The Revolving Door Keeps Turning: Stanford’s Ties to Silicon Valley

Opinion by Roneil Rumburg
Feb. 9, 2014, 10:10 p.m.

Stanford’s faculty and Silicon Valley are inseparably intertwined.

Members of our engineering faculty will at times build, advise or work for Silicon Valley companies, and some professors advise entrepreneurship-focused student organizations like BASES or StartX, which encourage students to explore their interest in entrepreneurship. Faculty often leave Stanford to found companies, and many successful founders and leaders come back to teach: Even President Hennessy has deep industry ties after founding and advising technology companies throughout his academic career. Many of our most well-known Computer Science faculty members, like Mehran Sahami ‘92 M.S. ‘93 Ph.D. ‘99, Andrew Ng or David Cheriton, have had simultaneous successful careers in academia and industry.

Some have criticized this sort of revolving door between Stanford faculty and technology industry leaders as being detrimental to the purity of academia at Stanford. Stanford’s successful ties to Silicon Valley do indeed draw external attention away from the humanities, and with Computer Science recently overtaking Human Biology as the most popular major at Stanford, one might be led to believe that students are studying engineering disciplines for the wrong reasons.

Stanford’s increasing ties between research and industry are also often seen as detrimental because the motivations of industry may distract students from being motivated purely by the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I would argue, however, that Stanford students do still have the ability to choose to study whatever they want.

Moreover, this problem is independent of Stanford’s ties to the tech industry. Some students are always going to be drawn to studying what is currently in vogue, whether it’s engineering, economics, business, finance or any other discipline, and when trends change this group will move to whatever starts trending next. Pursuing engineering right now is fairly lucrative, but if the tech industry cools down, this class of students will be driven to pursue other more lucrative fields.

Stanford could try to solve this problem in a few different ways, but severing ties to industry or weakening the quality of the engineering school would not be likely to improve students’ confidence or freedom to pursue their real passions.

I would also argue that research linked to industry has some significant benefits. People often speak about a sort of “valley of death” in the commercialization of research, referring to the difficulty of successfully making research breakthroughs usable for the masses. In most cases, research done in labs never makes it into the hands of consumers. Stronger ties between research and industry could help strengthen the path from research to commercialization, because when commercialization is considered from the start, research findings may end up being more usable in industrial applications.

However, if all research were linked to industry needs, important breakthroughs or even complete fields would likely never have been discovered. Many of humanity’s greatest accomplishments have come from undirected research. Some sort of balance between these two competing areas needs to be maintained, but, if anything, it seems that we need more practical research to be done to overcome the valley of death.

Stanford’s mission statement, as written on ExploreDegrees, says that the objective of the university is “to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.” Stanford was founded at a time when academia was completely disconnected from everyday life, and for this reason the Stanford family hoped to bridge the gap between intellectualism and “usefulness” by founding our university.

Given this mission, it seems inevitable that faculty may want to leave academia at times to broaden their experience and gain some perspective on what it takes to succeed outside of the university. Stanford was founded on the notion that education needs to be practically useful, and it seems to me that the best way to achieve “direct usefulness” is to learn from those who have been successful both in and out of academia.

For those interested in industry, Stanford has an unprecedented level of access to industry leaders and knowledge, but for those uninterested in Silicon Valley, there is nothing forcing them to pursue this knowledge further. A true liberal education should give students the freedom to prepare themselves to follow any path they choose, whether it is in academia, industry or somewhere else entirely, and maintaining ties to industry gives Stanford access to a body of knowledge that could never exist solely in academia.


Roneil Rumburg ‘15 is the Chief Operating Officer of BASES. Contact him at [email protected]

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