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Program History

Students gathered for a photo

The Urban Studies Program has been part of Stanford for over 50 years. 

Program Origins

What we know today as the Program on Urban Studies at Stanford began as a student-initiated project with connections to both SCIRE (Stanford Committee on Independent Research in Education) and SWOPSI (Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues). Working closely with then Assistant Professor of Political Science John Mollenkopf (now Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology and Director of the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center), undergraduate Henry Vandervoort began organizing support for a Stanford program that would address urban issues and, in 1970, a pilot program in Urban Studies was established for students and faculty interested in studying the history, development, and current state of urban areas.

Soon after, Professor and Dean of Undergraduate Studies James L. Gibbs, III, established a faculty Committee on Urban Studies that was chaired by Professor of Education Michael Kirst and included Mollenkopf, Nancy Tuma (Sociology), Richard Muth (Economics), Paul Turner (Art and Art History), Lyna Wiggins (Civil Engineering), and Sylvia Yanagisako (Anthropology). The Committee was innovative both for its interdisciplinary membership and for its inclusion of two student positions.

The Committee established an ambitious growth and outreach agenda and, in 1973, hired Frederic Stout as Program Coordinator who served as an ex-offiicio member of the Committee and was charged with developing a curriculum for the proposed Urban Studies major, organizing and directing a Program office (originally located in the Old Union basement along with SCIRE and SWOPSI), enlarging the Program’s base of student interest and faculty support, and, most importantly, moving the Program from the “soft funding” annually provided by ODUS (Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Studies) to “hard money, line-item funding” included in the regular University budget.

Early Courses

To announce itself to the larger Stanford community, the Program began publishing a quarterly broadside listing fieldwork internships with local city government agencies and non-profits and both urban-focused courses offered by existing departments and new Program courses taught by outside lecturers from the world of city government, urban planning, and public policy advocacy. Those early course offerings included “Victorian Architecture on the San Francisco Peninsula” (taught by Stanford Research Institute researcher Judith Waldhorn), “Strategy and Tactics of Community Organization” (activist and Alinsky-trained organizer Mike Miller), “Radical Futurism in Urban Design” (radical architect Robert Walker), “Natural Resources Planning in the Bay Area” (William Brown of the United States Geological Survey), and the “Urban Studies Junior Seminar” (a required course for all Urban Studies majors co-taught by Mollenkopf, Stout, and Turner).

The Program also developed the outlines of a suggested major, but at first all Urban Studies students were required to create their own self-designed majors with the advice and support of Committee faculty. Not surprisingly, the Program was tiny at first, then merely small, but the close relationship between students and faculty members that were a cause of start-up smallness became a special feature that still characterizes Urban Studies forty years later.

Growth and Formalization

As the Program on Urban Studies continued to grow, new members were added to the Committee, including Claiborne Carson and Albert Camarillo (History), Luis Fraga (Political Science), and Leonard Ortolano (Civil Engineering). And in 1977, the University responded to the Committee’s pleas for fully-funded, independent status with an interesting pair of options – either a single, face-to-face meeting with the Provost where the Program would make its case for ongoing degree-granting status and hard-money support, or a year-long process of monthly meetings before a specially created Program Review Committee, including both Stanford administrators and faculty and outside experts. Another Stanford program had recently opted for the single Provostial meeting and had been turned down and permanently dis-funded. Mollenkopf and Stout convinced the Committee on Urban Studies that the year-long review was the way to go and, after about six months, the outcome was clear. Urban Studies was approved as an innovative interdisciplinary program of study open to all undergraduates.

In 1985, the Program on Urban Studies was formalized as a degree-granting program. 

From the early 1990s through 2003-04, Urban Studies was co-located with the Public Policy Program although each program had its own director.  At the start of 2004-05, both programs were embedded in the Department of Political Science on a trial basis, meaning that Urban Studies and Political Science shared administrative staff and office space, but each retained its own leadership and curriculum.  In 2006-2007, the program was embedded in the Department of Sociology.

Program Directors:

1980 – 2003: Leonard Ortolano (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

2003 – 2006: Nancy Tuma (Sociology)

2006 – 2013: Doug McAdam (Sociology)

2013 – 2019: Zephyr Frank (History)

2019 – Present: Tomás Jiménez (Sociology)

Oral History

In 2020-2021, the Urban Studies Co-Director, Michael Kahan, worked with Research Assistant Nova Meurice and the Stanford Historical Society to carry out an oral history of the Urban Studies program, with a focus on the program's founding and early years. Interviews with some of the original faculty and students in the program can be found at the webpage of the Urban Studies at 50 Oral History Project