Editorial: Proceed with Caution: Assessing Stanford’s Sputnik Moment

Opinion by Editorial Board
Feb. 25, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

When a country opens an embassy in another country, it wants to increase its diplomatic presence and stature. When a corporation plans a new regional branch, it intends to capture new markets and increase profits. When a charity organization expands to another locale, it hopes to make a philanthropic impact in that community.

As Stanford contemplates a potential branch campus in New York City, publicly or privately it hopes to accomplish all three of these objectives: presence, prosperity and public impact, all without sacrificing the elite quality of its education. While the Big Apple seems to be low-hanging fruit — offering financial assistance, world-class students and Manhattan prestige — Stanford must sort out its priorities before plunging ahead.

Enshrined in Stanford’s Founding Grant, the University’s mission is twofold: to advance “learning…of the highest grade” and to “promote the public welfare.” Therefore, any other motivating factors behind the NYC expansion should be subsidiary to maintaining excellent academics and, as President Hennessy urges, creating “more centers of innovation” to serve the country. Neither goal is assured by an unprecedented expansion that could initially strip the main campus of valuable faculty and produce unpredictable results on the East Coast.

Consider that Stanford’s proposal for a satellite engineering campus envisions a scale about a tenth the size of the School of Engineering (which in 2008 had 241 faculty and 3,300 graduate students, compared to 25 faculty and 375 graduate students planned for NYC). It is unclear how this tiny branch would have any significant impact on innovation in New York. Silicon Valley start-ups have collaborated with Stanford faculty and students in unpredictable ways thanks to the tremendous diversity of research on the Farm; scaled down an order of magnitude, there is no guarantee that this effect could be duplicated.

Martin Kenney writes in the introduction to his book Understanding Silicon Valley that former Stanford President Frederick Terman “credited by many as the founder of Silicon Valley, can better be understood as a catalyst and a booster in an already prepared environment.” Historians credit Stanford with a necessary but certainly not sufficient role in the evolution of a Valley already home to a burgeoning high-tech industry, entrepreneurial investors, and an attitude of regional cooperation. So inserting a miniature Stanford into New York City will not be a magic bullet to somehow recreate the Silicon Valley ecosystem.

That said, Stanford has developed a wealth of institutional knowledge about best practices for catalyzing high-tech industry. Home to a proactive IP licensing office friendly to business, a vast research park that incubated HP and Lockheed Martin, and a President who, like many faculty, is an entrepreneur himself, Stanford is in an undeniably better position than most institutions to impact innovation in New York City.

Unfortunately, Stanford finds itself caught between conflicting priorities: a larger branch campus threatens to siphon valuable resources from a main campus recovering from budget cuts. From the outset, administrators should establish the growth strategy of the campus and decide on the scale of the prospective impact to New York City. Traditional academia cannot yet boast a true multi-site, elite university; however, the proliferation of one-off entities — the Columbia Business School in Berkeley and the Wharton Executive MBA in San Francisco are local examples — offer blueprints for narrow, focused expansion.

According to President Hennessy, the New York project passes three key tests: immersion in a pool of top students, location in a thriving environment that can attract quality faculty and collaboration with a deep-pocketed partner — the city of New York. While the proposed campus would become financially self-sustaining, administrators should ensure that the majority of start-up land and capital costs come from external sources, not by paring other programs from the convalescent University budget.

Additionally, the campus will excite Stanford’s New York donor base, the fastest-growing alumni population after the Bay Area. With lucrative fundraising prospects and the allure of penetrating the East Coast elite academic aura, the New York branch could acquire a prestigious, mercantile, Wall Street ethos. Stanford needs to resist this temptation to commercialize its brand. We don’t need to plant palm trees on Manhattan, but we do need to recreate the essence of Stanford wherever we fly its banner. The value of a Stanford campus in New York City is a different, disruptive research institution, anchored by West Coast ideals. After all, a Stanford of the East should be much more than just another Ivy.

Like President Eisenhower’s call for investment in scientific research after the Sputnik crisis in 1957, President Hennessy has captured the popular imagination with a vision for national dominance in engineering. Before we launch our own satellite, we urge the Administration to consider the core goals of academics and community impact, so that this exciting opportunity does not sacrifice our current excellence or dilute the University’s distinctive identity.

The Editorial Board consists of a chair appointed by the editor in chief and six other members. At least four of the board’s members are previous/current Daily affiliates, and at least one is a member of the Stanford community who is new to The Daily. The final member can be either. The editor in chief and executive editors are ex-officio members (not included in the count of six), who may debate on and veto articles but cannot vote or otherwise contribute to the writing process. Voting members: Joyce Chen '25 (Editorial Board Chair), Jackson Kinsella ‘27, YuQing Jiang '25 (Opinions Managing Editor), Nadia Jo '24, Alondra Martinez '26, Anoushka Rao '24 (Opinions Managing Editor).

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