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Private universities have public obligations

Providing education to students from modest backgrounds isn’t a novelty at Stanford. It is part of who we are as an institution and dates back to our founding documents.
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Stanford University Founding Grant with Amendments, Legislation, and Court Decrees (floral S and U woven together against a cardinal background)
Stanford's founding grant from 1885 dedicates the university to serving the common good. Photo credit: Stanford University archives

What is a private university’s obligation to public education? This question has been inescapable over the past few months, with the overturning of affirmative action by the Supreme Court, the introduction of a new House bill that would tie federal funding to student outcomes, and the clashes between university presidents and leaders in Congress. We are at a moment of reckoning like none other in decades. 

So it may be surprising to discover that this timely question was addressed in Stanford’s founding documents from 1885, and the ideas contained in them are relevant to the current debates and to Stanford Digital Education’s work to expand educational opportunity. 

Stanford’s Founding Grant defines the purpose of the university “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government…”

That passage is well known. Less widely understood is the deep commitment of the founders to specific policies designed to promote public welfare and the obligations they placed on their successors to serve the public. This is from Jane Stanford’s address to the university in 1902, when she was the university’s sole trustee:

“Notwithstanding their creation of the University as an independent institution, it was the wish and purpose of the Founders that it should be kept, as far as practicable, in harmony with the public educational system, and that, in the matter of entrance requirements as well as in every other relation of the University with the general public, the University authorities should take into consideration the welfare of those who do not attend the University as well as those who do…”

At every turn the founding documents emphasized the duties of the university and its leaders to promote the common good: “The public at large, and not alone the comparatively few students who can attend the University, are the chief and ultimate beneficiaries of the foundation.”

Educational access is in Stanford’s DNA and is at the heart of the public responsibilities of this private university. Tuition was free — not just for economic reasons but for social ones:  “The University has been endowed with a view of offering instruction free, or nearly free, that it may resist the tendency to the stratification of society, by keeping open an avenue whereby the deserving and exceptional may rise through their own efforts from the lowest to the highest stations in life.” (In the early decades Stanford’s tax exemption was conditional on free tuition for California residents.) 

Alongside her concerns about financial access, Jane Stanford addressed the academic preparedness of capable students who did not have the benefit of high schools that prepared them for higher education. So she proposed the novel solution of a special student category for bright students who needed extra support: “Without necessarily lowering the standard of regular admission to the University, concessions may be made in admission upon partial or special standing, or otherwise, in favor of students coming from high schools which cannot afford to maintain a separate course of study for the benefit of the small minority of high-school students who go to universities…”

An airy, light-filled library with orange Modernist chairs

Academic Innovation for the Public Good

Our online book series explores universities' obligations to the public, including how to increase equity and access. Our next event is May 15, with Bryan Penprase and Noah Pickus, authors of The New Global Universities: Reinventing Education in the 21st Century

Permitting learners to take courses without formally matriculating as students is also written into the university’s charter: “The Trustees shall have power, and it shall be their duty… [t]o fix the terms and conditions upon which the students of the public and private schools and other deserving persons may attend the lectures of the University, or engage in original research… without their becoming students thereof.”

That special student status played an important role in the early years at Stanford, but was forgotten after WWII, as admissions became more selective and all available spaces were needed for returning GIs. It took three quarters of a century for Stanford to reinstate the category of special undergraduate, with the launch of our partnership with the National Education Equity Lab, which offers Stanford courses for college and high school credit in low-income high schools across the country. So while the online modality of these courses may be new, the category of visiting student that we use dates to the very origins of the university. 

Our founding documents are an inspiration and a challenge to our community and to my team, Stanford Digital Education, whose mission is democratizing access to Stanford’s knowledge. All research universities produce public goods by sharing their research with the world, but Stanford has an added responsibility to make its teaching and learning as accessible and widely available as possible. That responsibility flows not just from our present resources but from the duties that were conferred upon us.

We collectively, as an institution, must do more to live up to the standard for public service that is part of our constitution. Trust in institutions of higher education is at historic lows. As I have learned in my recent travels to Hong Kong and New York, and in teaching undergraduates and MBA students in the fall and winter quarters, our alumni and students are demanding more of Stanford. If we are looking to inspire greater confidence, we should carefully consider the obligations that have been passed down to us through the generations.

Matthew Rascoff is vice provost for digital education at Stanford.

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