The University Seal

A seal is a device for authenticating a document and providing evidence of its legitimacy. The first university seals, which date back to the rise of modern universities in 12th-century Europe, were granted by a monarch or ruler to a university in recognition of its status as a semi-autonomous entity that could conduct legal affairs. The seal was a symbol of this autonomy, as well as the special privileges and rights accorded to members of the university, and it functioned as the “signature” of the institution.

Over time, the meaning and purpose of the university seal has changed, particularly as the use of institutional seals to authenticate legal documents has declined. Yet the use of an official seal still conveys a sense of authority and authenticity. Stanford’s university seal retains this formal and official quality, and it is used to represent the university’s history and identity on both official correspondence and on commercial memorabilia.

Several seals have been adopted by Stanford University since its founding. The Board of Trustees, President’s Office, and Registrar’s Office each developed similar but slightly different seals, although all prominently featured the same landmark coastal redwood tree, El Palo Alto.

In 1920, a university-wide seal was adopted, containing more detailed landscaping surrounding the tree. This seal eventually superseded all of the seals in use except for the Board of Trustees seal. In December 2002, the Board of Trustees adopted the current seal for use university-wide. This seal has a more simplified landscaping and incorporates the German motto introduced by the President’s Office seal in the early 20th century.

Stanford University, Board of Trustees, meeting records, 1898-2015 (SC1010)

Arthur Bridgeman Clark served as the first chair of Art and Architecture at Stanford University, and he was tasked by President Jordan with creating a seal for the Board of Trustees. The designs seen here were drafted in 1908.

In creating the official university seal, it was difficult for the artist to capture the ancient redwood tree in a manner that properly symbolized the spirit of the young university. The first representation of the tree did not appear to show a redwood at all. The next depiction for the seal was perhaps too accurate; this tree was described by some members of the Board of Trustees as “decrepit,” and they requested a more “vigorous” image.

Both Clark and his son (Malcolm Birge Clark) were prominent Palo Alto architects -- their architectural designs are also held by the Stanford University Archives.

Stanford University, Board of Trustees, meeting records, 1898-2015 (SC1010)

Visual History of the Stanford Seal

Board of Trustees Seal, adopted 1908: The Board of Trustees adopted a seal in 1908 that bore a young redwood tree, and the words "Semper Virens" as a motto.
President's Seal, 20th Century: A different seal used by President David Starr Jordan included a shaggier version of the tree and the motto "Die Luft der Freiheit Weht," which is translated generally as "The Wind of Freedom Blows."
Registrar's Seal, 20th Century: The Registrar's seal included a different rendering of the redwood tree and contained no motto. It was used on Stanford transcripts and diplomas.
University Seal, 1920-2002: This University seal began appearing around 1920, and was used to represent the University on stationery, publications and memorabilia. The seal contained more detailed landscaping surrounding the redwood tree and was depicted either with or without the German motto.
University Seal, adopted 2002: Stanford's current seal has a more simplified landscaping and incorporates the German motto. It was adopted in December, 2002 by the Board of Trustees as the single University seal.