From the Community | The tragedy of GSB students voting down a defense technology club

Jan. 29, 2024, 1:06 a.m.

An elected group of my peers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business recently rejected our proposal to form a defense technology club. The rationalization sent to all denied clubs included scripted justifications of “not addressing an underserved need” nor having enough “potential contribution” to enhancing the school’s culture. 

To be clear, I’m confident these students were not ideologically fighting against the presence of national defense on campus. Rather, their decision was based on a bureaucratic priority ranking under fixed resources. Because Stanford University restricts external financial sponsorship, club funding is generated through default “student activities” fees alongside tuition.

New clubs either dilute the fixed funding-pool and lower all club budgets (not ideal), or Stanford raises student fees to maintain funding (also not ideal). Under this fixed constraint, my MBA peers were stewarding limited resources to best serve our community. A defense technology club was simply not ranked above the cutline as a prioritized, independent organization.

However, our peers did vote to approve an official Stanford MBA Pickleball Club. 

To me, this event serves as a microcosm of a broader tragedy that threatens our future national security. I firmly believe the students who voted against our proposal are not naive individuals at an elite, out-of-touch institution against defense; rather, my peers are brilliant individuals who simply do not feel urgency toward this area. The tragedy here isn’t “woke” resistance — it’s apathy. And, I argue that dismissal is equally as dangerous to our country’s future.

First, dismissing defense technology flies in the face of local history. Silicon Valley was built on a relationship with national security innovations. Many local inventions — microwaves, radar, transistors, circuitry, GPS and the internet — all originated from government grants targeting explicit military applications. Frederick Terman (popularly considered the father of Silicon Valley) spent his decade as University provost (1955-1965) purposely scaling our STEM departments to secure more funding from the Department of Defense. A relationship with the Pentagon runs in our school’s DNA: Defense technology ultimately enabled Stanford to become the powerhouse we enjoy as lucky students today. 

However, I am not solely focusing on the past to justify the formation of an independent defense tech club. I also want to highlight the urgency surrounding our current, critical moment in history. Amid the first major land war in Europe since 1945, conflict cascading across the Middle East beyond Gaza, rising tensions from a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan and democracy declining across the globe, Stanford students are graduating into this “decisive decade” with global uncertainties set to immediately shape our nation’s future.

In this consequential moment, our country’s defense leadership agrees that innovation is a vital step toward securing the nation’s future. However, most discussions automatically equate the concept of “defense innovation” with technological advancements, which I believe is incorrectly short-sighted. Any such consequential advancement in technology is veritably built on the hard work of individuals. Put simply, pushing the limit requires brilliance. Therefore, I argue that true defense innovation must first focus on capturing that foundation of human capital — attracting outstanding, young talent toward careers supporting our national interest.

At a campus where we glorify occupations in industries like technology, finance and consulting, I believe highlighting defense technology is an opportunity to redirect some of Stanford’s brilliance. This was the original motivation of the defense technology club — to promote alignment between our student population’s superb capabilities with careers supporting public service and/or national security. If we can get one student to consider a career in defense technology instead of dedicating their exceptional talent toward increasing advertising click rates, that is a win.  

We are pushing forward to build a movement here on campus advocating for defense technology. If you want to be involved with our “club,” please reach out — we would love to expand the community and show you opportunities that have real impact in securing our nation’s future.

Evan Szablowski is a former U.S. Army Officer and Rhodes Scholar pursuing his MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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