Newly elected president of the Stanford Historical Society talks about the group and its mission
Each October, Stanford holds a Founders' Celebration, in honor of Jane and Leland Stanford. As the campus approaches this year's celebration, Troy Steinmetz, '07, the newly elected president of the Stanford Historical Society and staff member in the Office of Development, talks about Stanford's history, its founders and the Stanford Historical Society.
What is the Stanford Historical Society?
The Stanford Historical Society was founded in 1976 to encourage the study and understanding of Stanford University's history and the ideals of the university's founders. We are a membership-supported, volunteer organization dedicated to fostering and supporting the documentation, study, publication and preservation of that history. Our members include faculty, staff, alumni, students, local community members and other history buffs like me.
What are the activities of the Stanford Historical Society?
Our most widely known activities are a series of public programs that investigate various topics in Stanford's history from student life to changes in the campus. We also host the Historic House and Garden Tour each spring, allowing visitors to explore historically and architecturally significant homes on the Stanford campus. Stanford Historical Society underwrites the publication of books on Stanford's history, as well is its quarterly publication Sandstone & Tile. Recently, our Oral History Program has played a unique role by capturing the firsthand narratives of faculty, staff and alumni who were critical in the growth of Stanford in the '40s, '50s, and '60s.
How did you become president of the Stanford Historical Society?
During my junior year at Stanford, I was researching a paper on David Starr Jordan, Stanford's first president. While in the University Archives, I found a copy of Sandstone & Tile and read it cover-to-cover. I joined the society shortly thereafter. I greatly enjoyed the programs they put on and the people who were involved. Not long after graduating, I was invited to serve on our board of directors and, last June, elected its president.
Why is an appreciation of Stanford history important?
At the first formal gathering of Stanford Historical Society members on May 4, 1976, historian and then Stanford President Richard W. Lyman said: "It could be argued that a university does not come of age until it has a society for the study and care of its history." As with any study of history, we look to the past to make sense of the present and inform the future. When I was a student and later an inexperienced administrator, I often found that learning Stanford's history allowed me to communicate and advocate more effectively with seasoned university citizens. Given the progress Stanford has seen in the short time since its founding, exploration of its history brings you into contact with remarkable people and unforgettable stories.
Why do we have a Founders' Celebration?
In a 1906 Founders' Day address, philosopher and psychologist William James described it as "the day set apart each year to quicken and reanimate in all of us the consciousness of the deeper significance of this little university to which we permanently or temporarily belong." Modern university life is harried with full course loads, busy schedules and even the occasional bike accident. Founders' Day is about taking a moment to stop and appreciate the privileges we all have and the vision it took to allow for it. The Stanfords laid the foundation – both figuratively and literally – for an institution that would educate thousands of students and push the limits of knowledge. We honor their generosity, their commitment and their wisdom. They are part of our story, and we a continuation of theirs.
How are the ideals of the founders alive today?
One could look to the inclusivity of the early institution – co-ed, non-sectarian and open to all individuals regardless of heritage – as a precursor to our modern understanding of a multicultural education where diversity is an asset. We can also find in the Founding Grant a focus on residential life, a strength of the university today. As a fundraiser for Stanford, I draw particular inspiration from the example set by Jane and Leland in utilizing their significant wealth to establish the university. When confronted with the most devastating news for any parent, the death of their only child, they channeled their profound grief into an enduring gift. It seems fitting that the university today is renowned for its incredibly generous alumni and friends. It's in our DNA.
How can people get involved with the Stanford Historical Society?
Our first suggestion is to become a member. You will receive notification of upcoming programs, invitations to special members-only events and your own copy of Sandstone & Tile. Beyond that, we are always looking for volunteers to help organize our programs, collect oral histories or research stories for future publication. More broadly, we hope each person at Stanford and its surrounding community finds his or her own way to engage with our history, such as attending a public program or reading an interesting article. We're always open to partnering on new ideas!