Because Some Students At Stanford Go To Startups, That Somehow Means Stanford Is No Longer A University?

from the huh? dept

First off, I should note that I like Nick Thompson, the editor of The New Yorker’s website. I thought he was great back when he was at Wired, and later when he was an editor for The New Yorker magazine as well. So I’m a bit perplexed by his recent blog post bemoaning the fact that some students at Stanford drop out to do startups and that those startups often have strong ties to Stanford. I should note that I’ve got no personal connection to Stanford (though it appears Thompson is an alum). However, I’m really struggling to see what the problem is. Having real world skills and being able to do something with them seems like a good thing. Having a university right in the heart of Silicon Valley with close ties to Silicon Valley seems worthwhile.

The article even mentions how this has historically been the case as well, as many of Silicon Valley’s most successful companies have close ties to Stanford, going back to Federal Telegraph and Hewlett Packard — often considered the two “founding” tech companies of Silicon Valley. But where things get really confusing is that Thompson seems to leap from the idea that some rather small percentage of students have created startups, with a few of them having close connections to faculty and administrators, to the idea that this is some sort of “requirement” for students at Stanford:

But what’s the point of having a great university among the palm trees 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? Shouldn’t it be a place to drift, to think, to read, to meet new people, and to work at whatever inspires you? And Stanford has, in its day, produced a great variety of graduates: compost-flipping hippies, novelists, politicians, liberal firebrands, conservative firebrands, brilliant dropouts, and, of course, athletes.

All I can say is… huh? At what point are students forced to do all of that stuff? It certainly looks like a few (a very small number of total enrolled) students are choosing to go down that path, and that’s fine for them. But there is no indication that many other students feel the need to do any of the things Thompson suggests.

Making this even more bizarre is the fact that Thompson himself is an entrepreneur. His own bio notes that he’s a co-founder of Atavist, a digital publishing platform with investments from some of the top Silicon Valley investors: Eric Schmidt, Andreessen Horowitz, IAC and Founders’ Fund. Should we question if it’s bad for The New Yorker that one of its editors is also treating possible subjects as potential investors, and isn’t living the carefree, ideologically pure life of a magazine editor? Of course not. But it seems odd that he’d then complain about students in a similar situation.

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Comments on “Because Some Students At Stanford Go To Startups, That Somehow Means Stanford Is No Longer A University?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Most students who go to a university, especially a prestigious one such as Stanford are interested in the degree, the experience, and the networking that comes from it. If some choose to drop out early to start a company, than that’s their business, it means nothing about the university.

Bear in mind, of course that just because someone who drops out starts up a company, does not mean they dropped out specifically to start a company. Perhaps they were failing, perhaps they didn’t like Stanford, maybe they couldn’t deal with the debt, there are a million reasons. Correlation does not imply causation.

Personally, I think its foolish to leave school without obtaining a degree, otherwise, whats the point? There are other, cheaper ways to network, and to learn how to run a business.

sorrykb says:

Conflict of interest

I think Thompson is more concerned about the potential financial conflict of interest for the university with it’s core mission of teaching. (Well, two core missions: education and research, but this concern is about education.) With investments from faculty, deans, and wealthy alumni, the university could be disincentivizing some students from obtaining a degree. Certainly students have left the university in the past without graduatuing to form very successful companies, but likely without the university (or major players at the university) so regularly having a financial interest in the students’ doing so. (Although I could be wrong about that.)

And… I see now that Thompson has a follow-up post ( ) that ends with “When the needs of education conflict with the prerogatives of headlong enrichment, which will Stanford choose?”

sheenyglass (profile) says:

Re: Conflict of interest

Indeed. The problem was not dropping out, it was conflict of interest. It looks like what really raised his hackles was the faculty and administrative involvement. It is one thing to encourage entrepreneurship and to allow for flexibility in leaving and returning after founding a business. It is another thing entirely when authority figures at the university personally profit from their charges.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Centralized power

What happens with Stanford isn’t a personal concern of mine. But I am interested in power/wealth concentration in the world. The more influence comes from a small group to the exclusion of others, the less the world economic system is democratized and decentralized. There are endless articles about how no place in the world generates entrepreneurs and funds startups like Silicon Valley. Some people point to this as a good thing because it shows how powerful a network can become. To them it’s the model of how things should be. But if you want other parts of the world to also have opportunities, maybe you want to replace this model as soon as possible.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Centralized power

I’ll add that I think the Silicon Valley world view tends to be too insular, based on many articles I have read written by people in the middle of the Silicon Valley echo chamber. There isn’t nearly as much diversity of thinking and diversity of culture as there could be if all the pieces were more spread out throughout the world.

Cowards Anonymous says:

Startups are not fast money

As I have worked closely with the founder of two startup companies in the past several years, I can attest to the fact that startups are not a path to fast money. It takes years to break even, and longer to make a significant profit if your successful, which most startups are not.

What benefit would these students receive from finishing a higher degree if their startup is successful? Is the founder of a company’s salary dependent on their degree like a typical employee? Is the additional student loan debt worth it? Is it not possible for them to go back to university to finish a degree if they are not successful? Did they not learn enough already to be successful? Do they not learn from direct work experience as well?

I argue that a significant success rate at forming startups shows the strength of the university’s teaching. Education is very important, but there are many sources of knowledge in this world and it is not the sole domain of educational institutions.

Does that mean a degree is worthless? I hope not, as I worked hard for my Masters degree. I just don’t believe it is the sole measure of knowledge or intelligence.

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