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The Debunker: Was Stanford University Really Founded After Harvard Snobs Blew Off a Millionaire?

by Ken Jennings

It's September and parents are rejoicing, because kids are (finally!) heading back to school! Crayons and binders and graphing calculators are flying off store shelves; beanbag chairs for dorm rooms are getting stuffed into the backs of station wagons. But maybe we all need to be taken to school, because a lot of the stuff we think we know about education would get us an 'F' on the final exam. Ken Jennings, that Jeopardy! guy, will be standing in front of the class all month with his red marker at the ready, to correct all that academic misinformation.

The Debunker: Was Stanford University Really Founded After Harvard Snobs Blew Off a Millionaire?

A popular viral e-mail from the late 1990s tells a colorful moral tale about the founding of Stanford University. A timid country couple steps off a train in Boston and tries to get in to see the president of Harvard University. When he finally agrees to see them, just to get them out of his office, they explain that they want to arrange a memorial to their son, a Harvard student who had recently died in an accident. They'd like to build a building on campus. The fed-up president explains that Harvard's campus cost several million dollars, and is probably out of their price range. The couple, after hearing that number, returns to California and starts up their own university in Palo Alto—because they were Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford! And that's…the rest of the story.

The Debunker

This Internet myth has become so widespread that Stanford's library FAQ now has a page debunking it. It's true that the Stanfords did endow their namesake university as a tribute to their late son, which is why the school is officially "Leland Stanford Junior University" on its seal. But young Leland never attended Harvard. He died of typhus while touring Europe in 1884, at just fifteen years old. The Stanfords were determined to open a California educational institution in his memory, and did stop by Harvard to ask university president Charles W. Eliot for his advice. They asked him whether he would recommend a university, technical school, or museum, and he told them that a $5 million endowment would be sufficient for a university. "Well, Jane, we could manage that, couldn't we?" Leland Stanford asked his wife with a smile.

The funniest part of the Harvard legend is that it has the Stanfords arriving in Boston in "a faded gingham dress" and "a homespun threadbare suit," and the snooty Harvardians sneering at them because they're unaccustomed to this new, unpretentious, frontier variety of American success. In fact, at the time of his meeting with Eliot, Leland Stanford was one of the most famous railroad tycoons in America, had served as governor of California, and was running for a seat in the U.S. Senate, which he would hold until his death. This wasn't the hayseed couple from American Gothic fresh off the train and bewildered by the big-city ways of Boston and the ivory towers of academe. If you were to look up "robber baron" in the dictionary, you'd probably see an intimidating photo of the beetle-browed, barrel-chested Leland Stanford. He was the exact opposite of the "homespun" rube in the story.

Quick Quiz: Stanford University sports teams, unusually, are named for a color and not a mascot. What is that color?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.