On April 12, Juul agreed to pay California, New York and four other states $462 million for misleading consumers — particularly young people — about the health effects of vaping. Juul was founded by Adam Bowen and James Monsees, who met through Stanford’s Product Design Master’s program.
A day earlier, Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout, lost her bid to further delay her 11-year prison sentence for fraud. Sam Bankman-Fried, son of two Stanford professors, currently remains under house arrest on Stanford’s campus as he awaits trial for 12 counts of fraud and related crimes. The former CEO of Alameda Research Caroline Ellison, who earned her undergraduate degree at Stanford, took a plea deal for similar charges.
Stanford Law School graduate Carlos Watson was indicted in February of this year for “a years-long multi-million dollar fraud scheme.” And only five months ago, Stanford professor Stan Cohen paid $29.2 million in damages after he committed “a species of actual fraud and… deceit” in misleading investors in his biotechnology startup.
These high-profile fraud cases all share a common denominator: namely, Stanford. Each trial focuses more scrutiny on the institution that produced these crooked founders. But Stanford’s response, over and over again, has been deafening silence.
When a Stanford student or alum achieves national recognition — such as being awarded a prestigious prize or fellowship, being drafted to a major sports league or making strides in research or entrepreneurship — Stanford is justifiably quick to celebrate. However, this is only true for achievements that reflect rosily onto Stanford’s own image. When Theo Baker became the youngest person ever to receive a prestigious George Polk Award in Journalism, there was no announcement in the Stanford Report, the University’s main external communications. Might this be related to the fact that Baker won the award for his investigation into claims of research fraud against Stanford’s president? Likewise, Stanford made no announcement concerning any of the verdicts or settlements mentioned above.
Yes, we have mandatory Civic, Liberal and Global Education (COLLEGE) and Embedded Ethics in Computer Science classes. Yes, we have graduation requirements in Ethical Reasoning (WAYS-ER) and Exploring Difference and Power (WAYS-EDP). If we put aside students’ concerns that the COLLEGE and Embedded Ethics programs fall short of their goals, this is all good and well.
But if Stanford refuses to acknowledge the wrongdoings of its recent graduates, the University is denying its role in shaping leaders who have harmed people’s lives and livelihoods. Stanford gave each of these founders a shiny stamp on their resume that helped them woo investors. Stanford taught them much of what they know in business and beyond. Stanford gave them invaluable networks. Two Stanford professors even helped give SBF a temporary get-out-of-jail card by co-signing his bail bond.
In the words of Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford was founded with the explicit purpose of “generat[ing] knowledge not for its own sake, but for the benefit of humanity.” It is impossible to meaningfully discuss and work towards benefitting humanity without understanding what leads to and causes harm. Stanford must lead these conversations even when they reflect badly on the University. Unlike its peers, Stanford does not have centuries of legacy and prestige to fall back on; these scandals threaten to undermine the university’s rapid ascension to the heights of innovation and progress. Therefore, Stanford should lead the narrative by addressing these issues head-on to restore confidence and to act as an example for other institutions.
In addition to requiring ethics courses and issuing statements, we believe that Stanford should facilitate campus-wide critical conversations in light of emerging scandals to articulate what the institution stands for — and equally importantly, what it condemns.
These discussion forums may be led by faculty or student groups, providing a platform for community members to collectively deliberate about what went wrong in a particular case and how we students, future Stanford alums, can strengthen our sense of ethical responsibility. By sanctioning such events, the University would be confronting its scandals forthrightly — as opposed to burying its head in the sand. Student deliberations would help identify the corrupting influence present within Stanford’s culture and institutions. The administration, student groups (e.g. the ASSU) and various labs could draw on the results of these deliberations to devise institutional solutions which address the issues raised by students.
Moreover, the University could utilize these events as an opportunity to recenter and reaffirm its founding telos of “promoting the welfare of people everywhere.” They would serve as an extension of Stanford’s ethics education, as students get to examine and discuss real-world issues through an ethical lens.
This proposed initiative may help reduce the number of scandalous alums and suspect businesses Stanford churns out in the future. This may salvage not only Stanford’s reputation, but potentially help prevent the suffering of millions of people.
The Editorial Board consists of Opinion columnists, editors and members of the Stanford community. Its views represent the collective views of members of the Editorial Board. It is separate from News.