Buffeted by crises, Stanford trundles along serenely undiminished
Stanford is an Arcadian utopia bewitched by the curses of excessive success. The maledictions just keep striking, and even seem to be accelerating. The latest crisis has been with athletics, where the breakup of the Pac-12 has orphaned Stanford along with Berkeley, Oregon State and Washington State. Stanford is now in the position of pleading with a dozen East Coast schools for admission to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). This sudden plight follows the controversy from July 2020 that the university would cut 11 sports, only to reinstate them one year later under extreme alumni pressure.
Then there’s the slow-motion denouement of Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who faced a number of allegations starting last year including co-authoring research papers with doctored images and mismanaging a research program around Alzheimer’s at Genentech, where he ultimately rose to chief scientific officer. A university investigation largely exonerated him, but it was clear that serious scientific errors took place and he announced his resignation last month.
Now, add in the further ethical and fraudulent catastrophes of Sam Bankman-Fried of FTX, who grew up on Stanford’s campus (although attended MIT as an undergraduate) and Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, who dropped out of campus to pursue her biotech dream and is now sitting in prison serving a nearly decade-long sentence. Then there’s the whole crisis around the death of fun on campus, which has been notably covered in an excoriating essay by Ginerva Davis in Palladium. That’s not even getting at America’s cultural civil war, which has repeatedly descended on Stanford like a biblical plague of locusts.
Among my fellow alums, the opinion of this institutional epicenter of Silicon Valley ranges from apathy to extraordinary vitriol, with the latter gaining ground and momentum over the past year. For them, Stanford is unabashedly declining, losing the very culture and entrepreneurial idealism that makes the institution so singular among the upper strata of American academia. Rudderless, leaderless, directionless — a lot of “less” and not a lot more.
But much as how reporters remain obsessed with the so-called “doom loop” up in San Francisco (see coverage in WSJ, NBC News, NY Post, CBS News, FT and quite literally dozens of other publications), Stanford’s extensive travails are similarly blown all out of proportion.
As former president, Tessier-Lavigne is the target of most of the vituperative blame for Stanford’s impending demise, but a wider look at his record as president belies the university’s absolutely dominant success. Last year, Stanford raised $1.39 billion in donations, holding the prime spot among all universities. Venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins donated $1.1 billion for the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, in what’s been declared the first new school at Stanford in 70 years. Stanford’s endowment rose to a record high of $38 billion in 2021, before receding to a bit more than $36 billion with the post-Covid market malaise.
Meanwhile, Stanford continues a building spree both on campus with dozens of new buildings and increasingly all across the Bay Area. Stanford’s admission rate dropped to a new record low (as it typically does) this year, now at 3.68%. That’s despite Stanford’s luxurious sticker price of $87,833 for a year of undergraduate attendance. Plus, I’d be remiss in pointing out Tessier-Lavigne’s adroit handling of the Stanford Rape Case and its fallout, which saw the perpetrator found guilty the month after his nomination to the presidency, as well as the organizational success of Stanford’s Covid-19 response.
In short: Prices are up, demand is up, buildings are going up — even as the president is going down, infamous alums and former residents are locked down in prison, and sports teams are locked out.
The story of Stanford is patterned across American institutions, of quantitative success bedeviled by qualitative failure. There’s never been so much profit, but also such a scale of fraud. Research has never been so well-funded, but laboratories remain mired in the publish-or-perish culture and the concomitant replication crisis. Students are encouraged to be CEOs, even as they lack the basic tools of leadership that would prepare them for such roles.
Leftist intellectuals would perhaps dub this “late-stage capitalism” and rightist intellectuals “decadence,” but what we have here is the infinite pursuit of wealth over everything: innovation, national service and patriotism, the moral and intellectual development of men and women. The statistics around Stanford are reported just as I wrote them, of endowment gains, drops in admissions rates, regional economic impact, jobs created, buildings constructed. One never sees a quantitative assessment though of student and faculty morality or societal engagement (and we won’t because who wants to see those numbers!)
I mention E.O. Wilson’s Consilience and C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures every once in a while. They share the idea of the arts and sciences jumping together into a fermented fusion of ideas on the frontiers of human knowledge. The observational and creative talents of art complement the logical and empirical rigors of the sciences, serving both and pushing all to the furthest reaches.
Consilience is dead at Stanford though. Even as the student body remains relatively stable, Computer Science soared from 452 declared majors in Autumn 2013 to 776 majors last year, the most recent data available. That’s a gain of 72% in a decade. Symbolic Systems (AI, Philosophy and CS) went from 98 to 174 while Mathematical and Computational Sciences (rechristened Data Science this year) went from 69 to 134.
Which majors have lost the most ground? Science, Technology & Society (STS), which combines the sciences and engineering disciplines with ethics, philosophy and sociology, declined from 210 declared majors to 79, a drop of 62%. History dropped 53% in a decade, from 89 to 42.
Again, the story of Stanford is patterned across America. Rapacity reigns even as the creative engine of our culture sputters from lack of funding. Americans are wealthier than ever before, and the GDP is expected to cross 5.8% in the third quarter, accelerating from more demure numbers posted earlier this year. Even America’s waistlines are collapsing with the final approvals of Ozempic and Wegovy. Thinner, hotter, richer — it’s an Instagram society, after all.
Yet, satisfaction remains elusive. Gallup’s extremely long-run polling on the general mood of the country remains at its nadir. Just 19% answered ‘Satisfied’ to the question, "In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?” 80% said ‘Dissatisfied,’ among the lowest results since the 2008 financial crisis and roughly in line with June 1992 (early 90s economic crash) and July 1979 (Carter and the crisis of confidence).
Stanford has become the standard. Yes, it lacks vision and direction, or any sense of mission, or even proof that it is inculcating the next generation of citizens. But the endowment has never been thicker with lucre. Tessier-Lavigne’s career might have gone ka-boom, but Stanford’s future? Ka-ching.
“Securities” Podcast: Simulating Evolution: Playing God or the Next Frontier?
Artificial life, aka “A-life”, is an intellectually vital field simulating life within computational systems. By allowing simulations to run uninterrupted for extended periods, researchers can observe emergent behaviors, patterns, and even evolutionary trajectories. What's particularly intriguing is that these artificial systems often exhibit behaviors and patterns reminiscent of natural life, reinforcing that certain principles of life and evolution might be universal, whether in a biological context or a digital one.
In this episode of "Securities," I’m joined by our scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman as well as special guest Olaf Witkowski, who is the director of research at Cross Labs and the current president of the International Society for Artificial Life. Among many topics, we discuss cellular automata, the origins of evolution, and the open-endedness of A-life.
- Sam recommends Andy Tomaswick’s overview of a new plan by David W. Jensen to make space habitable to humans. “He released a 65-page paper that details an easy-to-understand, relatively inexpensive, and feasible plan to turn an asteroid into a space habitat. With admittedly 'back-of-the-envelope' calculations, Dr. Jensen estimates that the program would cost only $4.1 billion.”
- Our summer associate Ken Bui points to the next cover story of Foreign Affairs by Eurasia Group head Ian Bremmer and DeepMind’s co-founder Mustafa Suleyman on “The AI Power Paradox.” “Whether they admit it or not, AI’s creators are themselves geopolitical actors, and their sovereignty over AI further entrenches the emerging 'technopolar' order—one in which technology companies wield the kind of power in their domains once reserved for nation-states.”
- India’s prime minster Narendra Modi has faced a barrage of scrutiny from critics at home and in the West over his anti-liberal administration of the world’s greatest democracy. The right-wing analyst Christopher Caldwell writes an engaging if partially blinded contrarian take in “India’s Uprising.” “That is in power in the first place means that the old 'managed' democracy of the Congress party system has been replaced with a more freewheeling variant—a more democratic democracy, if you will, a democracy that answers not to 'values' but to the society as it actually exists.”
- Ken suggests a piece from Ahmed Humayun of Lux family company Applied Intuition in DefenseNews on "How to navigate the cycle of autonomy hype.”
- I recommend Matt Ellison’s interview and discussion in Palladium with Walter Kirn on “How America Lost the Plot.” "When you live perpetually slightly ahead of the present, never bonding, never settling down, never letting yourself be penetrated—even by experience let alone memories to hang onto—you are a digital bit of information to be formed into anything. You volunteered for it!”
- Sam recommends Étienne Fortier-Dubois’s essay “In Defense of Tech Trees.” If you enjoyed the gratifying milestones of acquiring new technology in the Civilization games, why can’t we experience that in the real world?
- Finally, Ken recommends Nyah Stewart and David Lin’s analysis on U.S. and Chinese innovation in "A Tale of Two Tech Cities,” which compares Boston to Hangzhou. “Boston and Hangzhou are both success stories — testaments to the very different approaches to place-based innovation in the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”
That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.