Stanford will rename some campus features named for Father Junipero Serra, the 18th-century founder of the California mission system, but will retain the Serra name and the names of other Spanish missionaries and settlers on other campus features, based on the recommendations of a university committee of faculty, students, staff and alumni.

a view of Serra Mall toward Hoover Tower from near top of Oval

Stanford University is initiating a process seeking approval from Santa Clara County and the U.S. Postal Service to rename Serra Mall as “Jane Stanford Way.” (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The Stanford Board of Trustees accepted the committee’s recommendations to rename certain campus features and also accepted a recommendation by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne to use the opportunity to honor university co-founder Jane Stanford. As a first implementation step, Tessier-Lavigne is initiating a process seeking approval from Santa Clara County and the U.S. Postal Service to rename Serra Mall, the pedestrian and bicycle mall at the front of the Stanford campus that serves as the university’s official address, as “Jane Stanford Way.”

The Serra dormitory and small academic building with the Serra name also will be renamed, with the new names to be determined. However, Serra Street on campus will retain its current name, and the university will pursue new educational displays and other efforts to more fully address the multidimensional legacy of Serra and the mission system in California.

Read the report of the committee and a set of Frequently Asked Questions.

After extensive research and outreach, the committee applied a rigorous set of principles that a previous Stanford committee had developed for considering the renaming of campus features named for historical figures with complex legacies.

Serra’s establishment of the mission system is a central part of California history, and his life’s work led to his canonization by the Roman Catholic Church in 2015. At the same time, the historical record confirms that the mission system inflicted great harm and violence on Native Americans, and Stanford has several features named for Serra even though he played no direct role in the university’s history.

“Revisiting how we think about historical figures is a challenging undertaking that requires care and humility,” said Jeff Raikes, chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees. “With the passage of time, we gain new understanding of historical events, the people who shaped them and the effects of those events on others. At the same time, we know that all individuals’ lives are imperfect and that any exercise to evaluate a historical figure by present-day standards has limitations.”

Raikes said the committee recommendations approved by the trustees reflected the complex nature of Serra’s legacy and his lack of a direct role in the university’s own history, though Serra played a significant role in California’s history overall.

“The committee called for renaming several features on campus that recognize someone who had no direct role in Stanford’s history and lived a century before the university was even founded, yet whose role as the recognized leader of the mission system provides an acute reminder to our Native American community of the profound impact of the mission system on indigenous peoples,” Raikes said.

“But the committee also recommended retaining historical reference to Serra and the mission system on campus, as they shaped a significant part of California’s history and influenced the Stanfords as they designed the campus. The committee reasoned that this second goal could be achieved alongside the first by retaining names on campus features that are less salient.”

Tessier-Lavigne supported the committee’s recommendations and brought them to the full Board of Trustees for adoption, noting Serra Mall’s place at the very front of the campus and its status as the university’s main address, along with the fact that the Serra recommendations reflect the first application of the newly developed renaming principles.

“This outcome reflects a thoughtful and balanced analysis by the committee,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “The committee recognized the many challenging dimensions of this issue and the broad variety of viewpoints on it, along with the multidimensional nature of Junipero Serra’s legacy as the clearly identified founder and leader of the mission movement.”

Tessier-Lavigne said he recommended renaming Serra Mall in honor of Jane Stanford in recognition of her pivotal leadership and forceful vision for the university in its early years, when serious financial challenges threatened to close its doors entirely.

“Jane Stanford, who co-founded Stanford University with her husband Leland Sr., was instrumental in establishing the university, shaping its mission and vision, and guiding it through the many struggles of its early years, particularly after her husband’s death,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “Curiously, we currently have no major campus feature that appropriately honors her. The committee’s recommendation regarding the Mall provides that opportunity.”

Committee deliberations

Between 1769 and 1782, Serra founded the first nine missions in the California mission system. In recent years, that system’s treatment of Native Americans has come under increasing scrutiny. Stanford’s review began in 2016, after Stanford’s student government bodies passed resolutions calling for campus features named for Serra to be renamed, and the Faculty Senate called for “critically reflecting on Stanford’s historical legacy, including the use of names of people who have been associated with it.”

An initial committee established by then-President John Hennessy and then-Provost John Etchemendy and chaired by David Kennedy, professor emeritus of history, provided a foundation of research and reflection but was unable to reach conclusions. Tessier-Lavigne, Hennessy’s successor, then charged two new committees of faculty, students, staff and alumni with building on that initial committee’s work and making recommendations.

The first committee was asked to develop principles for considering renaming campus features generally; those principles were circulated for community comment and then accepted by Tessier-Lavigne and issued in early 2018. The principles include considerations such as the strength and clarity of the historical evidence, the person’s role in the university’s history, the centrality of a person’s offensive behavior to the person’s life as a whole and the university community’s identification with the named feature.

The second committee then was asked to apply those principles to the case of Serra.

Paul Brest, professor emeritus and former dean of Stanford Law School, chaired the two most recent committees. Outreach to the campus community and key constituencies was an important part of the deliberations, he said.

“It was important for us to understand the perspectives of groups within and beyond our university community,” Brest said. “We met with students, staff and alumni including Native Americans, Roman Catholics, members of the Latinx community, alumni of the Serra dormitory and attendees of an open campus meeting we convened, along with leaders of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, on whose historic lands Stanford sits.”

Evaluating a complex legacy

The principles adopted by the first committee set a very high bar for renaming a campus feature, recommending it only when the person for which it is named engaged in wrongful behavior such that “retaining the name is inconsistent with the university’s integrity or is harmful to its research and teaching missions and inclusiveness.” The principles spelled out seven factors to weigh in making that assessment.

The second committee wrestled with the multiple dimensions of Serra’s legacy:

  • Serra was the founder and clearly identified leader of the California mission system, which played a role in the founding of modern California. References to Serra and the mission system are found throughout California today, and the mission style of architecture has for generations influenced the architecture of housing and public buildings in California.
  • Roman Catholics honor Serra for his piety and his missionary work, and he was canonized in 2015 by Pope Francis.
  • At the same time, re-evaluation of Serra’s legacy has focused on the harmful and violent impacts of the mission system on Native Americans, including through forced labor, forced living arrangements and corporal punishment. The committee noted that although Pope Francis conferred sainthood on Serra in 2015, he also apologized during a visit to Bolivia the same year for the “grave sins … committed against the native people of America in the name of God” in the colonial period.

Serra’s name was first applied to a campus feature in 1891 when Serra Avenue, now Serra Mall, was named. This selection was rooted in the founders’ goal of anchoring their new university in the history and culture of the region. The Spanish Revival or “mission revival” cultural phenomenon of the period apparently played a role and influenced the architectural design of the new Stanford campus, in addition to some of the namings of campus features.

“Serra, who died in 1784, had no direct role in Stanford’s founding a century later,” the committee wrote in its report. “Nevertheless, the committee believes that it is important to acknowledge that the mission system and the history of Spanish colonialism as a whole was a component of the university’s design. The Stanfords wanted to highlight California and differentiate their new university from the rest of the country – and therefore consciously embedded their concept of Spanish Californian history and traditions in the university.”

At the same time, the committee said, “Whatever the underlying motivations, the mission system subjected Native Americans to great violence and, together with other colonial activities, had devastating effects on California’s Native American tribes and communities. It contributed to the destruction of the cultural, economic and religious practices of indigenous communities and left many tribal communities decimated, scattered, landless and vulnerable to subsequent colonization.”

The committee concluded, “Because the mission system’s violence against California Native Americans is part of the history and memory of current members of the community, we believe that features named for Junipero Serra, who was the architect and leader of the mission system, are in tension with [Stanford’s] goal of full inclusion.”

Recommendation to rename some, but not all, features

In addressing this tension, the committee made different recommendations for different campus features named for Serra, based on their salience. For instance, a dormitory to which students are assigned has a different level of salience than an ordinary street on campus.

Under the committee recommendations adopted by the Board of Trustees:

  • Serra Mall will be renamed. This is an avenue open to bicycles, pedestrians and university shuttle buses running along the front of Stanford’s Main Quad; it recently was extended past the Knight Management Center nearly to Campus Drive East. This mall is prominent not only because of its location, at the end of Palm Drive, but because the university’s official address is 450 Serra Mall.
    With the Board’s approval, Tessier-Lavigne is initiating a process seeking to rename the mall as Jane Stanford Way, a process that will require Santa Clara County and U.S. Postal Service approval as well.
  • Two other buildings – the Serra dormitory in Stern Hall and Serra House, which is home to the Clayman Institute for Gender Research – will be renamed.
    The Serra wing of Stern Hall was named by students in the 1950s, and several other wings of Stern have been renamed in the years since. The committee reasoned that students should not be assigned to housing that, because of Serra’s centrality to the mission movement, perpetuates the memory of harms done to Native Americans. The university will consult with students on a new name for this wing, looking in particular for opportunities to fulfill the university founders’ intention to recognize individuals who have contributed to the history of the American West, California and Stanford, and hopefully identifying candidates who have been overlooked to date.
    Meanwhile, Serra House, which was once a home located on Serra Street, has never been officially named; the university will consult with faculty to officially name this building, which has been moved from its original location and repurposed for academic programming.
  • The current name of Serra Street will be retained. Serra Street, which is open to automobile traffic, begins at the eastern end of Serra Mall and runs from there to El Camino Real. As an ordinary street on campus it does not have the same salience as other campus features, the committee reasoned, and preserving its name honors the Stanfords’ desire to recognize a significant period of California’s history. The university will engage with scholarly experts and members of our community to develop signage and other educational support to more fully explore the multidimensional legacy of Serra and the mission system in California.

Tessier-Lavigne also accepted a committee recommendation that other Stanford features named for Spanish missionaries and settlers not be renamed “absent the discovery of major new evidence about a particular individual’s misconduct,” as the committee wrote. The committee reasoned that Serra “has a unique role and stature as the founder and leader of the mission movement in California,” and that without specific cause to the contrary, it is appropriate to retain historical reference to a period of California history that influenced the Stanfords and the architecture of their campus.

Junipero Serra Boulevard, a Santa Clara County road that runs along the southwest side of the Stanford campus, is not under the university’s control and was not part of the renaming deliberations. The Junipero dormitory within Wilbur Hall is named for the Spanish word for the juniper tree, not for Junipero Serra, and will not be renamed, though the university will look for opportunities to clarify the meaning of its name.