The New Yorker wrote a mean article about Stanford, and Stanford people are very upset. In a blog post published on Monday, Nicholas Thompson commented on the departure of 12 Stanford undergraduates to work on a startup partly funded and advised by Stanford professors, deans, and even Stanford president John Hennesey. Thompson sees the decision these students made to pursue start-up life as endemic to a wider cultural problem at the school, and questions the point of Stanford being a great university “if students feel like they have to treat their professors as potential investors, found companies before they can legally drink, and drop out in an effort to get rich fast”.
I was really hoping that this time, just this once, people would approach the piece like logical and rational human beings. In my fantasy world, I imagined that people would view Thompson’s post as an expression of an opinion, register their agreement or disagreement with the author’s thoughts, and move on with their lives.
Ah, to be young and naïve.
Instead, there was a major student overreaction, followed by an almost incomprehensible 1500-word op-ed in the Stanford Daily further registering discontent, followed by professional journalists feeling the need to leap to the defense of their alma mater. Really, I should have expected it: almost the exact same thing happened with last year’s Ken Auletta article that covered essentially the same topic.
Nicholas Thompson’s post is not the same caliber of Ken Auletta’s article, and it lacks the statistical rigor necessary to back up his assertion that Stanford “looks like a giant tech incubator with a football team.” It’s not a very good article, but it raises the same perfectly valid point that Auletta did—Stanford has a start-up/ entrepreneurship culture that pervades many aspects of Stanford life and can be detrimental to the student experience, whether students buy into it or not.
To me, this is no different than pointing to the long list of USC Alumni involved in film and television or the well-recognized pipeline of Ivy Leaguers going into finance and making an observation about the power of campus cultures overall. Universities are defined by the programs in which they excel, which in turn are frequently defined by the environment that they are in. Just as L.A. breeds actors, Silicon Valley creates entrepreneurs.
During my four years at Stanford, the entrepreneurial spirit was ubiquitous, but not overpowering to the level that Thompson fears. Thompson is not the first person to question Stanford’s qualification as a leading educational establishment or challenge some of the university’s various quirks, and he will not be the last. I disagree with his assessment of the situation, but understand where he is coming from.
And yet, Stanford students (both current and past) felt the need to fight, pointing to Stanford’s highly ranked humanities programs as evidence that Thompson had the wrong idea. If you have the mental toughness to go through the links above, you’ll see Thompson shamed, his “alarmist questions” bashed, and editorial staff of The New Yorker bizarrely challenged to change an opinion that was not their own in the first place. Instead of presenting a thorough but calm defense of Stanford’s objectively excellent humanities programs and vibrant campus community, these responses doth protest too much. Frankly, it feels to me like the Stanford community is displaying the same intellectual indignation and arrogance (because how dare someone say something bad about the Farm?) that has, for a long time, characterized the stuffy old-money traditions of the Ivy League Schools.(A community, it’s worth noting, that Stanford both tries to distance itself from and be included in.) This whole interaction has demonstrated to me that Stanford’s biggest flaw seems not to be the entrepreneurial attitude that pervades many aspects of campus life—it’s that apparently Stanford students can’t stand when other people talk about it.
Here at Technapex, we write a lot about how technology is changing traditional educational systems, particularly in higher education. But as much as we talk about the system of higher education, every university in America is very different from the next. Everyone who has been to college and remembers the application process remembers choosing between schools not only on the basis of academic reputation or availability of programs, but the very different and very hard-to-define “cultures” of schools.
Stanford has a culture of entrepreneurship. That’s not a good thing or bad thing—it is simply a thing. Stanford students are aware of that culture and its influences (or should be), and choose to attend Stanford either to take part in it or disregard it. Thompson’s article operates on the assumption that all great universities should be the same and that Stanford’s unique cultural identity as a seat of entrepreneurship is disruptive to its higher educational mission. The Stanford response tries to minimize this culture by pointing to the humanities and “balance.” Both arguments miss the point—a Stanford student who doesn’t recognize the entrepreneurship vibe at Stanford is not paying enough attention, and a journalist who argues that that same vibe is a negative doesn’t understand that universities are not factories for identical college experiences.
At the end of the day, the argument is just not that important in the grand scheme of an educational discussion. Stanford remains a leading
educational establishment, regardless of whether it is focused on technology or students feel pressure to be technology innovators, just as Thompson remains an astute commentator on technology issues of the day. This post will inevitably recede into the background noise around this particular iteration of the “How good of a school is Stanford really” debate, which has not been solved and will likely continue forever.
The whole thing just saddens me—it’s sad that being involved in technology brings Stanford under scrutiny, and it’s sad that the Stanford community can’t let a negative opinion go unpunished.
In other words, much like your parents in high school: I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.