Stanford Dreams

April 29, 2013, 7:11 p.m.

Earlier in April, myriad Facebook statuses broadcast Harvard’s fall from grace, gleefully echoing the Huffington Post’s report that “In Dream College Rankings, Harvard University is Unseated.” Stanford now tops the list of “dream schools.”

This weekend, Stanford was flooded with ProFros (prospective freshmen) here to get a glimpse of the Farm. Many of them will choose this to be their new home. More than a handful might have considered this a dream school, too.

If we are indeed a “dream school,” then I hope this “dream” is to contribute something to the world, not just to make money and get rich. It wouldn’t burnish Stanford’s reputation if prospective students simply sought entrée into wealth (through a distorted vision of the tech industry and what Silicon Valley does, for instance).

This news comes, for instance, just as CS becomes the most popular major at Stanford. While it’s great that we are growing a corps of engineers for this country, I’m a little scared that, much as the East Coast universities of old served as finishing schools for those entering the corridors of high society, Stanford could degenerate into a playground for the aspiring tech elite. (Thankfully, engineering isn’t quite that easy, folks. You gotta work, and you gotta do problem sets to survive.)

At Stanford, we are open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. We strive for difference, we explore the novel, we embrace the unconventional. Innovation is in our blood, and we celebrate it.

But remember, it’s not a catchphrase, and it’s not a gimmick. It’s innovation in service to our ideals. In the end, we want to be the place that cares for society and seeks to make a difference – an ethical university, not the school of tycoons.

To be sure, plenty of aspiring students do not think of our institution in such a mercenary way; they have thousands of reasons to regard Stanford as a “dream” school. Yet even the phrase “dream school” sounds tawdry, bringing to mind prom queens and tiaras and pink frosting. These aren’t dreams but conversation pieces for those who can afford it – passed ostentatiously around the dinner table – accompanied by hearty backslapping and the expectation they ought to be fulfilled. The rest dream silently, with internalized hopes whispered into the sky.

Even though we want ProFros to choose “us” over “them,” let’s not resort to mudslinging or throwing around meaningless statistics. Celebrating the dethroning of Harvard in a scramble to the top of a questionable heap reflects the kind of zero-sum thinking that motivates at least a subset of those aspirants and pretenders – a motivation that is profoundly distasteful. It’s about image rather than substance, sex appeal rather than heart.

That’s why this ranking doesn’t feel like a victory. Unfortunately, these Princeton Review rankings perpetuate glib answers rather than considered statements of vision. They cede principle to the masses instead of stamping down and answering: This is what we stand for. I think that’s what gets me: It’s a popularity contest, but is that how we want to be defined? If we know who we are, we shouldn’t care what these kids or their parents think. It’s not an honor to be recognized for a flimsy, throwaway statement like “dream school.”

It’s thus misguided for students and alumni to crow about “beating” Harvard. A constellation of many great institutions is far better for society – and for democracy – than one centralizing font of greatness surrounded by mediocre neighbors. My friend and fellow Stanford alum Jennifer Rabedeau pointedly observes that competition from worthy peer institutions can keep us on our toes.

So please, dreamers, understand what it means to join the Stanford community. It’s not a golden ticket to comfort or riches, though maybe that happens now and again. It’s the opportunity to be trained in skills humanistic and practical, to exercise new ways of thinking and to find compatriots to join you, hand in hand, in a lifelong mission. Or rather, a whole array of missions – some of which seek changes that won’t even be realized in this lifetime, but are worthwhile nonetheless.

To become part of this place is to live and breathe and believe in an idea. If that is your dream, welcome to Stanford.

Kevin Hsu ’09, M.S. ’11

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