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The Oxford oaks and the Stanford sequoia

Higher education has a unique role to preserve the past, plan for the future, and solve problems today.
A giant oak standing in a green field, its branches in silhouette against a gray sky
An old oak stands in a field in Richmond Park, a nature reserve in London, England. Photo credit: Christine Johnstone (Creative Commons)
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The massive oak beams of the dining hall at New College, Oxford, founded in 1379, were rotting, and the fellows were worried about how to replace them. Old-growth oak timbers could not be found. In came the college caretaker, who scratched his beard and humbly offered a suggestion.

“We’ve been waiting for you to ask,” he told the fellows. “Centuries ago, when the last roof was built, our predecessors had the foresight to plant a grove. Through the generations they passed down the message — those oaks are for the college hall and must not be cut.”

“Now that grove is ready to be harvested. I will tell the foresters to cut down the trees and build the college a new roof.”

Futurist Stewart Brand tells this story in the name of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who may have embellished the details. Even if it is partially apocryphal, it is a fable that is rich with meaning for how we think about our appreciation of the past, our obligations to the present, and our planning for the future. 

Matthew Rascoff photo
Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education

Surrounded by a culture of ephemera, immediate gratification, and quarterly earnings, colleges and universities stand apart. Working in a perpetual institution means our priorities are different. Our students remind us that how and what we teach, and the community we foster, will affect future generations. The Latin name of the tree in the Stanford seal is Sequoia sempervirens — the everlasting sequoia. Our responsibility is to plan for the long term.

The wise caretaker echoes Clark Kerr’s famous passage about the longevity of higher education institutions:

"About eighty-five institutions in the Western world established by 1520 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories, including the Catholic church, the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Iceland, and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and seventy universities. Kings that rule, feudal lords with vassals, and guilds with monopolies are all gone.

"These seventy universities, however, are still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same ways."

Yet attractive as it is, this line of thinking can also hold us back — in two opposing ways.

The first risk is an excessive focus on the past and tradition. The instinct for historical preservation can go too far. In a recent book talk in our series on Academic Innovation for the Public Good, Ruth Simmons, the former president of Brown University, Prairie View A&M University, and Smith College, called for elite institutions to “brush away that elite nomenclature and talk more about the foundation of education.” Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, proposes major reforms to the admissions system in his new book about higher education. We should not cling to practices that have outlived their usefulness; sometimes we must replace outdated ideas and customs. All our structures would benefit from close inspection from time to time.

The second risk is that we focus too much on the future. I recently participated in a Stanford Law School Policy Lab, led by Profs. Rick Banks and Mitchell Stevens, in which students explored the interactions between universities’ endowment strategies and the tradeoffs between spending now vs. saving for later. Some students maintained that we should weigh present needs more, given the current crises we face, relative to theoretical future ones.

The wise caretaker teaches that the resources passed down to us are meant to be used. We should put them to work to accomplish our mission. The way to protect our long-term interests isn’t to avoid cutting trees. Instead, like the Oxford predecessors, we should plant the seeds of new ones at the same time we harvest the old.

*     *     *

Over the past two years I’ve been part of the Working Learners Initiative, a collaboration among units at Stanford that train, hire, and support employees without degrees. The goal was to better meet the educational needs of Stanford’s own workers. 

Too often, digital learning benefits those who have the most access to education and as a result, the gaps get wider. Here was a chance to support our own people and increase their opportunities and skills. Together with partners in University HR and at Coursera, Stanford Digital Education helped to provide a new digital program to enhance staff skills and accelerate job progression and mobility. As of today, over 2,700 Stanford community members have spent 8,500 hours learning on the Coursera for Stanford platform.

Through this project I got to know the Land, Buildings and Real Estate (LBRE) division, which manages Stanford’s physical plant and employs hundreds of working learners. I met the people who help our campus function, such as Rami Abdelhadi, executive director of facilities operations, who was part of the steering group for the initiative. Rami and his LBRE colleagues work behind the scenes to ensure our physical systems and campus utilities operate smoothly. They are the real-life wise caretakers of Stanford. (In fact their motto is “caretakers of a legacy.”)

Commercial developers might construct buildings meant to last 50 years; Stanford, like other universities, builds for a century or longer. So there is a basic truth to the story of the Oxford oaks: the university architect must anticipate the needs of the community well into the next century. They must balance the responsibilities of stewardship, maintenance, and growth. Their commitment to the past, present, and future of Stanford offers valuable lessons about the responsibilities that accompany the privilege of working in higher education.

We each bear these responsibilities in different ways. Stanford Digital Education is committed to fostering equitable pathways to college for low-income students and widening access to the individual, social, and economic benefits of higher education. 

Achieving that goal will require new investments in technological and organizational infrastructure that goes beyond the campus. So we have to be future oriented builders: We need data systems that can track a student from high school to admissions to matriculation. And we need new collaborations to rally the efforts of institutions and nonprofit partners around equitable digital pathways strategies, such as a new consortium of a dozen institutions working to provide college courses in high schools serving low-income communities.

My hope is that one day, long in the future, our successors will look back on these investments with the same gratitude and admiration that the fellows of New College, Oxford, must have felt as they dined beneath their new-old roof. 

Matthew Rascoff is vice provost for digital education at Stanford.

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Christine Johnstone's photo of the oak tree was accessed on Wikimedia Commons and is used through the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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