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The Stanfords of Russia

Will another country adopt the U.S. practice of naming universities after robber barrons?

May 16, 2002

Will another country adopt the U.S. practice of naming universities after robber barrons?

Great men often leave their works behind them by lending their names to universities — which carry on traditions of scholarship and excellence.

For instance, three of Germany’s greatest poets have universities named after them — the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, the Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf and the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt.

The French also honor their great men and women. Paris alone boasts universities named after René Descartes, Denis Diderot and Pierre and Marie Curie.

The United States has many institutions of higher learning named after famous people, though not always so lofty. John Harvard was a minister who bequeathed his library to the newly-founded college.

Sarah Lawrence College — the most expensive school in the United States (room and board running to $36,900 per year) — is named after the wife of a Canadian pharmaceuticals magnate who founded it as a school for women.

So far, so good. But what about other venerable educational institutions? Take, for example, Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Leland Stanford, the founder of one of the best — and best-endowed — universities in the world, epitomized the robber barons of the gilded age.

Together with his associates Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins, Mr. Stanford built America’s first transcontinental railroad, connecting San Francisco to the East Coast.

Curiously, Mr. Stanford’s own investment in the project — not to mention the capital put up by his associates — was minimal. It totaled only around $50,000. But the group made millions on the project because the railroad subcontracted all of its construction work to a company wholly owned by Mr. Stanford and his partners.

While Mr. Stanford and his associates got rich, the railroad itself defaulted several times on its bonds — which had been sold to trusting investors in New York and London. Such manipulations were commonplace during the 19th century. And Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now, features a shady American railroad scheme.

If the exploits of 19th century robber barons sound familiar to contemporary readers, it may be because new Russian oligarchs have been operating pretty much in the same way.

Russia has been going through a rapid wealth accumulation stage similar to that in the 19th century United States. In the helter-skelter process, it also has seen the rise of its own robber barons.

Like their U.S. predecessors, Russia’s oligarchs also had no money of their own when they started out in business in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they had envious connections in the Russian government and managed to get chunks of the former communist economic empire at bargain-basement prices.

In fact, after getting their start and making their riches in business, many Russian oligarchs have either joined the government or began running for political office in order to protect their position. This brings Mr. Stanford to mind once more.

He became governor of California and also a U.S. senator representing the state in Washington. His political career did little to harm his business activities. For example, his railroad venture got a loan from the city of Sacramento on favorable terms after Governor Stanford threatened that otherwise the tracks would bypass the city.

Philanthropic giving was widespread among America’s robber barons. Mr. Stanford merely did what others of their class and wealth did, including the Rockefellers, the Mellons and the Vanderbilts.

In addition to universities bearing their names, the United States has the Carnegie Hall, the Frick art collection and the Morgan library, to name just a few.

Russian oligarchs, once they come into their own, will probably do likewise to establish their good name — or to atone for their past sins of extreme wealth accumulation.

At present, Russian colleges and universities still bear the names of the great scientists or famous communist leaders of the past. Who knows, maybe one day Russia will have a Boris Berezovsky University, named after the currently exiled oligarch, or an art museum commemorating some oil or aluminum magnate. And their names may have the same highly respectable ring as “Stanford” does today.