Is Stanford Detracting From its Sole Purpose?

A week ago the New Yorker published an article entitled “Get Rich U,” about Stanford’s close relationship with Silicon Valley—a relationship the article warns might be too-close-for-comfort. Several things, argues author Ken Auleta, could be signs of an enterprising university’s desire to engineer wealthy alumni, from the function-focused to former electrical engineering professor Frederick Terman’s hand in fostering student interest in his own area of expertise, radio and electronics.

At the same time this article came out, thousands of promising young admits to the class of 2015 arrived on campus for the 2012 admitted students weekend. Those students have since committed to schools, representing Stanford’s highest ever yield rate for an incoming freshman class. Undoubtedly, Stanford professors themselves were a persuading factor in these decisions.

Like the late Professor Terman and Stanford students themselves, many professors of all disciplines continue to exhibit an explosive intellectual vitality and an unmatched concern for students. What the New Yorker article did not tell you, and what Bloomberg Businessweek’s rebuttal failed to mention as well, was that Professor Terman was first and foremost a beloved professor, integral to the university long before Silicon Valley was Sillicon Valley.

Near the end of his career, after spending decades in academia at Stanford, Terman reflected, “When we set out to create a community of technical scholars in Silicon Valley, there wasn’t much here and the rest of the world looked awfully big. Now a lot of the rest of the world is here.”

As both Bloomberg and the New Yorker point out, prominent Silicon Valley companies now recruit first at Stanford, and the Valley itself has built up around the university. This should not be a signal that Stanford is selling out learning for money-making. Any population of a certain number will eventually establish a university; this pattern is repeated almost without fail in every major city in the world. In turn, these universities build up the local economy and enrich the community’s culture.

This is not a problem–this is what universities are intended to do. One would not chide Columbia University’s establishment on Manhattan Island for the credit crisis of 2008, a historical event for which there is a substantive argument that it was in part caused by an intellectually bankrupt desire for wealth.  Nor would anyone blame Harvard or Yale for churning out too many graduates that just want to be president.

Granted, recent financial events encourage us to reevaluate higher education and national values through sobered eyes. And this is a good thing. But this should not mean we need conflate the generation of wealth in and of itself with moral and intellectual bankruptcy. This publication holds that it is exactly Stanford’s intellectual vitality that sustains the production of incomparable talent in all areas—though Silicon Valley has proved to be very lucrative, science and engineering are not only where Stanford’s strengths lie.

It is ironic and potentially irresponsible that the New Yorker charges Stanford as a whole with failing to foster a love of learning, without even mentioning the success of other academic departments. Had they bothered to research less lucrative but equally successful programs, they might have discovered Stanford’s leadership in creative writing, classics, psychology, history of science, and many more—all departments that routinely turn out the Sergey Brins of their respective fields.

It is unfortunate that some academic pursuits are undervalued in our society, as illustrated by the New Yorker’s recent article. However, no one should take that to mean that the university itself is not or should not absolutely be a bastion of intellectual vitality in a profit-driven world. Stanford’s reputation as “Get Rich U,” if it has that reputation at all, is perpetuated by the outside looking in and completely discredits the success humanities and other academic departments at Stanford enjoy.

Somewhere on campus right now, an English professor is reading the manuscript of a student’s first novel. Somewhere else, a physics professor is on a recommendation for a student’s PhD application in theoretical physics. Once questioned whether Stanford should be a research institution or a teaching institution, Professor Terman replied, “It should be a learning institution.”

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