“[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.”
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.