Digging into the Past

Stanford history has been shaped by risk-takers, great professors--and a few scoundrels.

September/October 1997

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Digging into the Past

At first I was dubious. The story, as writer Alex Beam explained to me over lunch a few months ago, would be about a singularly unpopular professor who was on the Stanford faculty for only three years. I nodded politely. Oh, and the guy taught here 90 years ago. I picked nervously at my chicken salad, silently rehearsing a gentle thanks-but-no-thanks. But as Alex filled in the details of Thorstein Veblen's comically disastrous tenure at Stanford, I was seduced by the story. I had heard of the famous economist, but I knew nothing of the escapades and eccentricities that Alex recounts so deftly in his article beginning on page 78, "The Naughty Professor."

Still, I felt a bit sheepish about publishing the piece. Why focus on one notorious faculty member when there are so many professors to remember fondly? Most of you no doubt have favorites. I recall some really great teachers that I took courses from in the early '80s--Bill Chace, Ken Fields and Nancy Packer in English; Bart Bernstein in history. And I know from the mail we're still receiving that math Professor Harold Bacon, '28, the central character in a recent cover story, "The Prisoner and the Professor," was an inspiring teacher whose warmth and generosity were cherished by students from 1933 to 1974.

So why Veblen? His story is a window into the growing pains Stanford suffered during its awkward teenage years. In fact, the luring of Veblen to Stanford is a piece of an important chapter in early campus history: the University's campaign to command attention--and respect--from the East Coast education establishment. That challenge was made clear in 1891 when a New York writer dismissed the founding of Stanford as "a rich man's folly." According to the editorial in the Commercial Advertiser, "To attempt to establish a great university Aladdin-like out of nothing but money is as useless as would be the building of a great summer hotel in Central Africa, or an institution for the relief of destitute ship captains in the mountains of Switzerland."

Despite the naysayers, Stanford today has 106 years of history to look back on. By revisiting the characters and events of those years, we hope to put today's University in sharper perspective and keep alumni connected to the place they once called home. Perhaps more important, stories about Stanford history make for good reading. For example, our piece last year on students who traveled to Mississippi in 1963 and '64 to support civil rights ("Freedom Summer," July/August 1996) recently won a "Best Article" award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (one of four "Best Article" honors we picked up). And our regular column on campus history, "A Century at Stanford," is one of the magazine's most popular departments, thanks to the meticulous research of author Catherine Peck, '35. Says Peck: "I like puttering out there in the library."

So does Alex Beam, whose reporting on Veblen took him to the Special Collections archive at Green Library and to the site of the professor's onetime home in what is today Menlo Park. Beam says he became fascinated with Stanford history during his year as a Knight Journalism Fellow. "What interests me is how different Stanford is from the academic world of the East, where I have lived all my life," says Beam, a Yale graduate who has worked for the last decade at the Boston Globe. "When you walk across those brass plaques in the Inner Quad, you realize how young Stanford is--barely a hundred years old--and how recklessly and successfully the enterprise has grown. It's a very Californian and a very American story."

The misadventures of Veblen are, in a perverse way, evidence of this success. His tenure here may have been a failure, but the very fact that Stanford sought him out underscores its willingness to aim high and take risks. That ethos began with Leland Stanford himself, who staked his fortune on what many colleagues charitably considered a quixotic idea. It was almost as risky for him and his wife to make the University co-ed, and to hire a corps of professors--and a president--none of whom was over the age of 40. More recently, Stanford was among the first universities to forge ties with industry, and its graduates have proven more eager than others to jump into the uncertain business of start-ups.

This inclination to push boundaries promises to make Stanford's future as rich as its past. It's a future that surely will include a few Veblens mixed in with the Bacons and Chaces, Packers and Bernsteins. And one in which the University archives will continue to be a fascinating place for puttering.

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