Is Stanford still a university? That’s what the New Yorker asked yesterday, picking up The Wall Street Journal’s interest in the well-known symbiotic relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley. The Journal reported that more than a dozen students—both undergraduate and graduate—left school to work on a new technology start-up called Clinkle, an eWallet company. All this I imagine is great, free press for the startup.
The Journal also noted, that “faculty members have invested, the former dean of Stanford’s business school is on the board, and one computer-science professor who taught several of the employees now owns shares.” Although this relationship between Universities and start-ups is nothing new, the rise in the not only the ‘acceptability’ of dropping out of college, but the university sanctioned approval of it is certainly of note. If only Harvard had thought to do so with Bill Gates. (Never fear, it heavily invests in biomedical research.)
The New Yorker was concerned about the conflicts of interest and how having professors as literal investors might change the power dynamics of a university structure. The author argued “Shouldn’t [college] be a place to drift, to think, to read, to meet new people, and to work at whatever inspires you?” It reminded me of my friend Daniel’s starry-eyed hopes for a grad school where ideas were discussed and shared among peers and professors. These dreams were ultimately crushed underneath the wheels of university hierarchy. Allowing students to be free thinkers does not a rich, prestigious university make — even outside of the tech sciences. Free thinking is for tenured professors who have the luxury of job security. Alas, by then, few pursue it.
Even at my university, an elite state school (an oxymoron, of course), professors and students creating start-ups was the du jour. I do agree that the power dynamics can be a load to shoulder and ethically questionable. Students do not have the rights and privileges that employees have with their bosses. But at state schools, even at my ‘elite’ one, professors are not wealthy enough to act as venture capitalists and invest their own cool millions into a start-up. At wealthier prestigious universities, professors can be the money truck to success and can make or break your career.
A collegial environment, does it still exist? Should universities foster communities that prize learning over money and status? The last couple of decades have shown a marked drop in social equality (with a rise in racial equality, if that helps). Consequently, money has become far more salient on everyone’s minds. Perhaps that’s why universities are now a place where education is no longer the top priority. Certainly, if the professors and administration see that way, how can the students think otherwise?