In Defense of Stanford University

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This week in The New Yorker we discovered much about Stanford University in a piece by Ken Auletta titled “Get Rich U.” For example, Stanford has produced many rich technology entrepreneurs—among both its professors and students. In fact, Stanford has been so successful at nurturing titans of business that it’s causing some unease among certain faculty and school observers.

There’s a glut of engineering-minded, money-hungry students, and perhaps not enough love of learning for learning’s sake and the humanities.

As the story points out, Stanford’s obsession with engineer-cum-entrepreneurs is by design. Frederick Terman, a Stanford professor, set out in the 1920s to unite local radio and electronics businessmen with Stanford’s students. As a result, undergraduate students such as Bill Hewlett and David Packard found themselves visiting the San Francisco lab of Philo Farnsworth when he was in the process of inventing television.

In the years that followed, Hewlett-Packard, along with other electronics and technology companies, would place their headquarters on Stanford land. The arrangement helped Stanford compete against more established schools in the East for local talent and gave the local businessmen access to bright kids, research equipment, and new ideas.

Over the years, Stanford has perfected the art of helping its students and professors start businesses and share in the spoils of their work through favorable licensing deals. As a result, generation after generation—HP to Cisco to Sun Microsystems to Yahoo to Google, Instagram, and Palantir—have emerged from the university.

If there’s a light of hope in the U.S. economy, it emanates from Silicon Valley, and, my word, Stanford has done an awful lot to contribute to that fact.

That’s a long way of saying Auletta may have been better served by asking why the nation’s other elite universities have done such a poor job at breeding entrepreneurs. You can, of course, point to people from Harvard, Cornell, and other top schools that have created empires from scratch, but Stanford clearly challenges the combined efforts of these other schools on its own. (Frankly, I can’t recall ever meeting a single startup founder from such places as Yale or Dartmouth.)

With China and India pumping out engineers by the tens of thousands, it’s not so bad to have at least one school stateside that’s a money-gushing, geek Mecca. In fact, Stanford’s rivals should perhaps do some more thinking for thinking’s sake around how they can mimic the Cardinal model.

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