Editorial: The precarious relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley

Opinion by Editorial Board
May 14, 2012, 12:05 a.m.

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.

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