Cover of Stanford
Stanford's Wallace Sterling
Portrait of a Presidency 1949-1968
Roxanne L. Nilan and Cassius L. Kirk (Karen E. Bartholemew, Contributing Editor)


October 2023
696 pages.

Hardcover now $25.00 (50% off)

Hardcover ISBN: 9780984795888



J. E. Wallace Sterling was Stanford University's fifth president, serving from 1949 until 1968. During his presidency, Stanford evolved from a notable regional university into a leading national and eventually international university—developments in which Sterling played a critical part. Taking advantage of a postwar economic boom, federal interest in university research, and popular interest in higher education, Sterling championed robust fundraising, ambitious faculty recruitment, increasing selectivity in student admissions, and the construction of major new research facilities. This deeply researched historical study of Sterling's role at Stanford thus simultaneously illuminates a remarkable career in university leadership along with the development of one of America's top-ranked universities.

This is not, however, a simple success story, but instead a nuanced exploration of experimentation, uncertainty, disagreement, leaps of faith, accommodation, and compromise—within the university as well as between the university and its alumni, neighbors, and the public. Although Stanford had survived the Depression and World War II better than many of its peers, it did so at the cost of seriously deferred maintenance, notoriously low faculty salaries and morale, inadequate scholarship support, and outdated labs and libraries. Favoring gradualism and pragmatism, Sterling drew faculty into university governance and long-term planning, building a strong and able administrative team. The result was a remarkable and steadily sustained rise in the university's fortunes, which survived the campus turmoil of the Vietnam War era along with significantly changed expectations on the part of students, faculty, parents, and the wider public.

About the authors

Roxanne L. Nilan was Stanford's second University Archivist, 1979–1990, and co-founder (with Fred Glover) and first director of the Stanford Oral History Project. She served as editor of the Stanford Historical Society's Sandstone & Tile, and as research historian and honorary curator at History San José. She is the author of many articles on aspects of Stanford history and co-authored The Stanford Album: A Photographic History (1989) and A Chronology of Stanford University and Its Founders (2001). Nilan received her B.A. and M.L.S. from UC Berkeley, and her master's and doctorate in American history from Stanford.

Cassius L. Kirk Jr. received his B.A. from Stanford and graduated with honors from the UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall). He served as staff counsel for business affairs at Stanford, 1960–78, coming to know many of the individuals featured here. He subsequently was business manager of Menlo College and became a successful real estate investor. Kirk, who died in 2014, was active in fundraising for both Stanford and Cal and endowed two Stanford professorships (including the Frederic O. Glover Professorship in Humanities and Social Sciences). He began researching this biography during his retirement.

Karen E. Bartholomew, Stanford class of 1971, worked at Stanford's News and Publication Service for 25 years, including as editor of Campus Report and the Stanford Observer. Bartholomew, who is a charter member of the Stanford Historical Society, has played active roles on society committees for more than 40 years. She is a co-author of A Chronology of Stanford University and Its Founders and edited Trees of Stanford and Environs (2005), the Historic Houses at Stanford series, and other society publications. The Historical Society's annual service award is named in her honor.

"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

"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 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

"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 of American History at 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 Humanitities, Emeritus