Sanford's Institutes


Nevitt Sanford had a courtly manner of appearance and speech, perhaps a tribute to his Virginia upbringing. Taking a pipe from between his lips, he could blow a smoke ring when necessary. Soft-spoken, he studied such intense subjects as authoritarianism. Fiercely loyal to his country, he refused on principal to sign a “loyalty oath’ imposed on University of California teachers. At college I had written a study of loyalty oaths called “Worse Than Futile,” with a foreword by John F. Kennedy, then a Senator.

After he’d moved to Stanford University and founded the Institute for the Study of Human Problems, I got a grad student job with him. Arriving at the institute in 1966, I heard the receptionist pick up the phone and say “human problems, how can I help?”

I did my best to help Sanford in his course on “personality theory,” and afterwards to produce a book with him, and another for him, the latter being a selection of his papers. He was not only a great mentor but also a successful fundraiser. Once leaving for a trip he asked me to open his mail. One top was a letter from the Lily Endowment, to which we had applied for a grant. A slip of paper fell to the floor as I extracted the letter. When I picked up the slip, I saw a very generous check.

I have written elsewhere about Sanford’s leadership in starting a school. Here I want to illustrate some of his other activities.

When the My Lai massacre in Vietnam was revealed, Sanford took the lead in organizing a public conference hel;d in San Francisco’s big cathedral on Nob Hill. With a few additions, we then edited a book called Sanctions for Evil: Sources of Social Destructiveness (1971). My favorite chapter was entitled “It Never Happened and Besides They Deserve It.” With well-known authors opposed to U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam, Sanctions for Evil was awarded the cover review in Contemporary Psychology, the field’s main journal about new books.

A decade later I edited a selection of Sanford’s papers on lifelong learning, with the title of Learning After College. This was his other big interest, learning and authoritarianism. As an author he was involved in one of the major books in each area: The Authoritarian Personality in 1950, and The American College in 1962. Our book on social destructiveness in 1971 was a return to his initial interest in blaming, intimidation, and attempts to control.

After Sanford and his colleagues developed the famous “F-scale” to identify people with a predisposition to fascism, the scale elicited the kind of useful critiques on which science relies. Nonetheless, when we used a variant of the scale along with much else in a survey of Presidential preferences in 1972, that scale separated Nixon supporters from McGovern backers better than any other measure

Near the end of his career, Sanford founded The Wright Institute, which attracted many good ”action-researchers.” As Sanford approached retirement, , one of them was lured away by Stony Brook, another by Princeton. In the many decades since then Wright has carried on as a complement to regular psych departments.

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