Faculty, students laud Thiel class

May 17, 2012, 3:05 a.m.

While Peter Thiel ‘89 J.D. ‘92 has frequently courted controversy with his disparaging outlook on the merits of higher education, the famed venture capitalist’s decision to teach a Stanford class — CS 183: Startup — this spring has been met with approval from administrators and students alike.

“Peter was the one who was interested in teaching the course from the onset,” said Mehran Sahami ‘92 M.S. ‘93 Ph.D. ‘99, associate chair for education in the computer science department.

Despite his celebrated accomplishments, including co-founding PayPal and being an early investor in Facebook, Thiel underwent the same process in proposing and designing the course as all other non-Stanford affiliates.

“We thought there were certainly student demands to find out more about entrepreneurship and start-ups,” Sahami said. “This is a class that’s being offered through the CS department because it’s about technology, but in some sense it’s geared towards the business of technology rather than the technology itself.”

The class, capped at a capacity of 250 students, filled up rapidly and was still oversubscribed at the start of the quarter.

“My ideal would be 10 people talking to Peter Thiel — a small little seminar — but obviously, given the level of interest, I think he manages [the large class] really well,” said Viraj Bindra ‘15.

“He is open to questions during class, but he otherwise keeps the lectures a good mix of defining the culture and defining the process, along with a lot of personal anecdotes that enhance our learning,” Bindra added.

Thiel did not respond to multiple requests for comment by The Daily.

Thiel’s critical view of higher education is well known — he billed CS: 183 through a spokesman as potentially “the last class you’ll ever have to take” and recently opened the Thiel Foundation, which offers $100,000 to budding entrepreneurs to drop out and pursue start-ups full time. However, his incendiary comments have thus far been confined to the media rather than the lecture hall.

“During class, he will never make those views the focus,” Bindra said. “His focus is very much more on educating people for whenever they feel ready…which might be enough to make some people feel ready enough to drop out and start their own business, but I don’t think that that’s a focus.”

“He has been only laudatory of Stanford, describing it as perhaps the pinnacle of higher education today,” said Aaron Sekhri ‘15, a Daily writer. “He has indeed very seldom discussed his reservations against higher education in the class.”

Bindra argued that Thiel’s experience as a start-up founder and investor offers the most valuable insight to enrolled students.

“That kind of perspective definitely comes through even in a huge lecture,” Bindra said. “The takeaway has been exactly what I’ve expected, which is kind of a crash course in how the Valley works…kind of comprehensively addressing how to make a company here and how to make it successful.”

Sahami stated that, while faculty had been well aware of Thiel’s thoughts on higher education prior to approving the course, they saw no conflict between Thiel’s opinions and the course’s prospects.

“Even though Peter may have some outspoken views about the value of higher education, in some sense we think it provides more information for students to make their own choices,” Sahami said. “That’s what education is supposed to be about.”

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