This question is generally asked of me in this way, framed in a positive light, as opposed to the more neutral, "So what did you think of MIT?" Like is a good word when asking about Stanford. It is very easy to like Stanford. Stanford is a very nice place. A lot of good people can be found there.
I went to Stanford as a graduate student and studied many things including Computer Science, Education, Electrical Engineering and French. I met a lot of undergraduates and graduates and lived and socialized with some of each, sometimes bringing the two worlds together.
A lot of people want to know how Stanford compared to MIT. It is difficult to compare on all levels having been an undergraduate at one and a graduate student at the other. I noticed different things at each and took advantage of different opportunities at each. It is really impossible to make a good comparison and that's not what I'm trying to do here.
Coming from MIT, an urban northeast engineering school, to Stanford, a California country club which entertains engineering on the back nine, one is first struck with the campus. The campus is breathtaking in the spring, which is when I first saw it, and beautiful in the summer and fall, although California requires some adjusting for those used to grass being green and soft.
The intoxicating beauty and tranquillity of the former Stanford family farm took about a year to wear off. Then I realized that the school and its environment were competing for opposite goals. The campus is secluded, isolated and insulated against the rest of the world. Surrounded by quiet suburbs of Shallow Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton, Stanford does not feel the call of the City, forty miles north, or the other city thirty miles south. Crime on campus, aside from rampant bike theft, was not to be found. Poverty was not to be seen. Dirt, dust, garbage and old paint were ashamed to come out. Harsh elements of nature, rare earthquakes excluded, work overtime in the midwest and northeast and never bother with coastal California.
In sync with the peaceful environment, the architecture is almost stamped from the cookie cutter of a kindly mother. Warm red roof tiles, and golden stones pervade. The artificial barriers between academic disciplines are manifested in the physical and emotional separation of the two sides of campus. Techies to the West, Fuzzies to the East and rarely the twain shall meet. Leland Stanford drove the golden spike connecting east and west on the railroads he robbed America to build. The golden spike of his farm would be the student center where the two sides of the mind, robbed of each other, perchance may reunite.
The law of the land maintains the calm. Riding a bicycle through a stop sign merits a ticket. The Coffee House, where I spent many great evenings, is the only place on campus where beer or wine can be bought. But this godsend stops serving at midnight with the shout "last call for beer, wine and espresso!" so that not even excessive caffeine should upset. Cigarettes can be neither sold nor smoked or campus. Food is unavailable for purchase after certain hours. A student running "a New York deli" from his campus residence, was promptly shut down. But this is progress at a school where Jane Stanford once had the power to prohibit alcohol sales within a mile of campus.
These forces combined to create a calm that saps the inspiration of the students. Friday and Saturday nights found a quiet campus. Parties in university sanitized housing rose little above a ruckus, with a few notable exceptions. Campus dating was pronounced dead in the school newspaper as each new class coroner felt for a pulse. Academics were taken far too seriously or not nearly seriously enough resulting in no life due to school or an attitude of just getting by that couldn't leave much life after school.
But the students were resilient and let the energies loose in other ways. Life was found on and near the athletic fields, in the student government elections, at occasional parties or senior pub nights, definitely at the business school and always at the annual Exotic Erotic party.
The athletics at Stanford are alive and kicking and perhaps not coincidentally all athletic fields are placed close to El Camino, the lifeblood of the entire peninsula. Sometimes taken to excess, fights broke out yearly between the fans at the annual Big Game. The Big Game was preceded by campus raids that left both schools awash in graffiti and vandalism. But Stanford produced champions and Olympic athletes in both men's and women's teams. With amazing success Stanford could claim to be both an academic and athletic institution. The athlete champions were accepted and treated no differently than the other students, although the same can not be said of famous coaches retiring to the Farm.
Campus politics were very interesting and lively. Every spring the campus was awash in posters - Vote for Me! A candidate who promised to do absolutely nothing was a serious contender one year. (He may have won, I don't remember) One political champion promised to get a Taco Bell restaurant on campus, which would have been a welcome alternative to the exactly three student eating choices. He won the election but did not succeed in delivering the Border to the masses. Another year, a graduate student revolt to withdraw their funding for undergraduate groups caused a big stir and when voting was allowed to be done by computer, the graduate students turned out in force.
Hunger strikes and protests for various causes associated with minority rights were tried and foiled by the Casper Administration. Political activists concerned with issues outside the campus were trying to give birth to a new movement, but were foiled by their own ineptness. When the student senate promoted a political agenda on a controversial California ballot initiative (Prop 187) it was found to have violated its own rules against taking sides on issues unrelated to Stanford. The leaders in favor of having an opinion anyway retaliated against their minority accusers by enforcing the "sweatshirt rule." Surprise use of this rule disallowed several critics from voting on a later issue because they hadn't worn their official senate sweatshirt during the day of the meeting.
The annual Exotic Erotic party, modeled after one by the same name in San Francisco, brought a well needed dose of decadence to the otherwise wholesome and PC campus. Nakedness or semi-nudity was the general theme as the name may imply. It is a tribute to the members of Alpha Sig, a coed quasi-fraternity lambasted for calling new members "shitties", that such an event is possible. Alpha Sig seemed to attract the more socially inspired at Stanford.
The business school at Stanford was very much alive. The primary purpose of business school is to meet people who are in business and people who are in business school. Meeting people requires social outings and the GSB did not suffer for lack of them. Some B-school parties were huge masses of the corporates and the coporate wanna-bes, schmoozing and networking. Others were smaller and livelier. B-school students rented houses at Tahoe at a profit. They had weekly pub outings. They went to the City!
Escaping the Calm to pursue to the Chaos, Stanford students were also found exploring the great outdoors of California's mountains and coasts, on wild road trips with club sports teams, or in the Stanford band, infamous for distasteful acts, playing outside the OJ Simpson trial in Los Angeles as the lawyers filed back in from lunch. This latter act brought outrage from many West Coast newspapers, and admiration from fellow students. The mountains around campus and the ocean on the other side make for some of the best biking (motorcycling, road biking, mountain biking) in the world. Nearby is also Marin, Mendocino, Tahoe, Yosemite, Point Reyes, Big Sur, Mount Shasta, King's Canyon, . . .
Graduate school academics at Stanford lived two lives, each on one side of the campus. The physical sciences and engineering were very strong and did a good a job of melting the brain with demanding concepts and workloads. Science, logic and rationality were laid out not much differently than at MIT, and were not made any easier. Classes again involved copying equations, understanding theories, and studying hard. Money for research was abundant, relative to the other side of campus, and was increasingly from industry rather than government.
Across the quad in the school of education, things were very different. Gone were notions of rigor and logic, and sometimes even notions of common sense. Everything was about looking at things with different perspectives, or lenses. At first this was a great thing, and the fresh outlooks and opinions thrilled. But the new lenses were used without regard to the old rules of reason. Like a visit to a house of mirrors one could find a way to make things however they wanted: the fat became skinny, the short, tall. Justification was discarded as irrelevant or was believed to be inherent in the lens. Few students offered opposing ideas, except when they wished to stand in front of a different mirror.
Professors with excitement and enthusiasm could be found, if one looked, on either side of campus. Again, I did not find many that wanted to sit around at the Coffee House and share a few beers, wines or espressos - universities just don't value this enough when choosing whom to hire.
I met great people at Stanford. Living in a house at the edge of the great Calm with a mixture of graduates and undergraduates we created an open fraternity house atmosphere where people could drop in and feel welcome. For those at Stanford or those newly in the working world, "the Stanford Ave house" was the place to meet before going out. It was the place to be when not going out. Friends met there when non of the house's residents were home. We had blues bands play, poetry readings, hot tub parties, mattress surfing, skinny dipping, drunkenness, stupid television, guests sleeping on the couch, newly hunted birds for dinner, dancing 'til dawn and the traditional Norwegian competition of throwing heavy objects over one's head backwards.
My friends from Stanford were athletic hopefuls, repeat offenders, would be playboys, human rights watchers, accredited atheist ministers, foreigners, musicians and comedians.
How did I like Stanford?
I loved living on its edge.