Long before the Varsity Blues scandal of 2019 drew attention to ways economic elites use educational institutions to launder privilege and literal cash, Gilded Age university presidents were shaping their institutions in response to the diversifying population of the United States, and the threat this diversity posed to the social dominance of a majority-white elite. Confident in the natural superiority of the white race, their principal concern was the degeneration of the national genetic stock as a result of demographic turnover. More than a century before white supremacists rallied against the “great replacement” and “white genocide” in Charlottesville, progressive education reformers were sounding the alarm about “race suicide.”
The Leland Stanford Junior University, founded in 1885 by one of the nineteenth century’s most notorious robber barons, offers a special view into the symbiotic mechanisms that connect elite economic interests, liberal progressivism, and academic racecraft. When former California governor and soon-to-be United States Senator Leland Stanford and his wife Jane Lathrop Stanford established a university in memory of their only child, they did so with the belief that their incredible wealth could supply the university with the endowment it needed to entice the nation’s finest faculty and make Stanford a competitive rival to its tony counterparts in the East. Unlike those universities, established by churches and weighted down by tradition, Stanford was founded as a non-denominational and coeducational institution that aimed to be a leader in the sciences, as well as the newly recognized disciplines in the emerging social sciences: psychology and sociology.
To assist them, the Stanfords recruited David Starr Jordan, then the president of Indiana University, to helm their new institution. A fish biologist by training, Jordan was a highly respected man of science who bonded with the Stanfords over their shared admiration for Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist and race pseudoscientist who had once been the Stanfords’ houseguest. At the time of his appointment to lead the nascent university, Jordan was already well on his way to becoming a leading figure in the American eugenics movement: his study of Darwinian biology had predisposed him to accept social Darwinist historical interpretations of the decline of past empires. These were the motivating theories behind his leadership at Stanford, where his devotion to social Darwinism would become his lasting legacy.
While serving as president of Stanford, in 1902, Jordan published a pacifist–nativist tract titled “Blood of a Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit.” This book-length essay was expanded from an article that Jordan had published the previous year in Popular Science Monthly. Although not as flagrantly racist as many contemporary nativist and eugenics tracts, the essay was Jordan’s contribution to the paranoid narrative of national genetic decadence that fueled the rise of social Darwinism from the academy to the halls of power in Washington, DC. His book gave a significant institutional platform to a variant of the “great replacement” narrative later repeated by Madison Grant and today peddled by the likes of Richard Spencer. But academic tracts were not Jordan’s most enduring and damaging accomplishment.
During the foundational years of his presidency, Jordan personally undertook efforts in faculty recruitment that made Stanford a hotbed of social Darwinist and eugenicist ideology. Realizing that the nascent social sciences presented opportunities to position Stanford University, and himself, at the cutting edge of social discourse, he concentrated his recruitment efforts in those fields. One of Jordan’s early appointees was Ellwood Patterson Cubberley, whom Jordan named dean of the Stanford School of Education in 1898. Cubberley was a staunch believer in the heritability of intelligence, and promulgated the view, still influential today, that educational testing could identify students with the greatest natural endowments, so that they might be offered the finest educational opportunities and groomed for careers in leadership. Cubberley also originated the notion that schools should be run like businesses, and that both students and teachers should be tested regularly to optimize results—a market-oriented educational philosophy that today undergirds the charter school movement.
Cubberley’s outlook, already hideously fatalistic for an educator, was considerably worsened by his bigotry. According to “Eugenics on the Farm,” a terrific series of articles published by Stanford student-journalist Ben Maldonado to document various strands of the long and ugly history of eugenics on campus, Cubberley’s book Changing Conceptions of Education describes Southern and Eastern European immigrants as “illiterate, docile, [and] lacking in self-reliance.” It comes as no surprise, then, that Cubberley stridently opposed immigration from those regions, on the grounds it “served to dilute tremendously our national stock.”
In 1910, Cubberley recruited Lewis Terman to the Stanford faculty. Terman was a disciple the Alfred Binet, a French psychologist who pioneered the concept of intelligence testing. While at Stanford, Terman carried Binet’s work forward, ultimately resulting in the publication of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. Like his mentor Elwood Cubberley, Terman was an unwavering utilitarian who believed that widely applied intelligence testing could ensure that children be placed into separate educational tracks and prepared for careers suited to their level of intelligence. Terman and his students used the culturally biased Stanford-Binet test to demonstrate the “natural” intellectual limitations of Mexican and African-American test subjects.
Later in his career, Terman was one of the psychologists involved in the mass IQ testing of American soldiers during the First World War, a project intended to help the Army make the most effective deployments. In 1925, another member of the same commission, the Princeton psychologist Carl Campbell Brigham, was appointed by the College Entrance Examination Board to lead the committee that developed the SAT. Brigham’s appointment came just two years after he published the results of his study on the IQ of American soldiers, which concluded that “Nordic” whites were intellectually superior to “Alpine” and “Mediterranean” Europeans, and that Black Americans suffered from an even more pronounced natural deficiency that rendered them incapable of succeeding in “an educational curriculum adapted to the Anglo Saxon child.” These were views shared by many of the hundreds of educators Terman and Cubberley trained at Stanford.
Maldonado argues that Terman was “the most influential Stanford eugenicist,” potentially surpassed only by Jordan himself. Alas, another man deserves the title. By far the most notorious of Jordan’s appointees was the economist Edward Alsworth Ross, whom Jordan named a professor of Economic Theory and Finance in 1893. Ross had earned a B.S. from Coe College in 1886 and spent a year at the University of Berlin before leaving for travels in Britain and France. After returning to the United States in 1889, he enrolled the following year at Johns Hopkins University, which granted him a PhD in political economy the following year. Professor Ross had held just two yearlong stints at Indiana (1891-92) and Cornell (1892-93) by the time Jordan recruited him, not on the basis of his scholarly work—he had done very little—but for the timbre of his political and social views.
Edward Alsworth Ross is today considered one of the founding fathers of academic sociology. His books Social Control (1901) and Foundations of Sociology (1905) became landmark textbooks in the field. His influence, however, extended far beyond the classroom: his books sold more than half a million copies over the course of his academic career. Ross gained fame as a socialist proponent of eugenics and immigration restriction. A staunch ally of the labor and Populist movements, Ross publicly endorsed William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 election and used his platform as an economics professor to support the coining of silver. More importantly, he opposed the practice of importing Chinese and Japanese laborers to work in Western industries on both socialist and eugenic principles. Ross frequently held forth on these subjects in labor union meetings around the Bay Area, earning the enmity of Jane Stanford not long after his arrival. Understanding Ross’s public comments as a direct attack on her late husband’s reputation—under Leland Stanford, the Union Pacific had relied extensively on the exploitation of non-unionized “coolie” laborers—Mrs. Stanford finally called for Ross to be fired from the university in May 1900, following a speech in which he denounced foreign labor exploitation, and another address in which he suggested that privately owned railroads be converted to public utilities.
President Jordan had ended Mrs. Stanford’s first attempt to oust Ross in 1896 by changing the latter’s appointment from economics to sociology—a demotion, in her view, but a change that Ross had desired. But because the university depended exclusively on the elderly widow’s financial largesse for its operating budget, in the end even Jordan couldn’t save Ross from Mrs. Stanford’s renewed wrath. Jordan dismissed him in the autumn of 1900. Ross had foreseen this outcome and prepared a retaliation: he issued a press release detailing his version of events to San Francisco reporters, and announced that seven other Stanford professors would quit their posts in protest of his ouster. News of Mrs. Stanford’s dictatorial censorship generated national headlines and caused considerable embarrassment to the young university, which had positioned itself as a leader in science and free inquiry. The controversy became a landmark academic freedom case that partially motivated the formation of the American Association of University Professors by Arthur O. Lovejoy, one of the seven professors to resign. Ross’s highly publicized departure from Stanford brought him the fame he ultimately sought, and a pulpit from which to promulgate some of Populism’s most repellently racist and nativist ideas—ideas that moderates like Mrs. Stanford considered too poisonous for public expression.
Ross enlarged his celebrity with an article he published the year after his dismissal from Stanford, in which he coined a phrase that continues to motivate white supremacists to this day. In “The Causes of Racial Superiority,” Ross warned against “race suicide,” a term he used to refer to the inevitable demographic decline faced by white America if it allowed immigration to proceed unchecked. The term offered a slogan that condensed the fears of social degeneration that many Americans across the political spectrum worried would ensue if such a decline came to pass—a belief that ultimately resulted in the success and influence of Madison Grant’s Progressive Era book The Passing of the Great Race (1916), a text credited with motivating the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924.
Not to be outdone, President Jordan himself joined the chorus of voices warning against the pollution of the nation’s genetic stock. But it was Jordan’s abhorrence of war that drove him to write and publish “The Blood of the Nation” in May 1901, three years after the Spanish-American war had inaugurated the era of American imperialism. Drawing on the work of historians of the Roman and French Empires, Jordan cautioned against further projects in imperial aggrandizement, which had paved the way to the graveyard of great civilizations past. Comparing the citizenry to cattle, Jordan argued that by sending the bravest, strongest, and most intelligent men into battle, nations put an unnatural end to the fittest among their ranks and created the conditions for the natural selection of weak and feeble generations. Neither immigration nor Black Americans are mentioned in the text: Jordan left it to the eugenicists he appointed to departments across the faculty to “demonstrate” their inferiority. But the implication was clear: if the United States continued down the path of belligerence, both the national character and the natural endowments of the citizenry would decline as a result, no matter how many Pyrrhic victories were won overseas.
As a relatively young university, one founded decades after the Civil War, Stanford has largely escaped the controversies that have roiled Ivy League institutions such as Brown, Princeton, and Yale, where activists have forced administrators to come to terms with buildings honoring famous Confederate alumni, or with foundational fortunes wrought from bonded labor. Stanford’s student body is placid, and well connected to centers of capital and power; it is, as far as campuses go, remarkably depoliticized. Due to its merely coincidental location in California, Stanford students believe the university to be a liberal institution, despite the literally towering presence of the Hoover Institution, a far-right think tank that routinely awards plum fellowships and teaching positions to neoconservatives such as Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice. Confrontations with the university’s legacy of eugenics and white supremacist scholarship have emerged from time to time over the years, but the university has done little to atone for its history of germinating architectures of racial oppression within the American school and university systems.
Complacency in Palo Alto has begun to give way. In April 2020, responding to a unanimous vote by the psychology faculty prompted by Maldonado’s articles for the Daily, Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced that he had appointed a committee to help determine whether the university should change the name of Jordan Hall. (Numerous species of fish also bear David Starr Jordan’s name.) The building anchors a corner of the university’s iconic and much-photographed Quad, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. In addition to bearing Jordan’s name, the building that houses the psychology department is also adorned with a statue of the racist botanist Louis Agassiz.
In October, the Stanford committee issued its report, which recommended removing Jordan’s name from the several campus features christened after him, and relocating the statue of Agassiz. Tessier-Lavigne bowed to the committee’s sagacity and announced that the university would comply with its recommendations: the words Jordan Hall will be chiseled from the sandstone façade of the psychology building as soon as is feasible, and the Agassiz likeness moved to a venue where its subject’s less honorable endeavors in racial pseudoscience might be detailed. A plaque will likewise be installed in the building formerly called Jordan Hall, so that visitors can learn of what the committee, in a polite understatement that unfortunately borrows a term from recent campus debates over censorship and free speech, calls Jordan’s “harmful behavior.”
But if Stanford really means to take responsibility for its ghastly history of race science, it will require more than symbolic gestures. The university’s history demonstrates that American racial disparities are partly the result of the deep and symbiotic alliance between economic elites and the institutions of higher education they have used to repress the lower classes, ensure the economic dominance of a largely white elite, and transmit power and wealth from one generation to the next. Race pseudoscience was but one among several tools that private universities have used to perform their function as guarantors of elevated class status, a function now codified into slick branding campaigns and apparently fetishized to the point of criminal adulation.
What’s more, and as the Ross case suggests, reformers of any age should be wary of acts of censorship. Erasing architectural reminders of the racist and classist elitism that shaped Stanford University are merely a cosmetic adjustment—a bit of corporate brand rehabilitation meant to appease a new generation of elitists who are aesthetically offended by the university’s embarrassing history of race science. Like BLM slogans tweeted by corporate brand accounts, it will achieve very little “social justice.” After all, the problem with the corrupt American university system is less its veneration of dead eugenicists than its long dedication to producing and reproducing a social, political, and economic elite behind the smokescreen of ersatz meritocracy.