“Stanford in Turmoil,” an Interview with Former President Richard Lyman

“Stanford’s reputation rose rapidly during the 1960’s, and the alumni were unhappy about it.” This surprising revelation was one of several made by former Stanford President Richard W. Lyman when I sat down with him in his office in Cubberley this past week to discuss his newly released book, Stanford In Turmoil, Campus Unrest, 1966 – 1972. He went on to explain, “Older alumni, from before the sixties, found it difficult to understand, both the rise in reputation—they felt unhappy because their kids couldn’t get into Stanford—and they seemed unhappy with what seemed a failure to discipline the radicals….”

Lyman’s new book, which he describes as “a cross between a case study and a memoir,” engages the reader immediately, as he narrates Stanford’s rise—in a matter of just a few decades—from “a respectable regional university” in the World War II era to the one that we take for granted today as being on par with the Ivies.

Lyman, now in his mid-eighties, came to Stanford as a history professor in 1958. He became Vice President and Provost on January 1, 1967, after what he referred to as “the troubles” that had begun the year before. He served as provost for two different university presidents. The first, Wallace Sterling, who by 1968 had served in that role for nineteen years, had become severely ill. According to Lyman, he “didn’t have the same energy, and was out of touch.” Sterling was succeeded as president by Kenneth Pitzer, who in Lyman’s words, “was never able to get his legs under him” during his tumultuous eighteen-month tenure. One could empathize with Pitzer. As Lyman describes Pitzer’s arrival from Rice University, “he found his office was occupied [by protesters] the day he got here.”

In 1969, it was Lyman who was “the first to call police to campus,” having observed blow-ups at Columbia in 1968 and then at Harvard in 1969 in which “lots of people were hurt and lots of people were arrested. We wanted to avoid that,” he explained. He worked with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, establishing a protocol in which faculty observers were sent in with the police “any time they had to go into a building to clear it out, to protect the demonstrators against police violence and the police against demonstrators’ violence, and that worked very well.”

While Stanford’s trustees had passed over Lyman in 1968 to succeed Sterling as president, by the summer of 1970, as Lyman was being considered for the presidency of Harvard University, the trustees “had changed their minds,” appointing him as Stanford president before Harvard finished making its decision. Lyman then served as president for a full decade, from 1970 to 1980.

Other surprising events of that era include, in Lyman’s understated words, “the fact that we ended up dismissing a tenured faculty member for inciting violence. That was unusual.” The dismissal was ratified in the Stanford appeals process, and, in a lawsuit against the university, the courts refused to overturn it.

Lyman also noted that, “in some ways, the radicals succeeded; they got what they wanted,” in eliminating both secret (classified) research and ROTC from the university. They accomplished these goals, Lyman notes with seeming approval, by making in both cases “a tacit alliance with academics who were opposed to classified research and ROTC for academic reasons having nothing to do with the [Vietnam] war effort. But they never came close to getting rid of Defense Department research,” he stated, adding, “It was ironic, because if you got money from the Department of Education, you had more restrictions on what kind of research you could do than if you got money for basic research from the Defense Department.”

One of Lyman’s goals, as he described it, was to “preserve the right of faculty from whatever political persuasion to do research without interference, to get money from whatever legal source, instead of being denied the chance to do research if it was funded by the wrong agencies.” The surprising assertion he made on this subject is his claim that, if the university had become “anybody’s political instrument, taking stands on issues not directly related to higher education, the forces wanting to press for changes against the Left would have had much more power, as they did generally, having the money and the resources and the country as a whole.” (It was, after all, the Nixon era.)

Lyman’s compact book is written with the lucidity and immediacy of a good film documentary. The cover photo, showing police in riot gear collaring students (whose dress looks quaintly conservative by today’s standards) on our familiar campus during those historic times, is well worth a read by anyone interested in Stanford, the history of higher education, or student protest movements. Its publication will likely spark debate among those whose memories or interpretations of events of that era may differ from Lyman’s. Nonetheless, his two immediate successors as university president have stated that, “Dick Lyman saved Stanford.”

Lyman himself avers that Stanford’s “destruction was never as likely as we sometimes thought it to be.” He was heartened by the fact that the university’s rapid rise in reputation and strength actually increased during those years, “despite the fears and the turmoil.” He concludes by comparing Stanford’s reputation at the end of his tenure in 1980 to its standing at the time of his arrival in the 1950’s. “We’ve long since ceased to need such claims as that of being ‘the Harvard of the West.’ Just being Stanford is enough.”

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