I was recently talking with a few other faculty elders at Stanford, and we were reminiscing about the changes that had occurred in the University since we had arrived (1958 for me as a graduate student, 1966 as a member of the faculty). They have been many. Stanford in 1958 had begun its climb to its present size, wealth, and justified fame, and was a wonderful place to be because of its smaller physical size, its relative lack of red tape and rules, the excitement of rising in prestige, and its more informal physical plant and personal interactions. During my time as a graduate student I not only carried a large teaching load and was responsible for a research contract, but was given the job of re-building (with student help) the upper floor of a large building, where we were building a new academic unit. In fact, I repeated this— studs, drywall, and paint— in the 1980’s when I was tasked with chairing a struggling program and allocated unusable space. I came to love the place through building my offices to suit my desires, and being able to move walls around at will. No longer. My present office has concrete walls and a building manager, and I must be very clever even to be able to drill holes in the wall.
In 1958 there was no faculty club, so many of the professors would bring their lunches, eat them together, and socialize. In fact the faculty members of one very academically successful group in my department was famous for playing loud and boisterous games of hearts during the lunch break. Since there were many fewer Ph.D. students, there was less overhead in the funding and maintaining of laboratories. Now successful faculty members in the Engineering School often have a much larger number of Ph.D. students, visiting faculty members, fellows, lab space to accommodate them all, perhaps an executive director with industrial experience to keep the whole thing running, several administrative assistants, etc. etc. etc. Faculty members are more likely to be entertaining visitors at lunch than playing hearts, and tending their mini empires rather than interacting with each other.
An even larger change has been in the overall feeling of the place. The 8000 acres owned by the University was originally Governor Leland Stanford’s horse farm, and was in fact called the Farm, as it still is by many alumni. The academic center was developed but most of the land was not, and even the academic area was equipped with somewhat wild growth and nicely worn buildings. Lake Lagunita on campus was generally full during warm weather (no perception of water shortage then), and just before filling, was sometimes used by the students to stage the Lagunita Seca road race, run by vehicles built by the students with no rules and driven by students with no training! When I was a student there was one policeman on campus. I don’t know how many we have now. It was possible to park one’s car next to one’s office. It is a challenge to park on campus at all now, and probably will cost money. We have tour busses, traffic circles, and stop signs for bicycles, and the construction going on seems to be never ceasing. The university seems more like an airport every year.
But as you know, Stanford has become an educational power house. The university sits high on all ranking lists, attracts an increasing number of outstanding applicants, does research that affects us all, and becomes ever more successful at hiring world famous scholars for the faculty and raising money for everything from funding research and endowing professors to expanding the facilities. There are certainly more conveniences, money, and prestige attached to being to being part of the university now than there were when I first arrived, and Stanford is even becoming a force in athletics But as one alumnus said on a recent visit. “What happened to the Farm? This is a research city—an extension of Silicon Valley”.
And is the plant going in the same direction as the people? Stanford is becoming larger than human scale and a show house of cleanliness and landscaping. But people who work in universities are supposed to be creative. My background includes a great deal of study of creativity. Creativity requires room to think and experiment and an environment that is consistent. Faculty members and students in universities often have neither the time nor inclination to follow the dreams of architects and administrators. Life in the university consists of overlapping and seldom finished work, which can seldom be tucked away, leaving clean desks and shelves.
Below are two photos taken in the new Engineering Quadrangle at Stanford. The next three show the work space of an outstanding professor, an IT expert, and a program manager. These are a far cry from the interiors shown in the architecture renderings and blessed by the Trustees.
The next photo shows the exterior of the Clark center for bio-engineering. It is a striking piece of architecture, with its glass walls opening onto a central atrium. But if you look closely, most of glass walls have been obscured from inside, because the people working inside neither want to be watched by passers by (oh look honey, there is a professor), nor have the sun shine on their computer screens. The next photo shows some actual student work space. Happily, the students have overcome the architecture!
The final photo shows office space for Ph.D students in yet another building. But Ph.D. students are not willing to sit in rows with tidy desk tops, no space to store their work, food, and projects, and with people staring at them through glass windows. Therefore, few of them are in these rooms.
In my opinion, many of our new buildings smack a bit too much of control and fantasies of how professionals should conduct themselves, rather than showing an understanding of the actual lives of students and others employed in the rather messy educational process . Alumni from many years ago speak fondly of the feel of the more poorly maintained, but informal physical campus. The new buildings are impressive, but where’s the fun? What’s to love? Institutions have to learn better to grow and maintain the feeling of informality and smaller size.
Of course, this progression in size, wealth, and fame is typical of fortunate organizations, and is in a sense a reflection of the American way. And I am proud to have played a small part in it in the case of Stanford. But there is much to be said for smaller organizations that can exist with less control, and therefore less overhead and reporting. I am hoping that Stanford will continue to improve and enjoy the long success of universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, and even Harvard. But individuals, organizations, and even nations seem to go through a cycle of climbing to “greatness”, and then going through the process of slowly declining and being forced to watch others take over leadership. I sometimes think it would be nice if so much, including most economic theories, did not depend on growth. But it seems that most of us are not strong enough to put limits on ourselves in favor of an environment that we can easily control—the human condition. So I will continue to enjoy the ride.