Dialogue — March 2023

March 2023

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STANFORD magazine December 2022 cover

Placebo Power

Our December cover story explored research into the ability of the mind to influence our health

In November, a biopsy of my wife’s breast came back positive for carcinoma. When we met the oncologist for a post-op, pre-chemo consult, much to my surprise she spent 50 of the 55 minutes talking not about chemo and radiation, but about mental health, coping with stress, and having a positive attitude. She supported the idea of going to Hawaii for a few days’ rest before starting a six-month course of chemo. On the way out the door to the airport, I grabbed the December issue of Stanford from the month’s pile of unattended mail. I was amazed at Alia Crum’s research on the impact of attitude on health. I learned later that the advice from our oncologist at Northern California Kaiser was grounded in the research from the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, featured in the article. Thanks for this timely and touching work.
Thomas Richman, ’80
Penngrove, California

Sam Scott conclusively shows the value of Crum’s work in such medical disciplines as oncology and psychiatry. He also demonstrates the merits of interdisciplinary collation and analysis of data, which Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne has emphasized in his recent commentaries in Stanford. In fact, Scott’s article is one of the most important ones that I have read in many years.
Martin Katz, ’51
Edmonton, Alberta

As a medical student, I encountered a paper by pulmonologist E. Regis McFadden, who studied the effect of suggestion on lung function in asthmatics. A sample of patients were told they were inhaling a substance to which they knew they were allergic. In fact, the inhalations were only physiologic saline. Half of them proceeded to have significant bronchial constriction: an asthma attack. Atropine, derived from the deadly belladonna plant, was given to block this reaction, indicating that the mind-body connection was operating via the parasympathetic cholinergic vagus nerve, directly innervating bronchial smooth muscle. The implications of this simple experiment influenced my clinical practice over the next 40 years at Stanford Medicine. They are at the heart of the physician-patient relationship. As Professor Crum’s eclectic studies amply demonstrate, health care providers should always strive to enlist the patient’s psyche on the side of healing and health, because mindset really matters!
Richard B. Moss 
Professor emeritus of pediatrics
Woodside, California

As the title of “Better Believe It” suggests, belief is critical for placebos to impact their subject. However, one aspect not mentioned in the article that has always fascinated me about the placebo effect can be summarized by the following question: Why does knowledge interfere with or even void the placebo effect? Researchers often resort to concealing facts and disinformation in order to establish and maintain such ignorance.

My question does not refer to studies in which the efficacy of medication or of other treatment is to be determined. In these cases, the subjects’ knowledge of whether they received a medication or a placebo may indeed affect results. The question is concerned with studies of the placebo effect itself. Must subjects believe that they are receiving some real treatment and not a sugar pill or sham procedure? 

Wouldn’t it be better if a person suffering from, say, headaches, knew they were taking a placebo pill instead of a drug—which has side effects and is more expensive—and yet believed the placebo was equally effective and indeed received their expected relief?
Uri Geva, MA ’82
San Mateo, California

Jewish Admissions

In December, we reported on a recent task force finding that Stanford had limited the undergraduate admission of Jewish students in the 1950s, with repercussions at least into the 1960s.

Your article about the investigation into antisemitic admission practices at Stanford called to mind Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” When I was accepted to Stanford in 1965, my relatives and the teachers at my San Francisco public high school were surprised and delighted. They knew that Stanford limited the enrollment of Jews and females, and I was both. My peers were surprised too. Delighted? Not so much. A close friend whose parents were Holocaust survivors never spoke to me again. She felt I had betrayed the Jewish people by applying to Stanford, let alone agreeing to attend.

My immigrant father had fought his way to school against gangs of antisemites in the old country. He did not believe a Jew should back down just because he or she wasn’t welcome somewhere. When I told him I didn’t want to go to Stanford because it had a quota for Jews, he said, “That’s why you have to go.” 

So I did. I was a fish out of water on a campus with a tiny population of Jews and Black people and a painfully small number of female students and faculty members. Discrimination was not a roadblock for me once I arrived at the university, but alienation certainly was. Yet in the male-dominated workforce of the ’70s, my Stanford degree got my foot in the door for jobs that might otherwise have been closed to me.

Although I still have mixed feelings about my Stanford experience, I applaud the university’s current efforts to increase diversity and combat all forms of discrimination. While members of the university’s old guard might be rolling in their graves at these developments, I am delighted that my alma mater is now bending toward justice.
Irene Clurman, ’69
Evergreen, Colorado

I transferred to Stanford as a sophomore in 1962. Perhaps that policy had ended by then, or maybe Rixford Snyder [’30, MA ’34, PhD ’40], still director of admissions when I applied, figured that someone from a small town in Alabama couldn’t be Jewish enough to matter. Whatever, I’m glad I was allowed through the (formerly?) narrowed gate.

Especially interesting was the report’s noting that restricting Jewish admission violated Stanford’s own policy in place at the time of “paying no attention to the race or religion of applicants.”

President Tessier-Lavigne issued a strong apology, emphasizing that “these actions were wrong.” He is clearly right, but what is not clear from his statement, your article, or the report is exactly why he or the report’s authors think the policy was wrong, since Stanford abandoned the policy of “paying no to attention” to race, etc., years ago when it began affirmative action to promote “diversity.”  

Someone should ask President Tessier-Lavigne: If it is not only acceptable but virtually mandatory to deny admission to some Asian and white applicants who would have been admitted if Stanford “paid no attention” to the race or ethnicity of applicants, what exactly was “wrong” with Stanford’s 1950s (and beyond?) violation of its “pay no attention” policy of restricting the number of Jews in order to promote what Rixford Snyder called “balance?” What principle did it violate that is not also violated by today’s practice? 
John S. Rosenberg, ’65, MA ’69
Naples, Florida

Stanford deserves credit for disclosing its discrimination in the 1950s against Jewish applicants by restricting and suppressing their rates of admission to the university. Stanford’s vigorous research and scholarly report were surpassed only by President Tessier-Lavigne’s eloquent and fervent apology. The apology comes at an awkward time, however, as top-tier schools are defending before the U.S. Supreme Court “race-conscious” selection processes. Stanford is using the same practices today that President Tessier-Lavigne found “appalling” in the 1950s, to achieve the indefinable goal of “diversity.” One day, a future university president will, with a sigh, apologize for Stanford reviving in the 21st century its misdeeds of the past.
Mark Van Brussel, ’73
Poway, California

A university task force recently reported that Stanford policies in the 1950s, under admissions director Rixford Snyder, restricted the admission of undergraduate Jewish students. That task force did not uncover a related matter: Stanford policies in the 1960s, under Snyder, continued to restrict admission of Jewish undergraduates.

A special faculty committee in 1967, of which I was a junior member, quietly uncovered this pattern. Snyder, among other tactics, avoided going to academically elite New York City schools that had heavily Jewish student bodies. The committee also established that Snyder, and his office, discriminated in other ways against the admission of a number of strong Jewish applicants, by simply turning them down. 

All of this was reported in 1967 to then-provost Richard Lyman. The faculty committee and Lyman decided, by collective agreement, not to publicly reveal these ugly findings, lest there be an unpleasant controversy. The loose, unpublicized understanding was that Snyder would soon be eased out, and that policies would change. Most, if not all, faculty committee members assumed that Snyder had been carrying out policies desired by university president J. E. Wallace Sterling [PhD ’38]. 

In fact, Snyder was soon eased out. He shifted over to a prominent position in the Alumni Association. Policies under the new admissions director did change. 

Perhaps there was an error in not publicizing the ugly matters in 1967, but there was some fear that publicity, by evoking controversy and producing a lineup of pro- and anti-Snyder forces, might block the desired change. 

The facts of the 1960s antisemitic policies were discussed in later years in faculty conversations and in some classes, including my own.

A probing social history of Stanford admissions policies over the decades remains to be done. 
Barton J. Bernstein
Professor emeritus of history
Palo Alto, California

In 1990, during two-a-days, Stanford football head coach Denny Green introduced me, a freshman on the team, to an elderly gentleman named Dr. Snyder standing along the sidelines who could take me to church, as I did not have mechanized transportation. I became the next and last in a line of Stanford students Rix and his wife, Elliott, took under their wings, dating back to 1937. Before Rix’s death in 2009, I told him that if I was ever fortunate enough to have a son, I would name him after Rix. I was delighted in 2013 to keep my word, as Rixford Brown was born. My younger son, Elliott, was born in 2016, and my wife, Anna, had the idea to name him after Rix’s wife, so Rix and Elliott could be together again. 

Rix’s undying love of Stanford was infectious and all-encompassing. He devoted his life to Stanford and succeeded in helping Stanford become known as one of the finest institutions of higher learning on the planet. 

Rix was not without flaws. None are. Be that as it may, I wish, tremendously, that my son would have been able to meet his namesake. My son asked me how he got his name. I told him, “You are named after the greatest man I have ever known.” I hope that Dr. Rixford Kinney Snyder’s sum total of accomplishments, over his life, are recognized.
Hartwell Brown, ’94
Katy, Texas

Pool Party

In January, photos of a rain-filled Lake Lag brought in a flood of memories.

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Students playing on Lake Lag

I took a windsurfing class there senior year. Nice to see it filled. I’m getting photos from my kid, who is on campus now.
Jonathan Aitken, ’93


In 1975 there were rafts on Lake Lag that you could pole around. One day, two of us put our bikes on one raft, poled out to a larger one, and let the little one drift off [before discovering] that the large one was tied to the bottom of the lake. After much hollering, we were rescued by a couple of Lagunita girls. 
Joo Foo, ’78 


Nice to see. It was just an empty dirt bowl during most of my drought-stricken college years.
Sheila Leary, ’81

Photo: Santiago Ampudia Castelazo, ’26

Not Rocket Science

A December feature spotlighted three alumnae in contention to be the first woman on the moon.

As a retired NASA Ames director, I have to ask how many folks* caught what should be an obvious mistake. The 322-foot Space Launch System is not taller than the 1,454-foot antenna height of the Empire State Building. Otherwise, a great article and wonderful to finally see women playing prominent roles in all aspects of today’s NASA.
William Berry, MS ’87
Cupertino, California

*Editor’s note: Two.

Still Got Game

In December, we shared the story of Alexandra Botez, ’17, who has made a career as a chess streamer.

As a Stanford freshman, I played chess by mail via penny postcards. Can you imagine how long a game lasted? I was devastated when they raised the postcard rate to 2 cents. Now I’m playing chess on with two grandkids.
Ken Green, ’56
Calistoga, California

Hot Dog

An online story published just before Big Game examined the origins—and lamented the shriveling—of the term Weenie in reference to Cal students.

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Illustration of a hotdog on a grill

Oh, hell. Another sign that I’ve gotten Old. 
Roger Tang, ’79


Well, if weenies is the best they’ve got, hard to get too worked up about it.
Pat Joseph 
Editor in chief 
California magazine

Illustration: Giorgia Virgili

My wife, Amy (Stuart, ’94, MS ’97, PhD ’02), and I remember that Cal students were always called Weenies in our time on the Farm, but our daughter, a current senior, hadn’t heard the term. So I loved your story. Beat Cal!
Jeff Cunningham, MS ’93, PhD ’99
Tampa, Florida

I distinctly remember the term Cal Weenie being in common usage during my tenure at Stanford (or Snodfart, a clever anagram that even appeared on bumper stickers in those days). I can assure you that the expression had absolutely no relation to the fine “meat” product. 

I might suggest a polling of alumni using the vast reach of Stanford when researching future topics of such overreaching importance.
Chuck Murray, ’71
Santa Clara, California

I read (with relish, of course) your research on the term Weenie and felt obligated to share an experience that might not have been documented formally. I was in the LSJUMB from ’80 to ’83 and at one Cal–Stanford home basketball game in Maples Pavilion, the Cal band made an entrance and performed some sort of irritating marching routine right there on the basketball court. They were met with a shower of hot dogs from the stands (not our Band), which then required extra time for cleanup. Stanford started the game with a technical foul due to the delay. I can’t recall who won the game, but I will always enjoy the memory of hot dogs raining down on the Cal band. Thanks for the memories and Fear the Tree!
Keith Tansey, ’84, MS ’85
Gainesville, Florida

Your story reminds me of a prop attached to one of the Row houses the week before Big Game in the late ’70s. It was a giant hot dog with a Cal Bear head sticking out of it, labeled Oski Mayer Weenies. Beat Cal!
Keith Van Sickle, ’80
Menlo Park, California

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