The department's purposes are to acquaint students with the economic aspects of modern society, to familiarize them with techniques for the analysis of contemporary economic problems and to develop in them an ability to exercise judgment in evaluating public policy. There is training for the general student as well as for those who plan careers as economists in civil service, private enterprise, teaching, or research.
The undergraduate program provides an excellent background for those going on to graduate work in the professional schools (for example, business and law) and may also be structured to prepare students for a Ph.D. program in economics. For Freshmen and Sophomores the Introductory Economics Center, IEC, provides the student with high quality teaching at the introductory level. The Economics Department's curriculum is also an integral part of Stanford's programs in International Relations, Public Policy, and Urban Studies.
The primary objective of the graduate program is to educate students as research economists. In the process, students also acquire the background and skills necessary for careers as university teachers and as practitioners of economics. The curriculum includes a comprehensive treatment of modern theory and empirical techniques. Currently, 23 to 27 students are admitted each year.
Economics has been taught at Stanford since the University opened for classes in 1891. In 1892 Amos G. Warner, a Johns Hopkins Ph.D., was hired to head the new Department of Economics and Social Science. Stanford was an educational innovator even then: Chairman Warner used to offer free meals to tramps and migrants, so that his students could observe the problems of the poor and unemployed. The first Ph.D. was awarded in 1896 to Mary Roberts Smith for her thesis on the Almshouse Women of San Francisco. The early years of the department were turbulent, marked by controversial dismissals of Edward Ross and Thorstein Veblen. Informed by this experience, the department has long maintained a commitment to intellectual diversity in approaches to the discipline of economics.
At that time the department included political science and sociology as well as economics. Political Science became a separate department after World War I, while Sociology remained with Economics until after World War II.
Following World War II, under the leadership of Bernard Haley, Edward Shaw, and Moses Abramovitz, Stanford rose to national and international prominence in economics. In the early 1960s, the department became known as a center for economic theory, particularly the summer gatherings of leading theorists from around the world. This tradition continues to the present day. A major presence at the summer sessions from the outset was Kenneth Arrow, who joined the department in 1949 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 1972.
In the 1960s, the department was also a center of expertise in economic development and economic history, including such figures as Abramovitz, Tibor Scitovsky, Hollis Chenery, Emile Despres. John Gurley and Edward Shaw pioneered the study of relationships between finance and economic development.
In 1994 the department moved into its present quarters in the Landau Building, named for Ralph Landau, pioneer chemical engineer, entrepreneur, and benefactor to Stanford. The building is shared with the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, aptly symbolizing the department's longstanding determination to combine theory with applied fields and policy-oriented research. Through SIEPR and other channels, the economics department maintains strong cooperative relationships with social scientists throughout Stanford, including the Graduate School of Business, the Hoover Institution, and the Social Science History Institute. As of the 1990s, Stanford has regularly been ranked among the top handful of graduate economics programs in the nation.