The origins of Stanford University

Like people, all universities of higher learning have a past. The origin story for a university has much to tell about why it exists and what its purpose is moving forward. Stanford University is a highly respected place of learning that carries a name rich in historical significance and this name has clearly outstripped its origins. A recent study identifies Stanford as the sixth most highly respected university in the world and places it only behind Harvard in the exclusivity with which it chooses those who will enters its halls. Its alumni represent a diverse collection of people who have had significant impact in a great many arenas from business to sports to politics and beyond. Yet, this great institution founded by Leland Stanford began in response to the tragic death of his son. Who was Leland Stanford and how did his son’s death lead to the founding of a university that ranks among the most significant in the world today?

Leland Stanford grew up in the Midwest, but it was in the west that he would make his mark and his fortune. The early to mid nineteenth century was a time when the west was just being formed and men such as Stanford took advantage of the opportunity to make their mark on the world and to gain riches at the expense of others. The discovery of gold in the northern part of what would become the state of California brought people seeking to make their fortune from all areas of the United States and of the world. Such people had basic needs and Stanford set himself up as one who would meet such needs at a hefty price. In amassing his fortune, Stanford also collected key supporters which eventually led to important roles as president of Central Pacific railroad and a term as governor of California. In the course of his life, Stanford made a number of enemies and friends. He was among a collection of men who worked hard to see their vision of the world come to fruition and didn’t mind who they offended in doing so. Men like Stanford were hard to like, but easy to respect and he received a mixture of hatred and appreciation throughout his lifetime. Stanford distinguished himself from his colleagues by considering the legacy he would leave behind. The death of his son in 1884 to typhoid galvanized him to establish Leland Stanford Junior University which continues to honor his son and continues to represent many of the core values that Stanford cherished during his lifetime. 

While Leland Stanford was the driving force, it was his wife Jane who made Stanford University a reality and ensured that the fledgling university would survive during its early tentative years. Young private universities require a continual cash infusion and Jane was at the center of making this a reality. Her dedication to making sure that her son’s memory would not be forgotten never wavered and the significant university of today is only possible because of her early influence. From the formal opening in 1891, through her husband’s death in 1893, and up till her death in 1905, Jane Stanford was integrally involved in providing the land and in overseeing the construction of the many buildings that would eventually make up Stanford University. As with her husband, she struggled to ensure that her vision for memorializing her son would come to fruition. Her greatest legacy is that eventually she was able to pass on the reigns to others who would continue the tradition that she began. Many organizations do not pass this test, but Jane’s commitment to have a significant center for higher education in the west ensured that Stanford University would not only survive, but thrive and its position among the great universities in the world is a testimony to her efforts. 

The founding value that underlies all the Stanford University is about is the use of wealth to enable other children to have the education and training that was denied Leland Stanford Junior as a result of his tragic early death. This value communicates that wealth is not an end in itself but a tool to be used to make the lives of others better. From the beginning, Stanford’s charter was unique in that it was a private university that was committed to the education of women and men alike. Though the percentage of women enrollment would become an issue in the early years, there has been from the beginning a belief that both men and women deserve the opportunity to learn and become everything that they can be and thus enable them to contribute to the world in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. Importantly, the founding grant for the university emphasizes that the purpose of the education received by those who attend is not merely for the purpose of personal enrichment, but for the purpose of enhancing the public welfare and making the world a better place. This tradition of making a significant mark on the world both through private industry and public service, something central to the experience of Leland Stanford, has been brought to bear through alumni who have made their mark both in creating great corporations and who have risen to the highest levels of influence in political office and public service.

Stanford’s physical location in Palo Alto, California, not far from San Francisco, provided a large and increasing pool of both supporters and applicants. As the state of California grew in significance and the city of San Francisco became a world city which attracted people from all areas of the world, the university grew and blossomed within such an environment. The lack of tradition enabled the university to develop uniquely and in ways that were different from the significant universities of the eastern regions of the United States. Stanford helped to establish that the western regions of the United States could be respected at the highest levels of academic life. Its prominence gave options to higher scholars in the west that did not previously exist and began the process which over time would see the western regions of the United States grow in political, economic, and cultural impact. Stanford University has acted as a lighthouse from which great scholars have spread throughout the globe. 

Stanford University is proof that good can come from great tragedy. Out of the pain of the loss of their son, Leland and Jane Stanford founded a university that continues today to impact the world and educate men and women to make significant impact in every area of learning. Leland Stanford had an important influence in business and politics and the university he started continues to produce scholars who start businesses and create public policy. Among the great universities of the world, Stanford represents a commitment to education for both men and women and a belief that young people can influence their world. The history of Stanford began in sorrow, but it continues in hope and all who enters its halls can give thanks to Leland and Jane Stanford’s belief that wealth is not an end in itself, but is to be used for the benefit of others to help them learn how to influence their world and make it better.