This quarter, Stanford University once again found itself in an embarrassing position. It would seem at first glance that Marc Tessier-Lavgine did not uphold Stanford’s honor code… he came under investigation for scientific misconduct after it was found that several graphs that he had used in his presentation were inaccurate, and perhaps even falsified.
This is not the first time someone associated with Stanford has had an issue with what Winston Churchill called “terminological inexactitudes.” Elizabeth Holmes got off rather lightly with an eleven-and-a-half-year sentence, but Sam Bankman Fried, whose parents are both Stanford professors, did not get off so easily. It would appear that Stanford Students and those who are Stanford-adjacent have a less-than-ideal relationship with the truth.
So why is this the case? How did the moral backbone of the Valley become so feeble? A lot of people like to point towards the do-or-die attitude a lot of founders tend to have: “either this project succeeds, or I jump off a bridge.” When the neurotic stakes seem that high, success at any costs becomes the norm, not the exception. The quirky “fake it ‘till you make it” mindset that Steve Jobs was known for becomes an example to everyone, and for those who can’t live up to the success of Jobs, things become a lot more fake it than make it.
However, this problem runs deeper. It is not just that the Valley attracts people with a neurotic tendency for mendacity, but that institutions in the valley, including Stanford, erode the moral strictures of those who pass through it as wide-eyed freshmen.
Stanford University has consistently been at the cultural and educational center of the Valley, ever since the days of Frederick Terman, its influence on technological development is almost unrivaled, it is no surprise that the attitudes and moral culture of the tech world in the bay and beyond are downstream of the cultural influence of Stanford University.
So, when the water in Silicon Valley turns sour, one has to look upstream to the source. What moral and cultural example does Stanford University set for the rest of the world?
I would say a rather poor one. Certainly not one that has humility, honesty and integrity at the forefront of its mind. Rather, it is quite the opposite. Stanford’s reputation as an elite University makes those of us who are lucky enough to attend, shrink into a self-congratulatory country club mindset. William Deresiewicz (a former Yale Professor and author of the book Excellent Sheep) made the rather humorous observation that the back-patting starts right away when it comes to elite institutions. Each commencement speech boasts record numbers of applicants, minuscule acceptance rates, all culminating in the idea that you deserve this exceptionalism, for all your vapid academic piety and moralistic desire to change the world laid out in your application.
Combine inflated egos with a healthy dose of neuroticism and you have a rather large problem. When the Stanford Marriage Pact sent out its yearly report, one statistic caught my eye. It was how seriously Students take the honor code. As you climb up the years, how seriously students take the honor code decreases, by a lot.
I know a lot of you will think it’s no big deal, and that everyone cheats. But the actual agreement you sign on the front of every exam you take bases your agreement upon your own honor, no one else’s. Regardless of whether you believe such restrictions are fair or not, your predisposition to mendacity increases when you are routinely pressured to go against your word for personal gain by peers and your own drilled-in fear of failure.
This is clearly an indication that there is something wrong with Stanford itself. It’s not just the Bay, not just tech-heads, but Stanford in its entirety. When students nearly unanimously agree that it would be better to lie and cheat their way through school than fail or scrape by on their own merit, is it really that surprising to know that as fully-socialized Stanford grads they would also try to lie and cheat and scrape their way through their careers, their projects and their relationships. Virtue is a habit that must be practiced repeatedly—strengthened like a muscle—not left as an exercise to the reader. By ignoring this fact, Stanford, and other higher institutions are creating a graduating class of credentialed and strong individuals on paper, but whose actual skills and integrity are somewhat lacking.
What the solution is, I cannot say. But if I had to guess, I would say it starts with humility and the de-escalation of credentialism. The world will not end if you have a B on your transcript, nor if the blood testing machine won’t work. But if you gain the whole world at the cost of your own integrity, what example will you be setting for those who have the desire and capacity to change the world? Creative destruction only works when it is truly creative—when it is original, unborrowed and unstolen. You cannot create something new by lying about something old.
Therefore, I believe if the Valley is to end its creative stagnation, it will have to tackle the stagnation of integrity in the process, and hopefully once again create things that are real, honest and true.