Taking Stanford Back to the Future

Stanford, one could argue, is an ahistorical campus. From its founding, the focus on the Farm has been the future the development of California’s (and now the world’s) youth, the equipping of young men and women with the tools to improve society at large. Today we see the glittering new Science and Engineering Quad, the rise in students taking introductory Computer Science courses, the possibility of a business focused NYC campus, the Faculty Senate discussing the need to stanch the decline of Humanities majors. It would not be difficult to argue that the Farm’s fixation with tomorrow is accelerating all the more.

For a lover of history, particularly of this campus, these developments aren’t negative by any means, but they increase the potential for the larger narrative of Stanford to further recede in the background. That is tragic, given the amount of treasures and skeletons alternately hidden within Campus Loop. Leland’s bribery. Herbert’s Barbarians. E.A. Ross and academic freedom. Jane’s poisoning. Steinbeck, Stegner, JFK, and Ken Kesey’s time on campus. David Harris, the BSU taking the stage, the *Stanford Daily *US**SUPREME COURT CASE, the South Africa protests – these, and countless more stories form our shared past.

But should one suppose I am ringing the “history is dying” alarm, I bring up the aforementioned historical snippets because there seems to be a chance that the coming months and years will have Stanford going back to the future. With three particular campus issues – SUES, ROTC, and Kappa Sigma’s (temporary) ouster, Stanford will run head long into the ghosts of its past.

The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), which will come to include nearly two years of dogged work on behalf of its committee upon its final presentation in the Fall of 2011, undoubtedly will shape Stanford for decades to come. Any thorough look at the campus culture largely rests upon an examination of its past and current practices.

One of the defining markers of Stanford’s development in the 20th Century was SUES’s genealogical forerunner, the Study of Education at Stanford (SES). Undertaken by a directive from the legendary president J.E. Wallace “Wally” Sterling, SES basically refashioned the university and provided the foundation for the institution we know today. From interdisciplinary courses to housing preferences to minority recruitment, SES touched, and in many ways changed it all. So as we watch SUES unfurl its plan, we should revisit SES in order to obtain a greater understanding of where we have come from, and where, with SUES, we will be going.

To a certain degree, ROTC has already brought us back to the future. David Harris, the activist student body president who was married to Joan Baez and jailed for resisting the draft, popped back on campus recently to oppose ROTC. The recent advisory vote question (with abstentions removed, as is standard practice with votes, the measure garnered over a 70% approval) has resurfaced traces of campus turbulence of the late 1960s when the April 3rd Movement (A3M) and others protested, among other issues, the Stanford Research Institute for its connection to the Vietnam War. As the Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on ROTC unveils its findings later this quarter, no doubt will reopen these old wounds.

Lastly, Kappa Sigma’s temporary removal from its house (lovingly titled “1035” for the 2011-2012 Academic year) along with Alpha Phi’s return to campus provides a unique opportunity to substantively engage with the issue of what role Stanford’s Greek-letter-organizations, including those historically black, Latino, and Asian/Asian-American groups, play on campus, particularly in such a changing time. This subject, or “problem” as some might claim, cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. Stanford’s history with Greek-letter-organizations is just too extensive.

Prior to 1944, the campus housed 24****fraternities and nine sororities. But in a Board of Trustees decision stemming from irreconcilable differences and conflicts between the female dormitories and the sororities, the female Greek organizations were banished from campus, only to be returned because of Title IX, which guarantees equal access for men and women’s organizations. As for fraternities – if you live in the Cowell cluster, the Lake houses, or the 680 stretch, you are in a house built for fraternities, and partially funded by fraternity money.

The late 60s halved the fraternity system, either out of debt or waning interest, and a cantankerous Student Affairs worked in the 80s to quash any re-expansion of the system. So as we talk about Stanford’s Greek system in the future, it is necessary to ask whether the University will deviate from its history and commit to housing any more Greek organizations.

Whatever the outcomes, these questions are reigniting Stanford’s history. So while our engineers and scientists find ways to “win the future,” I for one cannot wait to watch these coming issues take Stanford back to the future.

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