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Stanford celebrates 50 years of Structured Liberal Education

Some 200 alumni of the Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program gathered to share anecdotes and appreciation for the beloved residence-based, undergraduate academic program.

Image still from a video about Structured Liberal Education student life. (Image credit: Structured Liberal Education)

On a bright, Saturday morning during Reunion Homecoming weekend, the Stanford Humanities Center was packed to the rafters as community members gathered to celebrate 50 years of the Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program.

Over 200 alumni came together, spilling out of Levinthal Hall and into the lobby, as well as dozens more over Zoom, to reflect with current Stanford students, faculty, and staff about SLE’s lasting impact on their lives.

SLE is often described as a small liberal arts college experience within the larger research university. Each year, some 90 frosh learn and live together in two dorms at East Florence Moore Hall – “FloMo” – where the program is housed today. Together, they engage with classical texts in philosophy, religion, literature, art and painting, and film, thinking deeply about the ideas that shaped the world, and in turn, how those ideas might shape them.

“SLE represents the kind of liberal education that I would hope all Stanford students would receive in one form or another,” said Stanford President Richard Saller in his remarks to attendees. “Though the world is moving toward large datasets and digital applications – including to the humanities – I don’t think that it replaces the value of close reading, analytical thinking, and writing … that is essential to complement … the technical skills that now Stanford is known for.”

Some of the speakers at SLE’s 50th anniversary event included, from left to right: Michael Taubman ’04, Greg Watkins BA ’85, PhD ’03, Jeff Stone ’78, and Gabby Bockhaus ’96. (Image credit: Sunny Scott)

SLE’s past and present

The morning event included appreciation and anecdotes from faculty and former students.

Jon Reider, ’67, PhD ’83, who helped co-found SLE with Mark Mancall, described early iterations of the program and what it was like starting SLE in the early ’70s at Grove House, one of the first coeducational residences approved by Stanford administrators.

Today, SLE remains strong, fulfilling many of the undergraduate requirements, including the first-year Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE), PWR 1 & 2 requirements, and three of the WAYS requirements.

How SLE has endured at a university that has seen an experimentation with and evolution of its undergraduate requirement – from Introduction to the Humanities (or IHUM) to Thinking Matters and most recently, COLLEGE – was a question Jeffrey Stone, ’78, who is a member of the Stanford University Board of Trustees, posed to two administrative leaders: Sarah Church, vice provost for undergraduate education, and Marisa Galvez, SLE’s current director.

“It’s not even that it’s flexible enough to survive all the different requirements, it’s already naturally fulfilling,” said Church, who went on to describe how the program encapsulates the university’s goals of offering students both a strong, liberal education and a fulfilling residential experience. “What we want students to learn doesn’t change with the times. The route may change, but SLE is there.”

Meanwhile, SLE is also expanding its reach to the broader Stanford community through the new neighborhood structure. It is also hosting salon-style events that are open to the greater public.

Galvez shared how she balances SLE’s traditions, which are rooted in the classics, with contemporary texts as well, bringing in faculty who can speak to students’ evolving, diverse interests. But amidst SLE’s “reverence” for such foundational texts, SLE is also rooted in “the idea that you look at the classics to challenge them, to engage in Socratic dialogue, as [political science professor and SLE lecturer] Rob Reich says, ‘Question your founding principles, your assumptions, and let’s build a community where we can have that constructive dialogue,’ ” Galvez said.

Making connections

Three SLE alumni also spoke at the event, including Marissa Mayer, a business executive and the former CEO of Yahoo!

Mayer credited the interdisciplinary nature of SLE with giving her a foundation for a new way of approaching problems in the world. “SLE was really the first time I started seeing all the connections between disciplines,” Mayer said. “Trying to understand all those connections and how it is … all connected is one of the things that I really was awakened to … and something that I still feel on a daily basis.”

The event concluded with remarks from longtime SLE lecturer and resident fellow Greg Watkins, ’85, PhD ’03, and Michael Taubman, ’04, a high school teacher and a Stanford Digital Education fellow, who are working with Matthew Rascoff to bring SLE programming into Title I  high schools across the country. The introduction and closing were delivered by SLE alum Gabby Bockhaus, ’96.

Church is also a professor of physics in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S).

Galvez is also a professor of French and Italian in the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages in H&S.

Reich is also the McGregor-Girand Professor in Social Ethics of Science and Technology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.