Skip to content Skip to navigation

A Residential University: Before 1970

University Founding

In 1891, Leland and Jane Stanford founded Stanford University, in memory of their son Leland Stanford Jr. The post-Civil War institution benefited from the lessons of higher education outlined prior to what Arthur Cohen calls the “University Transformation Era” (Cohen, 1998). Many preceding events had an influence on the way the university would take shape.

For example, Leland Stanford, one of the founders of the university, attended Cazenovia, a Methodist Seminary, from 1844-1845 (Bartholomew, Brinegar, and Nilan, 2001). Cazenovia, a pioneer in co-education, left a significant impact on Leland Stanford. Established by Methodist, though nonsectarian (, 2009), Cazenovia (now Cazenovia College) would likely lead to Leland’s decision to make Stanford University co-educational from the start.

Another example of the university reflecting some of the national trends in higher education, might best be expressed by the following sentiment affirmed by Leland Stanford himself. Stanford believed that the University's "capacity to give a practical not a theoretical education ought to be accordingly foremost" (Bartholomew et. al, 2001). This makes sense, given the consultation the Stanford’s received from leading administrators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell, and Harvard (Bartholomew et. al, 2001), where the classical models of a liberal arts education, which included things like recitation and disputation, were no longer in fashion. Notably, both MIT and Cornell, had been recipients of the Morrill Land Grants dispersed in 1862, which emphasized “applied” knowledge, over the traditional conception of a liberal education (Cohen, 1998).

A Division Between Living and Learning

The period of time in which it was established influenced Stanford University’s operations. The university might not have begun as co-educational had Stanford not gone to Cazenovia. Stanford might not have been research oriented had the trend toward practical education not been on the rise, or had the Stanford’s consulted with institutions that were still embracing the classical notion of a liberal arts education. Had the educational climate been different, or the chain of events altered for whatever reason, Stanford’s current role in applied research and in the dissemination and discovery of knowledge, including its role in the development of Silicon Valley, might not have happened. Jane and Leland could have, quite realistically, endeavored to establish a small liberal arts college, similar to what was happening in Santa Clara at the time, which could have equally served as a tribute to their son’s passing. Nevertheless, during the university’s founding, few were considering a notion like “Residential Education”. In fact, Stanford modeled the first dormitory, Encina Hall, after a hotel, not a typical college dormitory (Bartholomew et. al, 2001). Moreover, had Encina been modeled after college dorms of the time, it might have been further from the modern day ideal, in terms of facilitating student interaction and growth.

Take then President of Cornell, Andrew White’s comments about Encina, as illustrative of the 1892 framework with which dorms were being created:

"[Encina is] the most beautiful building for students' residence in the United States…[but the] fundamental principles in erecting dormitories, [are] student separation and segregation…short cross halls and stairs from top to bottom of the building, and only two to four double rooms at most on each landing. This makes it difficult for students to do much visiting with each other" (White, 1892).

This quote conveys the focus of a college dormitory on basic accommodations, lodging, and study.  The college spaces were, in fact, partially designed to manage student behavior and to limit interaction. This stark division between living and learning would later be what Residential Education attempts to blur, but what seems to dominate the thinking of many institutions of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Nevertheless, some saw the importance of living on campus. Jane Stanford, for example, emphasized the residences at Stanford in her 1899 address to the Board of the Trustees saying, "It is desirable that the members of the Faculty and the students should generally reside upon the grounds of the University" (Stanford, 1899). This statement would echo throughout Stanford’s history, as various administrative departments would use Jane’s sentiment as evidence of the University’s commitment to a “residential campus” (Horton, Scoles, and Shaw, 1974). The university would, from inception, think of itself as a residential university.

The vast expanse of land the Stanford’s donated might have heightened the sense of an insulated community. But, physical isolation alone, did not establish a commitment on informal learning. The hall monitors instituted in 1905 by the Committee on Student Affairs (Eliot, 1937), indicate the beginnings of a “residential” program at Stanford, albeit one that was focused not on student development, but on student conduct.

Out-of-class Student Experience

These student-conduct-centered programs were far from original at Stanford. As early as 1890, a year before Stanford’s opening day, LeBaron Russell Briggs assumed his position as dean of Harvard, to manage student behavior on campus (Barr, Desler, and Associates, 2000). Briggs’s position symbolized the beginning of the separation of student life and formal student learning. It also conveyed the movement towards faculty specialization as researchers and classroom instructors, as opposed to personal mentors and shapers of character. Whereas teaching, or interaction with students, including serving as a surrogate parent, once was central to what it meant to be a professor, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, those practices and responsibilities begin to be pealed away from the faculty. In other words, faculty members begin to focus more on academics, while “student life” becomes the full responsibility of the “dean”. The dean, in turn, takes on the responsibility and manages their jurisdiction, while receiving the requisite reduction, if not elimination, of any scholarly activity.

Interestingly, early models of student affairs, or the role of the dean, varied by sex. In 1904, when establishing the new Roble Hall, a dormitory for women, the university charged the "House Matron" with teaching the girls to be "circumspect and self-governing in all their conduct. [The House Matron] should be an experienced woman...with some worldly wisdom, who can advise the girls in many ways" (Gunther, 1985). In spite of the Stanford’s commitment to coeducation, the house matron did not have scholarly duties. Her role centered on the socialization of Stanford women, not on the development of their mental faculties or furnishings.

Residential education would take this form at Stanford for many years, as the university grew and changed along with the rest of the country. While Jane Leland’s assertion to Board of the Trustees clearly indicated a preference for on-campus housing, constraints on time and resources made it difficult for all students to live on campus, as evinced by the slow rate at which new dormitories were constructed; only three over the next thirty years (Yee, 1994). Importantly, with the passage of time, notions of “student personnel” would also change. In 1937, the American Council on Education called together a group of educators to examine out-of-class programs and activities loosely called “personnel services” (Barr et. al., 2000). This group would eventually create a document titled The Student Personnel Point of View, which outlined the core humanist ideals that would remain unchallenged for thirty years (Barr et. al., 2000), including: the basic purpose of higher education as the preservation, transmission, and enrichment of the important elements of culture, its purpose as to assist the student in developing their potential, and the obligation of the institution to consider the student as a whole (Williamson, 1949).

The student personnel perspective demonstrates the dominant practice of splitting what might have once been called a liberal education and what were now the main functions of the modern research university— the production and dissemination of knowledge. The impact of the rise of empiricist thinking, as opposed to humanist ideals, cannot be ignored when considering changes to life on campus. As notions of “the truth” were being redefined and collegial roles along with them, the experience of students changed as well. Importantly, the scientific process would, in a way, heighten the distinct characteristics of the American system of education: autonomy, competition, and responsiveness (Bok, 1986). All of which also heighten the move away from early conceptions of collegial education that centered on developing the character of students.

Mass Higher Education Era

Nationally, the country also moved towards what Les Goodchild calls “The Public Policy Era of Federalism” (Goodchild, 2002) and Arthur Cohen calls the “Mass Higher Education Era” (Cohen, 1998). The boom in enrollment that comes with the end of World War II and the passage of the Servicemen’s Relocation Act, commonly known as the GI Bill, provide funding for millions of veterans and they flood the American system of higher education (Goodchild, 2002). In spite of being a private university, Stanford benefited significantly from what Goodchild describes as a transformation in the mission of public higher education, including the receipt of increased federal funding in the sciences and a national doubling of student enrollment (Goodchild, 2002).

On campus, Stanford reacted to the increased enrollment by creating two new dorm complexes: Stern Hall in 1950, and Wilbur Hall in 1955 (Yee, 1994). Again demonstrating its commitment to being a residential campus. Moreover, these dorms would see the beginning of what we now consider Stanford’s program in Residential Education. From creation, they would include “Faculty Residents”; live-in faculty charged with stimulating the residents’ academic and intellectual growth (Clark, 1958). It would take only a few years, for students to establish and drive the governance of the dorms. In 1957-1958, Wilbur would include the “Sponsor” program: twenty-four Upperclass students and one “Head Sponsor”, who worked in conjunction with Faculty Residents to manage student behavior and facilitate social events, as well as, academic and personal growth (Clark, 1958). These precursors to modern day Resident Assistants illustrate the shifts in how the school conceptualized student participation. Specifically, this role represents a trend towards empowering students to manage more aspects of their lives.

The changes in student body might have led to these parallel changes in campus life. War veterans would have different needs and desires, than their college preparatory counterparts. The idea of student governance, or student leadership, would not sound outlandish if those students had seen battle overseas, for example. The significance of this change in the relationship between the university and, at the very least, a portion of the student body must not be ignored. It allowed administrators to be concerned less with student conduct and more with other notions of student learning. The student body, as well as the climate across the country, were both radically changing and having a direct impact on what it meant to be an educated person, who was responsible for a student’s education and who could be considered an educated person.

In 1957, the University adopted the following policy: "The University is opposed to discriminatory racial and religious clauses and practices. Insofar as such clauses or practices presently exist, the University will work actively with student groups to eliminate them at the earliest possible date" (Craig, 1961). While Stanford had never officially excluded racial minorities or particular religious groups, the need to explicitly articulate a non-discriminatory policy speaks to the university’s homogeneity. The changes on campus, as well as nationally, would seed a future that included tolerance and diversity as hallmarks of an educated person.

That same year, the Board of Trustees announced, "the long-range policy of the University, [that] the ideal, is ultimately to house all undergraduate students on campus" (Committee on Academic Affairs of the Board of Trustees of Stanford University, 1957). It seems possible that one of the ways the university would attempt to demonstrate its commitment to non-discrimination would be not only through admissions, but also through housing students of color, along side their Caucasian counter-parts. Perhaps, the commitment also acknowledges the potential social benefits of housing all students together. Regardless, the Board of Trustees’ long-term plan does not seem tied to the research industry in which the university, at this time, was an active participant. In other words, it potentially demonstrates a non-research focus on undergraduate education and a concern for the informal learning associated with on-campus living.

Moreover, the non-discriminatory policy points to the increase in access and activism that characterize the Mass Higher Education Era as described by Cohen (Cohen, 1998). The long-term on-campus housing policy, could also be seen as evidence of the Consumerist Student Era, where accommodations like on-campus housing determined which institutions attracted the millions of students which were now funneling federal dollars through financial aid programs (Goodchild, 2002). Colleges had to move quickly to change rules, make curriculum more attractive to students, and satisfy student demands (Goodchild, 2002). The university had to adapt, or face a decrease in resources and reputation.

The 1960s saw a complex series of national events that left their indelible mark on the landscape of higher education, including the college student war protests that occurred from 1964-1970, the Higher Education Act of 1965 (Cohen, 1998), and the American College Personal Association’s adoption of Tomorrow’s Higher Education (THE) Project, which exemplified the “student development” perspective (Barr et. al, 2000). At Stanford, the student body felt the pull of national trends. The period saw a wide range of sweeping changes; the rise in demand for co-educational housing on campus, controversies over minority fraternity membership, and many anti-war protests and sit-ins, which would bring the university to the brink of anarchy (Bartholomew et. al, 2001) (Lyman, 2009).

The Study of Education at Stanford

Importantly, in 1968 Stanford published the Study of Education at Stanford (SES), commissioned by President Wallace Sterling. It recommended that "first priority" be given to the creation of campus towns and notes that students suffer from a lack of variety in both residence options and dormitory design (Packer, H., et. al, 1968). Equating architectural conformity with social conformity, the report argues the necessity of structural variety in order to bring suitable diversity into the student environment. It states, that "the University cannot and should not avoid its necessary involvement in the problems and conflicts of society; to do so would further ignorance, not education" (Packer, H., et. al, 1968).

This concern for varied student housing options reflected the larger changes seen in higher education from a time when someone like Andrew White would specifically design a dorm to decrease student interaction. Also, the report’s ideals of diversity and a move away from social conformity, as well as, the concern for students’ out-of-classroom experience, all connote increases in access, the student as a consumer, and changes in what it meant to be an educated person. While Stanford faculty continued to make landmark progress with respect to scientific problems, the university and the nation, struggled to address the social problems of war, equity, and justice. 

The SES would mark a key transition in Stanford education, but would not have the final say in terms of residential education, or much of the other events taking place on campus at the time. The late 1960s were marked with unrest. Turmoil best characterized this turbulent time at Stanford, especially among the students, who were no strangers to sit-ins, vandalism, including throwing rocks through the president’s windows, and the requisite police response of batons and tear gas (Lyman, 2009). The students were calling for change, as were many of the faculty and the country at large. The opportunity for a dramatic reform of what it meant to be an educated person and how the university conceptualized “learning” grew greater with each passing day.