U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Best in the West

“[I]t is regarded by many as the special obligation of Stanford to combine the best elements of the small, liberal arts college with those of the large university. This obligation, it is argued, derives from Stanford’s status as the major private university in the western half of the country.”*

This observation comes from a 1957 report on the state of undergraduate education at Stanford. I have written about that report before, in a post discussing Stanford’s institutional profile “as a young, pioneering, Western university filled with brash confidence, crowned with sunny success, given to flexibility and a willingness to change in light of new experience — and yet forever anxious about its prestige, its inescapable and sometimes unseemly newness compared to the hoary old ivies of the East.”history corner

That east/west dualism is evident in the statement above about “Stanford’s status.” And of course, if Stanford was “the major private university in the western half of the country,” then its implicit institutional counterpart, the major private university in the eastern half of the United States, was Harvard.

But there’s a problem with the way the authors of the report framed Stanford’s regional status, a problem with this business about “the western half of the country.” Where, in that scheme, is the University of Chicago?

My initial take on this passage was that the report’s characterization of Stanford as “the major research university” of the West was in fact making a claim for Stanford’s status specifically in relation to the University of Chicago. That is, it seemed to me that Chicago was Stanford’s implicit rival for institutional prestige among research universities in the western half of the country. However, such a reading plays fast and loose with geography, and with language itself – it depends on a rather elastic definition of both the meaning of “western” and the meaning of “half.”

I brought this interpretive problem to my friends on Facebook, and we have been having a lively discussion about it there. So I thought I would bring the conversation here, and I would be grateful for any additional input or suggestions on how to read this bit of regionalism in Stanford’s mid-century report.

Whether you want to use the Continental Divide, or the Mississippi River, or just plain old longitudinal intervals as geographic measures or markers, there is no geographical argument to be made for putting Chicago in “the western half” of the United States. But if you’re going to go with a dualistic scheme, “west” v. “east,” there is, I think, an historical (or maybe just a reputational) argument to be made for the University of Chicago as a “western” institution. In any case, there’s no real argument to be made for the status of the University of Chicago, in the 1950s or today, as an “eastern” institution. Sure, it’s “eastern” relative to California – but so is everything else in the lower 48.

On Facebook, Jesse Lemisch said that the University of Chicago “thinks of itself as a kind of an extension of the Ivy League, and — more than the others — as the major repository of what used to be called Western Civilization.” On the other hand, Rebecca Raphael said that she has never thought of UChicago as an “extension of the Ivy League. It is sui generis.”

In terms of its institutional history, the University of Chicago shared so many characteristics with Stanford – founded in the 1890s by a robber baron, built from the ground up as a research university, situated in a locale that to the East coast establishment was unmistakably a part of the wild, wild west. The “wild west” location of both universities, the impression (and, in Stanford’s case at least, it was not altogether inaccurate) that faculty who agreed to join these new universities would be “roughing it,” meant that these schools had less success attracting already-established professors, and had most success attracting scholars with a sense of adventure and a willingness to take risks, including, as Rosalind Rosenberg argued in Beyond Separate Spheres, pioneering women scholars and men who were willing to support and encourage their research.

Monica Mercado had this to say about Chicago’s “westernness” as a door of opportunity for women: “And my hero Marion Talbot, Chicago’s first dean of women, was lured to the job in 1892 by Harper’s plea to help them do what needed to be done ‘in this growing City of the West.’ And then Talbot’s Boston friends freaked out and basically threw her a single lady shower, since she was clearly never going to find a suitable partner in that ‘wild and wooly city of the West.'”

Now, conceding for a moment the “westernness” of the University of Chicago (at least in the eyes of the East coast establishment), there were certainly other private universities in the western half of the US that could have served as the regional foils against which Stanford was favorably comparing itself in the 1950s. Ben Alpers suggested several: Washington University in St. Louis, Cal Tech, Rice. And I had already brought up USC, only to dismiss it. And honestly, with the possible exception of Cal Tech, I think I can safely dismiss the other institutions as the potential “minors” alongside which Stanford could view itself as “the major university.” I can dismiss those comparisons because, it seems to me, Stanford was making a bid for national status, and it couldn’t very well do that by claiming to be the first among those regional institutions. Stanford was claiming for itself first place in the west as a chief rival to Harvard in the east – and the only way to do that, it seems to me, was to dispense with the University of Chicago.

In that connection, on Facebook, Matthew Linton pointed out that in the 1940s the Rockefeller Foundation and the ACLS did not view Chicago (and, for that matter, Northwestern) as “western” schools. Instead, those organizations “consistently group[ed] Chicago in with other Midwestern schools like Wisconsin and Michigan.” My comment here was that this was a tripartite taxonomy – western, midwestern, eastern. So maybe in claiming for itself the mantle of “best in the west,” Stanford was dealing with Chicago by simply eliding it, ignoring “the midwestern” as a designation for anything of value – U Chicago as a sort of intellectual flyover country avant la lettre.

And, as Matt pointed out, the bifurcated taxonomy of the 1957 Stanford report fed into the notion that American universities can be divided into “the Ivy league and everyone else.” Similarly, Jesse Lemisch argued that the binary division of the Stanford report echoed the idea that the American cultural landscape can be divided into the “east coast” (or, more specifically, New York) and everyone else.

That still doesn’t quite answer the question, “Where is Chicago?” That is, it doesn’t directly address the problem of whether or not I can make a case that the authors of this report were including Chicago among those universities of “the western half of the country” that served as foils to Stanford’s primacy. I can say that Chicago – as represented by President Hutchins – shows up in other places in the 1957 report.

But, believe you me, Harvard did too. That institution sat at the pinnacle of the prestige economy of higher education. Perhaps for brash, ambitious Stanford circa 1957, the best way to close the gap between itself and Harvard was to simply divide the national landscape in two equal halves, with no one in between.


*Robert Hoopes and Hubert Marshall, The Undergraduate in the University: A Report to the Faculty by the Executive Committee of the Stanford Study of Undergraduate Education, 1954-56 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1957), 58.

11 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. What do you know about the report writers’ backgrounds? Their institutional affiliations, or lack thereof, may explain the implicit references in the report. Then again, as you said, Hutchins (meaning U of C) and Harvard are already explicitly mentioned. – TL

  2. Interesting question, Tim. The report is a layered document, for sure. In the preface, the co-authors stated that their aim was to “chronicle and summarize the work” of the committee that undertook the study of undergraduate education, so in several places in the document (and, I think, here) they are offering a sort of summary report of the deliberations of the committee.

    The working papers of the committee (active from 1954-1957) are on file in Special Collections at the Stanford Library, so it is possible that I could track down the particular comments behind this general summary. But at this point that would require 1) travel time and 2) a research grant, so I have to save this for the dissertation-to-book stage of my project.

    For now, I have to rely on contextual clues within the report as a whole. What I have gathered is that someone on that committee thought highly of Hutchins (and, by extension, U Chicago), and Chicago is a sort of shadowy presence in Stanford’s portrayal of its own academic position/reputation.

    In terms of the authors themselves, Robert Hoopes was a native Chicagoan and an English professor who spent most of his career at UMass Amherst (obituary here). Hugh Marshall is an emeritus professor of political science at Stanford. His faculty profile page is sparse, but he made some pretty sharp remarks about Condoleeza Rice and her return to Stanford in 2009. You can read those in this article: Former Secretary of State Rice returns to Stanford U.

    However, I don’t know that focusing on the biography of these particular authors — or even of the committee members whose comments might be preserved in meeting minutes — would add much to what I am able to deduce from looking at the text, though it’s tricky to construct an argument about what a text doesn’t say. I do think that “halving” the country is a very peculiar way of thinking about the higher ed landscape in 1957. Maybe the “demotion” of Chicago was unintentional (in the sense of authorial intent). But ISTM that this was an effect of that way of envisioning the status of various institutions in that particular geographic alignment.

  3. Hi L.D.,

    Interesting post. The skeptic in me has some questions. I wonder if the writers of this report were being as self-consciously intellectual as you interpret here. I have no doubt that Stanford was frequently comparing itself to Harvard and Chicago (at least post-1930s), but I see it more as an advertising and identity thing rather than a regionalism/intellectual thing. I just wonder if they put as much thought into it as you want to place. What is more interesting to me (and more likely, I think, something they thought about often, in an intellectual sense) is their “special combination” of small, liberal arts college and large research university. This, they may have thought, tied them to the ‘great’ liberal college tradition, which was very much in doubt during the ’50s and ’60s.

  4. Bryan, thank you for your skepticism. To be honest, I sort of share it. That is, I don’t think Chicago’s shadow, to the extent that it may fall here at all, is the big takeaway from this report. Harvard’s shadow, though, is pretty important — but that’s maybe not so much on account of Harvard per se as it is on account of the reasons for curricular change at Stanford in the mid-1950s, which had to do with making the university more competitive in the scramble for major grants from big foundations, the government, etc. (I’m simplifying in a major way, and perhaps even in a crass way — but that’s definitely a factor in the timing and extent of the reorganization going on at Stanford in the 50s.)

    You are right about the tension inherent in Stanford’s attempt to position itself as a “hybrid” of a SLAC and a major research university — though that tension is part of the long history of the institution. Of course, the competition with other universities for (eventually) a position of preeminence in the prestige economy of higher education, with all that such a position brings/affords, is also part of the long history of the institution, especially during/after the Cold War. The argument to get rid of Western Civ in the 60s, and the argument to bring it back in the 80s, both focus on competing with Harvard (and, occasionally, even with good old Yale).

  5. I’m curious about whether/why the public/private distinction matters to people at the time? That quote is a little striking to me because they emphasize being the “major *private* university in the western half of the country.” My admittedly anecdotal understanding of Stanford is that it was historically seen as a more regional school and Berkeley was seen as the more prestigious western academic powerhouse. That could be completely wrong, which I would be curious to hear more about. If it’s right though, it does raise the question- was Stanford just not concerned with comparing itself to Berkeley? Or, is Stanford here emphasizing that it’s the best private university because it knows it’s not the major university, period, in the West?

    • (I guess the larger issue motivating my question is I think that American culture now have a frame, or anyway US News & World Report has fostered a frame, in which the best private universities are seen as existing on some plane above even the best public universities, but that is itself a fairly recent historical development that has a lot to do with disinvestment in public universities and ideological changes in the cultural valence attached to “publicness,” and so I’m curious more generally what the significance was in the 1950s of identifying oneself as a “private” university in this way.)

      • I think part of the reason to emphasize the special obligation of being ‘private’ in this period is to distinguish Stanford’s supposed freedom and neutrality from too much government interference (usually a rhetorical strategy, since Stanford had plenty of interference in the postwar decades)

  6. Sara (and Bryan) — yes to all of the above. That is, in terms of positioning itself for the purposes of its own report, Stanford would have slotted itself as an “elite regional private” rather than just “elite regional university” for a few reasons. It could not have claimed to be head and shoulders above Cal. And the emphasis on *private* universities as particularly important did derive from the notion that a private uni was not subject to the same kind of political pressures/controls that might sway public universities dependent on legislators/voters for their funds. (Rebecca Lowen discusses this in *Cold War University.*)

    But flipping that around, one complaint leveled by people in leadership at Stanford and in other private universities was that public universities, because they were subsidized/funded by public dollars, had an “unfair competitive advantage” over private universities in terms of being able to cover their costs, attract leading faculty, the best students, etc. That complaint per se doesn’t show up in this report, but it does show up during roughly this time, and it sort of tracks with the ascendancy of “market logic” or “market metaphors” more generally in American culture.

    • Thanks LD & Bryan for these helpful replies! I had been traveling & just belatedly checked back in with this post. Since I am currently working on the history of “public defenders” in the 20th century US, I am really interested in thinking more about the valence of “public” vs “private” in midcentury and this is really helpful! The government interference point had not occurred to me in this context, but it makes total sense- actually I see similar rhetoric in my own work on lawyers in this era- fears that making anything “public” will politicize it.

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