Stanford University, located in the heart of California, is renowned for its academic excellence and entrepreneurial spirit. The university was established in 1885 by Californian senator Leland Stanford, and his wife Jane Stanford, centred around the vision of promoting “public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilisation.” 

Interestingly, Leland and Jane Stanford were inspired to establish the university as a memorial to their only child, Leland, Jr., who they lost to typhoid a year earlier. The campus is set on the land of the Stanford family, which at the time was a 8,180-acre Paola Alto stock farm. 

Through this guide, discover how Stanford University was founded, reforms to its workings / curricula over time, and its growth from a regional institution to a global leader in education and innovation.  

Our experts are here to provide you with help through a  free consultation to determine if Stanford university is the right university for you.  

The Founding of Stanford University

Stanford University was founded by Leland and Jane Stanford as a memorial to their only child, Leland, Jr., who they lost to typhoid in 1884. Their vision, as well as that of the founding President – David Starr Jordan –  was to establish a non-sectarian, coeducational and affordable institution, aimed at producing ‘cultured and useful’ graduates to teach modern learnings at the time. They envisioned a teaching institution with ‘cross-talk’ between academic disciplines, teaching both the traditional liberal arts and technology and engineering that were rapidly developing at the time.  

The university’s commitment to fostering intellectual curiosity and interdisciplinary collaboration has made it a cornerstone of higher education and a catalyst for all forms of change in today’s society. 

Key Figures in the Establishment of Stanford University

There were several key figures that played significant roles in the establishment of Stanford University, sharing a vision of creating a non-sectarian, co-education and affordable institution to create ‘cultured and useful graduates.’ These figures included: 

1)    Leland Stanford: A prominent railroad magnate and former Governor of California. Leland co-founded Stanford university as a tribute to his son. His financial contributions and vision helped to shape the university that stands today. 

2)    Jane Stanford: Jane played a crucial role in the university’s foundings and early vision. She ensured the university’s survival through financial difficulties and oversaw many aspects of its development after her husband, Leland’s, death in 1893. 

3)    David Starr Jordan: Stanford University’s first president, appointed in 1891. Jordan helped to shape the early vision of the university, heavily influencing the academic policies and culture of Stanford, which remains today.

4)    Herbert Hoover: Future US president and member of Stanford’s Pioneer Class of 1895. Hoover helped to professionalise Stanford University’s operations in the 1920s and contribute towards its financial footing.  

5)    Frederick Law Olmsted: Olmsted was a celebrated landscape architect, having designed Central Park in New York City. He planned the Stanford campus which is known, and loved, today. Learn more about his architectural ideas underlying the distinctive Stanford campus here.

Early Vision and Missions

In its early years, Stanford University was guided by several key visions and missions. These predominantly included: 

  • Useful education: The Stanfords aimed to provide a practical and multi-disciplinary education to students, preparing students to contribute meaningfully to society.
  • Coeducation: From its foundings Stanford was established as a coeducational institution, welcoming both men and women at a time when many universities remained exclusively for males. This inclusive approach was part of the Stanfords’ progressive vision for higher education. 
  • Nonsectarian principles: Stanford was founded as a nonsectarian institution, free from religious affiliations. This principle ensured an accessible Stanford education, open to all individuals regardless of their background or beliefs. It is this principle that has helped to establish such a diverse and inclusive academic environment at Stanford that it is still evident today. 
  • Public Welfare and Service: The Stanfords were committed to the idea that the university would contribute to public welfare. This was one of the most important principles that Stanford was founded upon, reflected in their motto “Die Luft der Freiheit weht” which directly translates to “The wind of freedom blows.”

Academic and Political Influences on Stanford University

Stanford University has been shaped by a variety of academic and political influences throughout its history, playing crucial roles in defining its academic programs, research priorities, and overall direction. Stanford University is a hub for multi-disciplinary learning, championed by its early leaders such as David Starr Jordan. Jordan promoted the integration of different fields of study, contributing towards the pioneering research that Stanford is well known for today. The location of the university, in its proximity to Silicon Valley, has also significantly influenced its research agendas where partnerships with technology companies and a focus on entrepreneurship have positioned Stanford as a global leader in innovation. Additionally, as the world becomes more globalised, so has Stanford, through the development of strong international programs and partnerships, creating a global outlook that is also reflected in its diverse student body. 

Among the numerous political rights movements, one of the most influential on life at Stanford was arguably the Civil Rights movement from 1954 to 1968. In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Stanford (and various other campuses) made numerous changes including the offering of courses in African American history, and efforts to increase the enrolment of minority students who may have otherwise not had the opportunity to attend such an institution as Stanford. 

Stanford University in the 19th Century

Stanford University was established in the late 19th century, quickly establishing itself as a prominent institution. Despite this, it did face numerous challenges in early years following its founding, particularly financial challenges as the Stanford’s wealth was inadequate to fund their full vision of what the university could be. Herbert Hoover was instrumental in overcoming the financial challenges that the university faced, contributing towards its financial status in the 1920s and helping to professionalise the university’s operations. 

Curriculum Reform and Expansion

Since its establishment Stanford has continuously been working to reform and expand its curriculum. Reform to the curriculum has been central to its growth and adaptations to changing education needs and societal challenges. Examples of more recent curricular expansions include the establishment of the ‘Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity’ which will be a novel four-course introductory curriculum. Read more about current and historical curriculum reform and expansion at Stanford University here.

Pioneering Research and Technological Advancements

Since its establishment Stanford University has been at the forefront of pioneering research and technological advancements across various fields, particularly given its proximity to Silicon Valley, a hub for innovation. Some notable examples include: 


  •  Recombinant DNA: Developed in 1973 by Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer enabling scientists to perform genetic engineering.
  • Digital music: John Chowning developed FM sound synthesis so that sound may be digitally generated. 


  • Google: Sergey Brin and Larry Pahe developed the page-rank algorithm, contributing towards the foundations of google.


  • CoreNLP: Christopher Manning and his lab developed language analysis tools to manage human language text on any application requiring human language technology. 

These are just four examples of Stanford’s contribution to pioneering research. Find out more about past and current pioneering research conducted at Stanford university here.

Stanford University during World War 1 & 2

Stanford University underwent significant changes that shaped its development both during and after the world wars. During World War 1, students could participate in the Student Army Training Corps so as to receive military training whilst continuing their education. As many male students and faculty were away at war, women took on more prominent roles on campus, engaging in activities such as nursing and clerical work. 

Following Word War II there was a burst of research advances and campus changes where the Medical School moved to the main Palo Alto campus and plannings began to develop their National Accelerator Laboratory amongst other new facilities.

Stanford University’s Influence in the 20th and 21st Century 

Stanford progressed at impressive speeds in the 20th century where its innovative approaches to education, pioneering research, and strategic location in Silicon Valley have positioned it as a leader in numerous disciplines.  

To name just a few influential advances:  

  • Construction of ‘the Dish’: This radio telescope was constructed during the Cold War and is still used today for satellite calibrations and radio astronomy measurements amongst other functions. 
  • The Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory: Founded in 1965, researchers here have contributed towards numerous developments in the AI field, including creation of the first interactive system for computer design. 
  • Establishment of the multidisciplinary Stanford Humanities Center: This center remains the largest humanities center, aimed to advance research in all disciplines under the ‘humanities’ umbrella. 

In the 21st century Stanford remains at the forefront of cutting-edge research in various fields. It continues to expand its reach globally, collaborating with institutions and governments worldwide on pressing social and environmental issues. 

The success of alumni serves to showcase the world-class education offered by Stanford, with an outstanding 20 living Nobel Prize Laureates amongst its alumni and staff. Stanford University’s influence shows no sign of waning. As it moves into the 21st century, the university continues to adapt and innovate, addressing new challenges and opportunities.

Current Challenges Facing Stanford University

 Despite its prestigious status, Stanford University also faces several significant challenges in the 21st century. These challenges encompass a range of issues including financial stability, diversity and inclusion, accessibility and mental health amongst staff and students. In order to tackle the enormous financial burden of higher level education placed on students, Stanford generously partly or fully funds its undergraduates of diverse economic backgrounds so as to ensure parity of experiences and opportunities. This is exemplified by the fact that in 2015, 78% of students graduates from Stanford debt free. 

Outside of financial strain, one of the main challenges faced by all universities, including Stanford, is student mental health and wellbeing. Particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic we saw a rise in student mental health issues. In order to tackle this Stanford offers counselling services to students and also aims to raise awareness of student mental health challenges, and means of overcoming these. Stanford’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) encompasses a range of cross-disciplinary staff to support students throughout their studies.

The Future of Stanford University and Forward-thinking Initiatives

Stanford is actively pursuing several forward-thinking initiatives to address current challenges and shape its future. Some notables initiatives today include:

1.     Sustainable food program: The One Plate, One Planet initiative aims to make dining at Stanford a more sustainable endeavour.

2.     Climate action: The sustainability initiative aims for the Stanford campus to be 80% carbon free by 2025 and zero-waste by 2030.  

3.     Wearable electronics initiative: This initiative enables corporations to engage with world-class researchers in the search for new product opportunities.  

Looking to Study at Stanford University?

At Dukes Plus, we provide support for applications to various universities across the world, including Stanford University. Our programs offer personalised guidance, and strategic advice to strengthen your Stanford University application. 

We can support you to identify and showcase Stanford University’s values, and effectively communicate your accomplishments and potential contributions to the admissions committee. 

For more information on how we can assist with your Stanford University application, please visit our private US admissions consulting page. Alternatively, you can contact us here.