College Folklore: The Founding of Stanford
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College Folklore: The Founding of Stanford

By Kay Easton
Published on February 17, 2013.

Stanford University: Fact, fiction, folklore, and innovation

What's the history of Stanford University? Rumor surrounds its beginnings in the late 1800s.

Stanford University beginnings: Fact or fiction?

Rumor has it that Mr. & Mrs. Leland Stanford's son died while attending Harvard. The Stanfords went to Harvard with the idea of donating funding for a building on campus to memorialize their son but were rebuffed by the president of Harvard. He told them that Harvard couldn't put up a monument to every student who died and that the buildings at Harvard cost a lot of money, assuming they couldn't afford the cost. It's also rumored that Mrs. Stanford commented that if that's all it cost to fund a building, they might as well build a whole university. They returned to Palo Alto and built Stanford University.

The facts, as reported on the Stanford University website, are slightly different. In 1876, Leland Stanford purchased 650 acres of land near Menlo Park, and through additional land purchases over the next 10 years, accumulated 8,000 acres of land on the San Francisquito Creek, which would become the future site of Stanford University.

Leland Stanford, Jr., born in 1868, died from typhoid fever in 1884 in Florence during a European trip with his parents. When the Stanfords returned to the U.S., business kept them on the East Coast for a time and they met with the presidents of MIT, Cornell, and Harvard to discuss their plans to build a university in California to honor their son.

In 1885, they founded the Leland Stanford Junior University, a coeducational, nonsectarian school. The cornerstone of the university was laid on May 14, 1887, which would have been their son's birthday.

Jane Stanford takes charge

After Leland Stanford's death in 1893, Jane Stanford became a force to be reckoned with in Stanford University's colorful history.

  • In 1893, the Central Pacific Railroad sued Stanford's estate for an outstanding debt, which created a financial crisis for Stanford University. For several years, Jane Stanford funded the university out of her household maintenance account.
  • In 1899, the student population at Stanford had risen from 25 percent female to 40 percent. Concerned that men would be discouraged from attending a school with a large female population, Jane Stanford restricted the number of women allowed to attend to a maximum of 500 at any time. She didn't see an all-female school as a fitting memorial to her son. In 1908, trustees rescinded the enrollment limit for women.
  • In 1900, Jane Stanford requested that David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford, fire pro-labor, anti-Japanese chair of the Sociology Department, Edward A. Ross. The controversy that followed led to the development of the tenure system.
  • In 1905, Jane Stanford gave the Board of Trustees permission to sell her jewelry to make library acquisitions. Initially valued at $500,000, the fund is now worth in excess of $20 million.

Stanford University innovates

Stanford University's history is full of innovations:

  • In 1958, Stanford University opened a campus in Germany near Stuttgart. Although male and female students took meals together, they stayed in separate dorms; 50 years later, the home campus offers not only coed dorms but coed dorm rooms.
  • In 1983, the Stanford Blood Bank began screening blood to prevent the spread of AIDS. It was the first in the nation to do so even though it was not clear that the virus could be transmitted through blood transfusion.
  • In a five-year fundraising campaign begun in 2006, Stanford University raised $6.2 billion, breaking a record in higher education fundraising, reports an article in the Huffington Post. When the campaign was launched in 2006, the original goal was $4.3. By comparison, in 2011 Yale University said it raised $3.9 billion and the University of Pennsylvania said it collected $3.5 billion.


Jane Stanford: Timeline

Stanford Magazine: Pearls for Wisdom

Stanford University Nets $6.2 Billion in 5-Year Campaign

The Origin of Stanford University

About the Author
Kay Easton graduated from the State University of New York with a BA in English Literature. As a freelance and technical writer with more than 20 years experience, she writes articles for the Internet on a variety of topics.
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