Stanford’s Institutional Identity Crisis

By Autumn Carter

Among Stanford’s many programs and initiatives, there exists one called “The Stanford Challenge.” In a way, the nonspecific name suggests a certain grandiosity to the initiative. Leave it to Stanford to attempt a conquering of the unconquerable.

But what is The Stanford Challenge? In late 2006, President Hennessy announced a 5-year fundraising plan that would place Stanford in position to meet the initiative’s “twin objectives of seeking solutions to global problems and equipping our students with the education they need to become leaders in a complex and interrelated world.” And these “global problems” are “the environment, human health, [and threats] to peace and security.”

The Stanford Challenge is more than a set of goals however. It is also a representation of Stanford’s institutional identity. It identifies Stanford as an institution dedicated to the new, the fresh, and the innovative. In Hennessy’s own words, “[Stanford’s] spirit of bold leadership started more than 100 years ago with the Stanfords, who created a university in the West that balanced idealism and pragmatism.” Stanford presents itself as a global forerunner superior to other top institutions for just that reason. It presents itself as an institution that produces leaders who will promote the new, the fresh, and the innovative.

At the same time, Stanford is a university. By definition, the mission of every university is to provide quality instruction in a variety of fields, including not only the new, fresh, and innovative, but also the old, established, and traditional. Languages, classic literature, history, philosophy—there is not much room for innovation in these humanities disciplines. Still, it is the duty of a true university to foster an academic atmosphere in which these disciplines can flourish. Any institution that neglects the humanities cannot legitimately be called a university. Its specialization in the fields of the science, technology, or professionalism would make it an institute, a vocational or otherwise.

If it is not yet there, Stanford is dangerously close to falsely calling itself a university. The Stanford Challenge is not the only indicator of Stanford’s heavy emphasis on science, technology, and the professional disciplines. Stanford’s Social Science programs, such as Political Science and Economics, place an unusually heavy emphasis on models and methodology. And in the 90s, the University replaced the mandatory freshman Western Civilization program with Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM), a program that waters down the humanities by failing to effectively integrate humanistic disciplines and failing to provide in-depth examination of individual works.

And one indicator of disciplinary strength within an institution is the breakdown of degrees granted. Compare the most recent available undergraduate Common Data Sets for Stanford and Harvard. Compared to Harvard, Stanford grants about 10 percent more degrees in quantitative disciplines, defined here as engineering, science, computer science, and mathematics. Harvard grants about nearly 20 percent more degrees in the social sciences. Nearly 17 percent of Stanford’s granted degrees are in Interdisciplinary Studies, whereas Harvard granted no such degree. And we cannot forget that even in its social science disciplines, Stanford often emphasizes practicality by introducing quantitative, methodological concentrations and requirements into its programs. So the social sciences often end up looking more like the actual sciences.

Stanford’s fierce support of science, technology, and professionalism along with its lackluster approach to the humanities is probably no conspiracy being conducted at the highest levels of the administration. Rather, it is most likely symptomatic of an institutional identity crisis. The roots of this university and its institutional spirit are defined by its deep rejection of the old, the established, and the traditional. It is not Harvard, and it does not want to be Harvard in terms of identity. But Stanford does want to be Harvard in terms of status. Stanford wants to innovate, wants to serve as the model institution, and wants to be more than simply unique.

But in its quest to redefine “university” as itself, Stanford is misrepresenting itself as something that it is not. Consequently, it is failing to make clear to its students what they are intended to take away from their experience at the institution. Students may have chosen between Stanford and some other institution, but why did they choose Stanford? Did they see it as a contest between two universities or one university and one institute? Was the distinction clear before the decision, and if it was not, where does that leave the students today? It leaves them standing alone, left to blaze experimental trails as they seek true definitions for their academic experiences. And in a way, perhaps that independent definition, distinct from Stanford’s intentions for its students, illustrates the entrepreneurial spirit of the university. But ultimately, the loser is the student whose potential is left undeveloped as a result of Stanford’s failure to live up to its “University” label.

This entry was posted in Articles for Volume 4, Issue 1, Fall 2010. Bookmark the permalink.

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