High Class Problem

Stanford University. It’s stunningly attractive, wealthy, and chock full of extremely clever people. Talent attracts talent, quality begets quality. In higher education it usually takes many years to reach a critical mass that ensures long-standing appeal to the brainy and ambitious. Most institutions never make it. Stanford hit the mark decades ago and has continued to ascend.

In the April 30th New Yorker, Ken Auletta takes a look at Stanford in an article titled “Get Rich U.” It’s a fascinating piece, but not a completely effective article, either. Auletta wrestles with the institution, which resists easy characterization or argument. His difficulties are not surprising. Stanford is a university with a mission and role that evoke conflicting reactions, like any large, wildly successful nonprofit organization. The main thrust of “Get Rich U.” is the relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley, or between an institution of higher education and the for profit world.

Stanford’s original mission – to educate students and to prepare them for success – led to an early and consistent commitment to engineering and business. Through innovative faculty and students, successes in business often meant successes for Stanford fund raising. The symbiotic relationship expanded rapidly with the rise of the information age. As Auletta puts is, “Stanford is the farm system for Silicon Valley.”

The problem, or potential problem, Auletta poses, is that the tremendous wealth being generated by the information age may warp research priorities and blur boundaries between faculty and students. “Some ask whether Stanford has struck the right balance between commerce and learning, between the acquisition of skills to make it and intellectual discovery for its own sake” Auletta poses.

Who are the “some” who pose Auletta’s question? Humanities professors, Stanford’s former president Gerhard Casper, and Auletta – who should be comfortable owning the query. The same question can be asked of every research institution of higher education. Is there a university that claims to have the balance right? It is a fortunate institution of higher education that can question its commitment to values that are impervious to the marketplace. It is an intriguing question that cannot be easily answered, particularly since many courses of inquiry, by definition, are tightly bound up in the market. It is a naïve Herodotus who expects to find intellectual discovery for its own sake in flourishing in higher education.

Putting aside the remainder of the Auletta’s article (it is worthy of additional discussion), the issue of institutional priorities and their relationship to the larger world hinges on mission and the overarching thrust of the academic work undertaken by faculty and students. Mission directs programs and actions, supposedly, and in turn, programs and actions inform mission. That is how the arranged is supposed to work. In practice, mission statements are often abstract and decisions at the programmatic level are often the product of opportunity and circumstance.

Leland and Jane Stanford founded the University to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.”  Today, it is an extraordinarily large and complex organization. Each of Stanford University’s schools has its own mission statement, as do the many of the university’s centers, institutes and programs. Engineering has always figured prominently at Stanford. The medical school is outstanding and the law school is top rated. Humanities and the sciences comprise the university’s largest school, which is no ivory tower. Within the humanities and sciences are graduate and undergraduate programs in the social sciences and sciences. Computer science at Stanford, the center of the bulls-eye in terms of Silicon Valley, is in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

What is really seems to be at stake in Auletta’s article is that the president of Stanford, John Hennessy, is on the board of several corporations that have benefited from the ingenuity of Stanford faculty and students. It is not a circumstance unique to the president; many Stanford’s faculty and alumni are working both ends of the relationship, profiting and helping a non-profit institution profit. That is how capitalism in 2012 works. Effectiveness in the non-profit world rests in great part on its ability to capture the attention of the shiny end of the for-profit world. The state is a fickle partner and the generosity of the middle class simply does not add up.

Stanford University challenges expectations because it does what most other institutions of higher education would like to do: connect effectively and virtuously with new and growing wealth. It is a 21st century research institution, with multiple missions that add up to one primary mission: creating knowledge, disseminating knowledge, and advancing itself.

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