Our man at Stanford: David Downs on horses, houses and how the West was won

Final day of study and I was late to class – my own fault, I didn’t leave enough time to rifle through the approximately 37 types of tea they put out for us, to find bog-standard English Breakfast.

It’s bizarre how no-one has noticed that the English Breakfast tea goes immediately but no one is touching the ‘Green Senchia Chamomile Zen Sleep’ tea. Then once you’ve managed to wrestle the last bag of decent tea from the pile, the next intellectual challenge is to decipher the milk jugs. Your choices are ‘Soy’ (urgh), ‘Half and Half’ (half milk and half milk? Surely that’s just ‘milk’?), and the strangest of all – ‘2% milk’. What the other 98% is, is not clear. In fact it’s opaque, white and milky, so that’s the one I use.

Anyway, I’m coming to the end of my time here at Stanford, and reflecting back on the blogs I’ve written I realised I haven’t told you much about the university itself, which is impressive.

The legend is that the founder of Stanford, one Mr (wait for it) Stanford, was an early pioneer in the railways in the USA. He was involved in bringing the iron horse across the Great Plains, through the mountains from the east coast to the new colonies on the west. While this made life easy, it also made money – lots of it, so he quickly became one of the wealthiest people in the new country of the USA.

Sadly, his son (Leland Stanford Junior) died at the young age of 14, and to remember him, Leland Stanford Senior and his wife Jane decided to donate money to Harvard University in his name. They went to see the dean of Harvard, who was ‘old school’ and wasn’t so impressed with the flashy ‘new money’ of these west coast types. Apparently he left them waiting for hours, and then was quite rude to them, so they thought ‘bugger that’ and decided instead to turn the huge chunk of land they owed in California into a new university, meaning the dean of Harvard missed a big opportunity to keep the Ivy Leagues on the east coast. Possibly one of the dumbest calls ever made by the head of a university, except for whoever signed off on the library design at Massey University in Palmerston North (who the hell thought it was a good idea to put the entrance on the second level??).

The new Leland Stanford Junior University (to give it its full name), turned from a farm into a campus, although students today still refer to it as the ‘the farm’. It also used to have a lot of horses, and in memory of that, the university still has some. Not roaming around unchecked, you understand, but in a stables near the golf course. Yes, it has its own golf course, it’s behind the nuclear particle accelerator...

Speaking of horses, apparently in the early days a horse called Marguerite used to pick up students from the nearby railway station and drop them to class, so today the buses that go all over the campus are called ‘The Marguerite’. Nice touch, although today they are electric – this is north California after all.

They need the buses because the campus is huge, about the size of Ashburton. Yes, that huge. …don’t nod your head, you have no idea how big Ashburton is so stop pretending. Trust me when I tell you Stanford is enormous. And it’s in the heart of Silicon Valley, where land is scarce. The house prices here are astronomical – it’s like Herne Bay mated with Mt Eden and spawned a new suburb where a 3 bedroom villa costs more than the collective value of, well, Ashburton. Yes, that much.

So given that, it was surprising to me that Stanford University’s balance sheet values its land at precisely - $0. The logic here is that they will never sell it, so therefore it’s really not worth anything. Sounds Buddhist to me… must be all the green tea they drink.

The grounds are largely empty and parklike. Buildings, yes, but also open spaces and lots of sports facilities – track and field, swimming pools, basketball, baseball, American football, even rugby. It’s a sporting mecca for clever sportspeople and many of them have done extremely well on the world stage. In fact, here’s another fun fact – the tour guide who showed me around told me that if Stanford was an independent country, they’d be ninth in the table for Olympic medal winners. Now, to be clear – the ‘fact’ is that he told me that, however the medal thing itself is wrong, I checked. At 53 medals, they’d be in 48th position, between Kazakhstan and North Korea. Thankfully, New Zealand is at number 35. Without checking though, I would suggest that Stanford has more medals than any New Zealand university – especially Massey. I blame the library.

Total weight gain/loss since arriving: +1.1 again, sigh.

Total exercise this week: 1 hour. Yes, 1. I’ve been busy.