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Stanford's Wallace Sterling: Portrait of a Presidency, 1949-1968

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Wallace Sterling book cover

The Stanford Historical Society and the Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship are pleased to announce the publication of Stanford’s Wallace Sterling: Portrait of a Presidency, 1949–1968, a thoroughly researched and lavishly illustrated account of Stanford’s transformational rise as a research university during the presidency of J. E. Wallace Sterling. Under Sterling’s leadership, Stanford evolved from a notable regional university into a leading national and eventually international institution. The book, distributed by Stanford University Press, was released on October 3, 2023.

Co-authored by historian and former Stanford archivist Roxanne L. Nilan and the late Cassius L. Kirk Jr., Stanford’s Wallace Sterling: Portrait of a Presidency, 1949–1968 is not only about the man, but also the postwar era that enabled him to take advantage of an economic boom, as well as federal interest in university research and popular interest in higher education.

Sterling relocated Stanford Medical School from outdated facilities in San Francisco to the home campus, where medical professionals could build relationships with faculty in the sciences, engineering, business, and other fields. He secured the federally funded Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, oversaw the growth of research facilities on campus, and established an industrial research park.

In 1955, Sterling chose Frederick Terman as provost to help him develop a strong faculty recruiting program—known in the Ivy League as “The Big Raid”—which, with unrestricted development income from Stanford lands, led to the emergence of Silicon Valley. Increased academic selectivity in student admissions was another joint goal and achievement of Sterling and Terman.

Among Sterling’s trials was the collapse of the Pacific Coast Conference, at the instigation of UCLA and USC, with recent echoes in the Pac–12. Growing student and faculty activism in the 1960s and changing public attitudes about higher education took a toll, as did serious health issues.

Reflecting the turmoil in his final year, Sterling’s campus office was destroyed by an arsonist two months before his age 62 retirement, after 19 years and 5 months at the helm.

The Stanford Historical Society fosters and supports the documentation, study, publication, dissemination, and preservation of Stanford history. The Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship is a nonprofit publisher of scholarly books founded in 1976 by a longtime Stanford chemistry professor.

Stanford’s Wallace Sterling: Portrait of a Presidency, 1949–1968
Stanford Historical Society and Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship
Hardcover with dustjacket; 696pp., 489 half-tones; $50. October 3, 2023.

Copies of the book are now available for purchase at the Stanford Historical Society, the Stanford Bookstore, and online. 

Reviews for Stanford's Wallace Sterling

"A Sterling legacy: Stanford’s postwar rise to prominence." Melissa De Witte. Stanford Report. October 12, 2023.

"This comprehensive, erudite, and fascinating history of Sterling’s presidency includes the history of the accomplishments that would set Stanford on a new trajectory: the movement of the medical school, the creation of SLAC, and the development of the research park. Readers will also learn about less known but critical elements of Sterling’s journey: his selection as president, his working relationship with his provosts and deans, and his partnership with the trustees and especially Herbert Hoover. If you want to understand Stanford’s rise to prominence and how it began, this is the book to read." 

—John L. Hennessy, President, Stanford University, 2000–2016

"When I came to Stanford in 1992, Wallace Sterling, who had died in 1985, was all present. Whenever I asked who was responsible for some aspect of the university, the answer very frequently was 'Wally Sterling.' This splendid portrait of the Sterling presidency tells the story of one of the most successful and influential American university presidents of his time."

—Gerhard Casper, President, Stanford University, 1992–2000

"To understand how modern Silicon Valley came to be, you must understand Stanford’s postwar transformation during the presidency of Wallace Sterling. This is an engrossing, moving portrait of a remarkable leader and his extraordinary times."

—Margaret O'Mara, Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor American History, University of Washington

"It is that complex interplay of change and continuity that makes history such a fascinating subject. Seeing the changes and continuities at work in the university that Wallace Sterling did so much to create is one of the enduring pleasures of this richly informative book."

—James J. Sheehan, ’58, Professor of History and Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus

Anyone seeking an understanding of how a second-tier university becomes a first-tier university should study this book. And anyone who doubts the power of one singular person—the university president—to inspire others to seek excellence should study the career of J. E. Wallace Sterling.

From 1949 to 1968, Sterling brought the power of his mind and the attractiveness of his vision to raise Stanford University to the topmost rank, world-wide, of research and teaching campuses. When he needed financial support to do so, he found it. When he needed a determined and admirably stubborn provost to recruit that better faculty, he found Frederick Terman. When he needed attractive housing for that faculty, he had it built. When he sought to go beyond Stanford’s west-coast provinciality, he established overseas campuses for the undergraduates.

He charmed, he spoke everywhere, he enticed and he beseeched. He could see, and he could make others see, what Stanford could become. He made every year of his presidency count and, as the years counted up, the university got better.

This handsome book, with the sort of authority that comes only with detailed research and with the compelling power that only hundreds of photographs can provide, leads the reader to understand how educational excellence is attained and how, year after year, it is sustained.

— William M. Chace, Professor of English, Stanford University, 1968-1988; President, Wesleyan University, 1988-1994; President, Emory University, 1994-2003

How did Stanford University rise from a good regional university to one of the greatest universities in the world, a feat not matched by any other institution in the 20th century? Wallace Sterling was Stanford's President from 1949 to 1968, and was the driving force that led Stanford's remarkable transformation. This wonderful book makes clear how much leadership can matter in higher education. It provides in-depth analyzes, along with hundreds of photos, of the many phases of Stanford's unique rise to world-wide prominence. It is essential reading for anyone interested in higher education and its history. A masterpiece.

—Thomas Ehrlich, Dean, Stanford Law School, 1971 to 1976; President, Indiana University, 1987-1994; Provost, University of Pennsylvania, 1981-1987; currently Visiting Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Education