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Primer: Fred Terman December 31, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Click to go to the National Academy of Sciences biographical memoir of Terman.

Click to go to the National Academy of Sciences' biographical memoir of Terman, whence this photo + signature is lifted.

Frederick Terman (1900-1982) was an electrical engineer and a crucial figure in the development of Stanford University following the Second World War.  Terman grew up near Stanford where his father Lewis Terman (of IQ test fame) was a professor of psychology.  Fred Terman did his undergraduate work at Stanford, and then earned his PhD in electrical engineering at MIT under Vannevar Bush in 1924, before heading back to a position in Stanford’s Department of Electrical Engineering.  There he specialized in cutting edge electronic instrumentation, wrote a key textbook on radio engineering.  He became head of the department in 1937, and successfully lobbied for the creation of an industrial park on university land.

In 1942, following America’s entry into World War II, Terman left Stanford to head the Radio Research Laboratory housed at Harvard University, and thus became well-acquainted with the possibilities of federal patronage for university research constructed through the ad hoc Office of Scientific Research and Development, which was headed by Bush.  Stanford, meanwhile, was largely left out of wartime military-related research, and when Terman returned toward the end of the war and was named dean of the School of Engineering, he was determined not to let further such opportunities slip away.

With the support of the new university president, Donald Tresidder, Terman became a powerful figure in the postwar development of the university.  Fearing that Stanford was falling well behind the academic vanguard—not only the powerhouses of the east coast, but Caltech and the nearby University of California at Berkeley—Terman guided Tresidder in making Stanford into an institution in service to industry and society, augmenting prewar moves in this direction.  The most striking move was the creation of the quasi-independent Stanford Research Institute (SRI), which was meant to provide research services for companies that were not appropriate for university faculty.

Terman was also aggressive in pushing the university departments into what he viewed as immediately valuable and growing fields, and was driven by the urgent need to obtain additional funding to support large-scale research and much-increased faculty salaries.  Toward this end, he became the university’s envoy to Washington and military reseach facilities, seeking at every opportunity to exploit the ample opportunities for military funding available in the postwar era, embracing the research contract to cast aside New Deal-era doubts about accepting government patronage.  However, he was also careful to ensure that the contracts the university did accept represented opportunities for academic development, and were not simply contract administration or research-for-hire.  His goal was to create “steeples of excellence” that would clearly signal Stanford’s enhanced status.  In this way, Stanford would feed innovation to industries, which would produce cutting edge technologies and policy proposals for a government eager to bolster its military capabilities for its new stand-off with the Soviet Union.  The foundation of the university’s Electronic Research Laboratory in 1951 was a major product of this policy.

Donald Tresidder died of a heart attack in 1948.  Terman was passed over to succeed him, but he retained his influence under the new president, Wallace Sterling, and was selected to be the university’s provost in 1954.  As provost, Terman placed enormous and pressure on professors and departments throughout the university to seek out federal patronage to sustain their research wherever it might be available.  He was contemptuous of small-scale and unfunded research, and prioritized his vision for university development over academic balance, departmental autonomy, and teaching.  These policies struck many of the faculty, including those who worked on favored subjects and military grants, as narrow-minded.  Nevertheless, Terman had Sterling’s support.  He served as a lightning rod to deflect controversy from the well-liked president,  and was able to push aside faculty not wishing to direct departmental efforts into the growing fields in which he wanted to build specialties.

Ultimately, Terman succeeded in his goal of transforming Stanford into a prominent institution with strong connections to industry and the federal government.  For example, under his supervision, Stanford established the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), which became the preeminent national institution for high energy physics in the United States until the foundation of Fermilab in the 1970s, as well as a locus for student instruction independent of the physics department.  He also continued to lead Stanford in developing extensive contacts with the growing industry of the region—which was later famously dubbed “Silicon Valley”—supplying it with research and talent.  Terman retired as provost in 1965.

There is a recent biography of Terman by C. Stewart Gillmor entitled Fred Terman at Stanford: Building a Discipline, a University, and Silicon Valley (2004), which I have not read.  A great deal of information can be found in Rebecca Lowen’s sharp administrative history, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford (1997), which is at its best as an explication of Terman’s adminstrative strategies.


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