History of Stanford

The Twenty-first Century

The 21st century has proven to be a period of rapid change, with growing demands on research institutions like Stanford, which was founded on the idea that teaching and research could—and should—benefit society.

Throughout the new century, the university’s ability to respond to an increasingly complex and interconnected world has been fortified by the continuing leadership of President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy. They have led the university since 2000, with Etchemendy now the longest serving provost in Stanford history. Under their leadership, Stanford recognized the challenges of a new century as an opportunity to do things differently. With its breadth and depth of scholarship, entrepreneurial heritage and pioneering faculty, the university committed to a research and teaching renaissance by embracing interdisciplinary approaches.

Those efforts were aided by The Stanford Challenge, which, when completed in 2012, raised $6.2 billion. The campaign’s premise was that many of society’s most formidable problems do not present themselves in conventional academic categories. Rather, issues like climate change, sustainable energy, disease and global security require the collective expertise of many scholars.

Support from generous alumni and friends helped the university achieve its interdisciplinary aspirations through an abundance of new and renamed centers, including the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies in 2005; the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Clayman Institute for Gender Research in 2006; the Precourt Institute for Energy and the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy in 2009; and the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance in 2010.

New facilities

To further support interdisciplinary approaches, much of the physical plant was transformed. New facilities stressing interconnectedness and sustainability have replaced outmoded buildings for engineering, medicine and the sciences, many of which dated back to the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, the new, four-building Science and Engineering Quad places basic scientists side by side with medical researchers and engineers. New homes for the business and law schools promote collaboration and support revised curricula.

A new arts district and a new Arts Institute also emerged, reflecting a growing appreciation for the importance of artistic and creative experiences to a liberal arts education. Exposure to the arts throughout all disciplines enhances creativity and risk taking and aids in the development of problem-solving skills. The district, centered on the Cantor Arts Center, includes the Bing Concert Hall, completed in 2013; the Anderson Collection at Stanford University, which opened in 2014; and the McMurtry Building for Art and Art History, which will open in 2015.

In addition, the world’s largest research building committed to stem cell research—the Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building—was opened in 2010, adjacent to the medical school. Ground was broken for an extension to the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in 2012 and for a new Stanford Hospital in 2013.

As climate change was increasingly recognized as an urgent challenge worldwide, Stanford applied its own research expertise to campus operations. The university committed to becoming one of the most energy-efficient research universities in the world with the Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI). SESI, the largest construction project in Stanford’s history, leverages a range of energy options to cut the university’s carbon emissions in half. Just as significant in light of California’s historic drought, it reduces the university’s water consumption by another 15 percent, on top of the 21 percent reduction Stanford has achieved since 2000. SESI caps a series of sustainability efforts that have included a transportation management program to reduce drive-alone rates among commuters, campus-wide energy retrofits and creation of a habitat conservation area to preserve endangered species.

Undergraduate education

Stanford also turned its attention to honing undergraduate education offerings as it considered what competencies are needed by students facing a more interconnected world. The university, under the leadership of Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam, instituted new undergraduate requirements. The “Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing” requirement, approved in 2012, focuses on content as well as capacities. Students take 11 courses in eight subject areas, ranging from aesthetic and interpretive inquiry to applied quantitative reasoning. Overseas study opportunities were expanded with new programs in Australia, South Africa and Turkey. A new research and education center was established at Peking University in 2012.

In the new century, concerns about the cost of higher education have reached new heights, prompting Stanford—one of the few universities still need-blind in its admission decisions—to expand an already generous financial aid package. In 2008, Stanford announced a new program under which parents with incomes of less than $100,000 would no longer pay tuition. Parents with incomes of less than $60,000 would not be expected to pay tuition or contribute to the costs of room, board and other expenses.

The 21st century has also brought people from diverse backgrounds together in new ways, requiring a stepped-up approach to enhancing diversity on college campuses. As a result, Stanford expanded its focus on diversity, augmenting support for the recruitment and support of diverse faculty, graduate student and undergraduate student communities. Today, about half of Stanford’s undergraduate students are members of minority groups. Eight percent are from other countries. Programs such as DARE—Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence—encourage minority graduate students to pursue higher education as a career.

As a result of its many initiatives, Stanford has become increasingly popular among high-achieving high school students worldwide. Applications increased throughout the new century, reaching 42,167 for the Class of 2018. As a result, the university acceptance rate dropped to 5.1 percent, leading to discussions about how the university could expand its capacity to educate undergraduates.

To leverage new approaches to education, the university also created the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning—later renamed the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning. Stanford became an innovator in the burgeoning field of MOOCs, otherwise known as Massive Online Open Courses, offered via the Internet.

Future research agenda

Stanford research programs continue to evolve as a result of the expertise, creativity and initiative of the faculty who set the research agenda. That agenda has begun to focus on the neurosciences and the new field of “optogenetics.” Pioneered at Stanford, the new field uses pulses of light to manipulate brain cells. It provides enormous potential to understand conditions such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease. A new Stanford Neurosciences Institute, including experts in neuroscience, medicine, education, law and business, is focusing on understanding how the brain gives rise to mental life and behavior.

The work builds on enhancements made in Stanford’s biomedical research since the early 2000s, thanks to the construction of the James H. Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering and Sciences in 2003. The Clark Center is home to Bio-X, which created Stanford’s model for bringing scholars from different disciplines together to pursue research. Bio-X researchers represent the biosciences, physical sciences, medicine and engineering.

Another promising area of future research is the chemistry-human biology interface. Stanford ChEM-H has been established to bring together chemists, engineers, biologists and clinicians to study life at a chemical level and apply that knowledge to improving human health.

Also important in the new century will be the Stanford Cyber Initiative, which will address, through an interdisciplinary focus, the crucial and complex opportunities and challenges raised by cyber-technologies. The initiative is support by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The 21st century also ushered in a new relationship between Stanford and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In 2010, representatives from Stanford and DOE signed an agreement that would allow the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to continue to operate on university-owned lands for decades to come. The new lease was signed at a time when SLAC’s research agenda has been enhanced by the construction of the Linac Coherent Light Source. It produces ultrafast pulses of X-rays millions of times brighter than even the most powerful synchrotron sources to enable scientists to better understand atoms and molecules in motion.