather issues invitations for the coveted fellowships. During the residence year, each fellow teaches one Wednesday-evening seminar on her or his work, but that’s the only required project. There is space for 48 scholars, with several from overseas institutions and no more than five from Stanford. Humanists constitute about one-third of the group. The list of former fellows reads like a Who’s Who in the Academy: art historian Svetlana Alpers, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, economist Victor Fuchs, author Bernard Malamud, philosopher John Rawls and literary critic Ian Watt. Each scholar is paid up to one-half of his or her academic salary, and many stay on as long as they can. “The day we close down in mid-August, we have to go around with a bullhorn and say, ‘We know you’re in there. Come out with your hands up,’” McAdam jokes.

In the year he has served as director, McAdam has been targeting a new cohort that he calls “eve-of-tenure” scholars. He believes that the tenure system is failing universities because assistant professors have to work within a narrow disciplinary focus to gain tenure, and therefore aren’t producing risk-taking scholarship. “I’m convinced that arguably the most important use of the fellowships is to bring the most promising young scholars here and say, ‘You don’t have to think narrowly anymore, so try to think more broadly and live inside the logic of an ambitious new project that’s been rattling around in your brain,’” McAdam says. “Intervening at that critical moment in their careers could strengthen, safeguard and enhance the long-term productivity of the social and behavioral sciences.”

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