Stanford University: “A university which was to make high crime respectable”

What the namesake of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library thought of Leland Stanford and Stanford University — and what it means today

“….a college wherein young people may forever be taught to honor infamy.”
-H.H. Bancroft on Stanford University, 1915

Stanford University strikes me as perhaps the best all-round institution of higher education in the world. The Stanford graduates I’ve met and worked with throughout my life are consistently some of the smartest and most interesting people. Brian Aguilar, the Director of the California Executive Fellowship at the Center for California Studies comes to mind, as do the team at Krista Donaldson’s D-Rev.

Which is why I get a kick out of H.H. Bancroft’s perspective on Leland Stanford and Stanford University:

“In default of an heir, he [Leland Stanford] found a university which was to make high crime respectable.”

These quotes are from Bancroft’s 1915 memiors, Retrospection: Political and Personal. The Bancroft name is familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Berkeley: Bancroft’s collection is the foundation of UC Berkeley’s main research library, the Bancroft Library. Bancroft Way is one of Berkeley’s main streets. And kudos to Stanford University though for walking the walk on free speech — the book containing these quotes can be found in the Stanford Library (and here on

The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, front left, is “one of the most heavily used libraries of manuscripts, rare books, and unique materials in the United States.”

When I read these quotes, a Bloomberg View article by Chicago Booth Professor Luigi Zingales I first read years ago immediately came to mind:

Do Business Schools Incubate Criminals?
“When the economist Milton Friedman famously said the one and only responsibility of business is to increase its profits, he added “so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” That’s a very big caveat, and one that is not stressed nearly enough in our business schools.”

Click here to read the full article on Bloomberg View.

Stanford was an original railroad robber baron. Stanford’s portrait is — literally — in the Encyclopedia Britannica under “Robber Baron”.

(Fun fact: In 1975, Stanford students voted to change the university’s mascot to the Robber Barons.)

H.H. Bancroft, founder of the Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley. By the way — how about those sideburns?

One more fun story from Bancroft’s memoir. A US senator tells Leland Stanford:

“We do not want our children to be educated with stolen money.’”

Bancroft comments:

“But from the large attendance at the institution, and the pains taken by the faculty upon all occasions to preach political purity, it would seem that the gentleman… was mistaken.”

Bancroft, it seems, was ahead of his time.

H.H. Bancroft, later in life. Still got the ‘burns.

Hat tip: writer and master researcher Roland De Wolk, author of an upcoming biography of Leland Stanford for Skyhorse Publishing (he’s also a pretty good father).