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OPINIONS

Editorial: The precarious relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley

By now, many on campus have read Ken Auletta’s New Yorker piece titled “Get Rich U.” The article raises many interesting questions, the most fundamental asking whether Stanford is too intertwined with Silicon Valley. Among students, the answer to that question depends on whom you ask. For many students, Stanford’s links to Silicon Valley benefit humanity through innovation and entrepreneurship. Others, though, believe that such close ties to industry conflict with the University’s mission to promote an environment where students and faculty can pursue scholarship without regard for profit.

Both sides of the debate have merit. The Founding Grant, while establishing for the University’s efforts to be directed at the “cultivation and enlargement of the mind,” also directs it to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.” In both respects, Silicon Valley deserves much praise: Innovations and wealth developed in the Valley contribute to academia and improve humanity in a myriad of ways. At the same time, regardless of which educational philosophy you prefer, certain aspects of Silicon Valley are troubling for the University and its students.

Whereas a university’s aim is the pursuit of knowledge, this pursuit is only the aim of industry if the knowledge is profitable. It should come as no surprise that, until recently, the record yearly enrollment for CS106A was at the peak of the dot-com bubble in 1999-2000. Then and now, some fraction of the increase is due to students pursuing the field for primarily monetary purposes. Although this indictment is not particular to computer science – other majors have students in it for the money – the proximity of Stanford to Silicon Valley amplifies this effect. Not only do these students diminish enrollment in the less profitable academic fields they leave behind, but they have the potential to corrupt the culture of computer programming. This may help explain the “Brogramming” phenomenon, where machismo and a focus on short-term riches overshadow genuine innovation.

Furthermore, given how courses in CS show a general bias toward professional training, the intellectual beauty of the field can become overshadowed by the message to harness the discipline for profit. Classes like “iPhone and iPad Application Programming” and “Startup” abound and are some of the more popular offerings in the major. Though many regard these subjects as harmless, some of the students taking these classes are focused more on the potential payout than an intellectual immersion into computer science. Critics find CS183 (“Startup”), taught by Paypal mogul Peter Thiel, particularly troubling; Thiel views elite universities as highly overvalued, and two years ago he started a program that paid students to drop out of college and start companies.

There are other ways in which academic pursuit is influenced by industry. Online education, for instance, is widely considered one of the next frontiers of technology; as President Hennessy said recently, it will “change the world” and we “have to embrace it.” While we agree that online education will be transformative, we are not as convinced of his second claim. One of our previous editorials argued that an overemphasis on technology can diminish the quality of education. Universities, then, should be wary of technology’s role for the future of education, not blindly embracing it. At Stanford, however, there is a profound conflict of interest in this debate. Two startups leading the online education field, Coursera and Udacity, have co-founders who are currently Stanford professors. There is speculation, at least with Sebastian Thrun’s (Udacity) class on Applied Machine Learning last fall quarter, that the course’s rigor was diminished to cater to the online audience. We fear that other professors who volunteer their courses for online education startups will feel similarly pressured to alter their courses, especially if a faculty member down the hall has a major stake in the venture.

In short, one is not hard pressed to find ways in which Stanford’s close link to Silicon Valley may negatively affect the academic environment. Turning next to students who look to leverage their Stanford education to improve humanity, we see that Silicon Valley’s ideal of being a hotbed of productive innovation with which to profoundly better the world is not always met. As tech-journalist Hermione Way wrote in 2011, “Everyone [in the Valley] is doing something amazing and trying to change the world, but in reality much of the technology being built here is not changing the world at all, it’s short-sighted and designed for scalability, big exits and big profits.” Although there are VCs and incubators devoted to social entrepreneurship, the current cash flow seems largely comprised of investments in social media companies. There is nothing inherently wrong with social media, but far too often the next app or website seems to add little real value and instead seems focused on drumming up hype to secure a large exit, Instagram-style. The lure of this pipeline inevitably draws talent away from more productive ends, both in the Valley and outside it.

Of course, one could just as easily point out that without Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship would not be as popular at Stanford. Or that without the money that wealthy donors with ties to the Valley provide, funding for less lucrative programs in the humanities and arts would decrease. But while Silicon Valley may offer unique benefits to the University, these come at a high cost. Since Silicon Valley and our Palo Alto campus are here to stay, Stanford should consider the influence that Silicon Valley can have on both its academic and utilitarian pursuits and remain true to its mission to further higher learning without entirely abandoning the spirit of innovation found in Silicon Valley. By better balancing these concerns, we will more closely follow the founding vision of Mr. and Mrs. Stanford.

About Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board is chaired by President and Editor in Chief George Chen, who is joined by Executive Editor Marshall Watkins, Managing Editor of News Catherine Zaw, Managing Editor of Sports Do-Hyoung Park and Managing Editor of Opinions Winston Shi. To contact the Editorial Board chair, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at eic@stanforddaily.com.
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Politically-Incorrect/100001896293128 Politically Incorrect

    I think that this editorial is seriously misguided. The symbiotic relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley is one of Stanford’s most advantageous traits.  In fact, it is very easy to contend that without Silicon Valley, Stanford would not be the top notch university it has become since the aftermath of WWII. There is general agreement amongst historians that Frederick Terman is credited of transforming Stanford from a fine regional university to the world class university it is today. And it did that by pursuing several strategies at once: first he focused on attracting to Stanford top professors in the engineering and scientific fields that could then attract federal research money (the so called “steeples of excellence” approach), then  he encouraged his students to start local companies instead of joining well established ones; finally he encouraged these professors to join company boards (specially the local ones) so that they could benefit the companies’ strategies. In return Stanford got research and endowment money, in form of donations from successful alumni, that allowed it to continue its goals. With federal research funding alone, Stanford would not have been as successful as it is. It’s the virtuous circle university/Silicon Valley that set Stanford apart.

    Then you bring into the equation the lack of rigor in the online version of some classes. Even if this allegation is true, which I think probably is, I don’t understand why the relationship Stanford/SV is to blame. Stanford started what is now known as SCPD (its part-time program for industry affilates) in 1955.  It was first started as Honors Co-op Program (HCP), then gradually allowed people to enroll even if they didn’t pursue actual degrees (the so called NDO option). For almost 60 years this program has been good both for Stanford and the industry. In its hey day, companies such as Hewlett Packard or Lockheed Martin used the program as a way to recruit top talent from lesser known schools. In a 1984 interview, Bill Hewlett had this to say about SCPD,

    http://www.ieeeghn.org/wiki/index.php/Oral-History:William_Hewlett

    “But you and Packard are industrial people, and yet you’re real open
    to this — you like this idea of perhaps taking engineering students from
    Stanford and teaching them quickly the practice and letting them learn
    the theory at school. Why concretely was that interesting to you?
    Hewlett:

    Because, what you’re doing is employing brains and education. Then
    you need to mold that to what you’re trying to do. So in getting these
    people, we were getting well-educated people. That was one of the main
    attractions of this Honors Co-op Program. They might go out to some
    not-as-well-known university and hire the number one and number two
    guys, and then be able to have them go to Stanford for a year or two, so
    they could really get a good return and you get this kind off topping
    off of their education.

    McMahon:

    And they probably have been trained a good bit in practice, if you’re getting them from those schools.

    Hewlett:

    Well, it wasn’t just that: It was that with what you were doing you
    were able to get the top people out of the class. Not all smart people
    in the world go to MIT and Cal Tech.”

    This editorial, and Ken Auletta’s New Yorker piece, are utterly ignorant with respect to Stanford’s history and competitive edge.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Politically-Incorrect/100001896293128 Politically Incorrect

    And, for those who might argue that only engineering and the hard sciences benefit from this symbiotic relationship, you  are wrong. In 2001, the Hewlett Foundation gave what was then “the largest single gift to an
    American college or university” http://news.stanford.edu/news/2001/may9/gift-59.html :$400 million, the bulk of which, $300 million, went to the School of Humanities and Sciences. This money came basically from Bill Hewlett’s wealth.

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