Shame on you, Nicholas Thompson.

Posted by at 11:36PM

This article is a response to an article on the New Yorker website.  The ideas expressed here are the opinions of the author alone, not an official opinion of the University or this publication.

Dear Mr. Thompson,

This morning you published an article entitled, “The End of Stanford?”  It is one of the most sensationalist and unsubstantiated pieces of journalism I have ever read.

“Anyone can create, edit or contribute to any page.”

You are misinformed about the Stanford of today, but you didn’t make an effort to learn more about it.  Of your 14 hyperlinks, 9 of them referenced articles from your own website.  The only reference to the stanford.edu domain was that of Synergy’s website, which publicly displays the password for its own wiki page.  See the screenshot from Synergy’s webpage at right.

You may not have done your research, but I have, and I would like to clarify some of your points.

We are no mere tech incubator.  Stanford University is ranked #1 in the world for its arts and humanities programs.  85% of our undergraduates as of the last academic year are in non-engineering majors.  Our political science, psychology, economics, English, history, and sociology graduate schools all rank in the top 5 in the nation.  Our business school is #1.  Our law school is #2.  Education is #5.

“It is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m no zealot for the start-up culture myself, but it must be contextualized to be understood.  At a school with 6,999 undergraduates and  8,871 graduate students, 12 students dropping out to form a company is hardly statistically significant.  While you may not approve of Stanford’s start-up culture, I dare you to deny its efficacy:  companies formed by Stanford alumni create $2.7 trillion in revenue annually and have created 5.4 million jobs.  We have the world’s 10th largest economy.

In your article, you ask, “Shouldn’t [a great university] be a place to drift, to think, to read, to meet new people, and to work at whatever inspires you?”  We wholeheartedly agree, and this is exactly what our curriculum seeks to do.  This is why our new, introductory course sequence (mandatory for all students) is called Thinking Matters.

I’m mostly puzzled by your article because I don’t understand your motivation.  You’re a Stanford graduate.  Why are you taking such inaccurate hits at your alma mater?  To take us down a notch?  It seems like your deliberately controversial article is just a ploy for page-views.

I invite you to visit Stanford as it is today.  Heck, I’ll give you a tour.  Join me in seeing Stanford not as we appear to the uninformed eye, but to those who engage in its true academic culture.

I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Kristi Bohl, Stanford ’13

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26 Responses to “Shame on you, Nicholas Thompson.”

  1. jesse says:

    +1

  2. Gus says:

    +1,000,000

  3. rtuicer says:

    Contrast the economic output created by Stanford companies with how much they have contributed towards economic equality

    and you will find a very depressing ratio indeed…

  4. rtuicer says:

    California has one of the worst gini coefficients in the entire nation and how much has the growth of the tech industry, with its high educational job entry requirements, contributed to alleviating this inequality?

    Look, this is not about Stanford as a place, this is about the notion of Stanford contributing so much of its financial resources (not necessarily human capital, as the author very intelligently points out) and branding into this industry.

  5. Sanford says:

    Kristi – I think you take a bit of umbrage at Nick’s comments — he was simply asking is it a University where risk and discovery is both allowed and encouraged. Acts that students can do in the shade of HooTow should be the indiscretions of discovery and excitement, not simply a “good recommendation” or an “intro to the right people”.

    Your discussion about the curriculum is what I think Nick is kind of talking about — universities are place for serendipitous discovery, where a surprise conversation in the gym or your E40 class could be the person you discover chances to make things happen.

    Worrying that if you do X or Y, you might upset P and Q — while maybe a great preparatory lesson for some — should be encouraged, not potentially squashed.

    That is all Nick is saying — IMHO.

  6. Recent Grad says:

    They also missed the point that Clinkle is generally regarded as a joke on this campus.

  7. nick says:

    Be careful just attacking and dismissing Nick Thompson. His view is a reaction to the way that Stanford has presented itself to the world. As an alumnus from about the same time period (class of 2000), this disturbs me. I care about my school and what it becomes. I share his concern about where it’s headed—both as an institution and as a brand.

    I read the news from Stanford today and hear the scoop from my friends and classmates who are now teaching in academia (either at Stanford or working with Stanford people) and find myself shaking my head. A lot. Academia in general has been moving toward a trade-school, job-preparation focus. We’re consistently seeing articles about how high schools and colleges have to focus on STEM fields. That Stanford excels at this is to be expected. But it’s not something many of us celebrate.

    Similarly, for those of us who feel that undergraduate education is the lifeblood of the campus, we don’t really care about having a number of highly-ranked graduate schools either. Those are by definition trade-school and job-prep programs.

    The news which comes out about the fuzzy subjects is not impressive. Class attendance is supposedly down in general and it doesn’t appear that the school is investing in new young faculty in those subjects. I don’t fear that fuzzy courses will die out completely. But I am concerned that we’ll become more and more of a tech college where the last bastion of people who value the fuzzy subjects is in the dschool.

    Oh, and one note. Alumni will view the “Thinking Matters” courses from the context of the breadth requirements they had to take. And in that comparison, the new courses look like a lite version of what I had to take, which was a lite version of what the previous generation had to take.

  8. FullOfThoughts says:

    You’re both yellow journalist using unsubstantiated jingoistic claims to avoid making any real analysis.

    Citing a bunch of rankings and mission statements (put out by the University and the system it supports) is just as bad as making a sweeping conceptual claim.

    With dichotomous fluff like this, you are exploding real issues into comical proportions and not actually thinking about anything that you are saying.

    Consider the argument “Stanford is a top institution because it ranks highly on various national polls” and break it down into its component parts:

    1) Stanford ranks highly on various national polls
    2) Various national polls imply good standards
    Then
    3) Stanford ranks has good standards.

    Where do we acquire the standards for number 2? From institutions like Stanford!

    You’ve encountered the Cartesian circle and you have dropped it all over your ‘retort’ to a piece of ‘journalism’ that suffers from similar issues.

    Worse, though, you have justified your attendance at a University with your attendance at a University, a selfishness seen all over campus. Worse yet, you hope your justification validates not making changes or re-examining the University’s position.

    So worse that it deserves its own paragraph, is that you don’t understand the purpose of negativity or rebellion. You ask if the writer is “trying to take you down a notch”. As if the analysis of a University has to do with a personal vendetta but really you know as a journalist you are forcing the issue to a personal level, rather than truly letting readers think if they are in a University.

    This article, like most about the University, has no concerns with pedagogy, social progress, or actually being a real member of a community. Like most defenses of our University, it rattles off statistics and conceptual standards but fails to show any clear understanding of the point of a liberal arts education beyond simply naming it such.

    I know this seems like a rant. But we are better than this. We claim to think about things more. We aren’t sinking the Lusitania. We haven’t renamed fries, freedome fries. We want progress and change and critique is how we get there, critique from the students who have experienced the institution. Graciousness is important, but real, authentic analysis trumps all.

  9. Commenter says:

    I’m pretty sure that “Thinking Matters” i.e. a pared-down, ersatz version of a rather poor “IHUM” program of questionable effectiveness is not a good indicator that Stanford students “think.” I’d contend that we do “think”, but that particular piece of evidence is just not a good indicator of that.

  10. Lauren says:

    Yeah, I agree that the degree his argument went to was ridiculous (obviously Stanford is a lot more than that!) I do feel that he pointed out a real and existing problem, though, that might merit serious address.

  11. Bob says:

    I completely agree with you. To be honest though, I think this whole thing may have just been a publicity stunt by the New Yorker to get a rise out of people.

  12. leo says:

    You know you’re grasping at straws when you cite Thinking Matters as evidence for quality humanities classes at Stanford.

  13. David says:

    1) We rank no. 1 in the world in the humanities, but we have more history professors than undergraduates. Most of our departments are well-respected, but their classrooms are empty. Little intellectual culture exists among undergraduates.
    2) A one quarter humanities sequence is hardly a liberal education.
    3) More than half of our undergraduates leave with a degree from the School of Engineering.
    4) When you work for the New Yorker, you’re allowed to cite your own website.

    It’s silly to dismiss this guy. Any humanities student at Stanford knows that what he says is somewhat true. Our campus culture focuses on making money to the detriment of everything else, including social life.

    People creating startups diverts energy from campus. It doesn’t improve our lives as students (though maybe they will change the way we play with our phones, for a month). Frankly, Stanford is a boring place to be a student. Resume-and business-building are so important that discussion and personal enrichment get pushed aside.

  14. David says:

    3 – meant pre-professional

    Most popular majors
    at Bay Area universities
    Stanford
    1, Computer science
    2. Human biology
    3. Engineering
    4. Economics
    5. Biology
    (http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_21175486/computer-science-becomes-stanfords-most-popular-major)

    Just saying – he may have a point.

  15. ugh says:

    Who cares? As a Stanford alum, I’d like to think we are directing our passions towards things that actually matter, not how our school is perceived by one individual. I’m failing to see why people are so up in arms about this. Just let it go already.

  16. Michael H. says:

    This blog post is incorrect–12/15,870 students leaving for a startup company is statistically significant by any definition when compared against a null hypothesis of 0 students, using a one-tailed binomial test (p < 2.2e-16).

  17. Autumn Carter says:

    As a fellow alum, I agree with Thompson’s overall point about Stanford’s institutional identity being in flux. I think it hasn’t arrived at “incubator” status yet, but it certainly strives to be more of a pre-professional/tech institute.

    And while the humanities and social science departments (specifically faculty) still maintain excellent reputations, the institution’s focus is shifting away from those areas. Stanford wants to be tech central, and Thompson is pointing out that that has created potential conflict of interests for the university, which (by definition) is supposed to be far more balanced in its focus. And Nick and David make excellent points.

    When I was at Stanford in 2010, I articulated much the same point in a piece called “Stanford’s Institutional Identity Crisis.”
    http://thecardinalprinciple.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/stanford%E2%80%99s-institutional-identity-crisis/

  18. Kevin says:

    (1) Yes, one typically links to one’s own magazine when publishing blog posts the blog of that magazine.

    (2) I didn’t know the point of a university was to produce $2.7 trillion annually! I am obviously naive.

    (3) Thinking matters! For one quarter of one year! A whole sixteenth of an education!

    (4) Maybe you don’t understand Thompson’s motivation because you’re an electrical engineering student! Shocking!

    (5) The world is measured in page views! The only possible motivation, for anything!

    (6) Google can find Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes to caption photos of boys staring at computers!

  19. S says:

    +100

  20. A Joke says:

    It’s all about the dollahs!!!

  21. JJ says:

    FullOfThoughts – if you’re really a Stanford student, then damn. our humanities program does suck.

  22. Chris says:

    He is just trolling for page views. Hey, it worked, we all read the article.

  23. Kevin says:

    Many parts of this post ring true — we’ve definitely got great programs in so many disciplines! The passion with which you cry out shows that all of these other ways of living and thinking are alive and well at Stanford, whether it’s political science, psychology, education, etc. The question is if the popular perception/media obsession over Stanford is all about highlighting technology (plus some football), because that can start to affect the culture of our institution and influences inbound students who will arrive in the fall.

    We are proud of all these other aspects of our school, and we WANT to embody all of these other things — not just serve as a springboard for new technology.

    (As an aside: the focus on one particular subset of high tech — the “entrepreneurial” web startup — completely overlooks the contributions of innumerable hard-working students conducting science and engineering research in laboratories on campus. That’s technology, too — the “Silicon” of Silicon Valley. Yet somehow the sexy-and-quick always rises to the top, rather than the nitty-gritty of cell biology or cancer research. Furthermore, innovation and creativity is also a fundamental part of the work of other Stanford community members, too: the quiet but powerful insights coming from scholars of “deliberative democracy”; amazing discourse on ethics and responsibility coming out of historians of Stalinist Russia; promulgating “the responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations when the state employs violence against its own citizens. These are also world-changing new ideas that require thinking “different.”)

    As a Stanford grad, Mr. Thompson is critiquing a certain mentality, which I personally am ambivalent about as well. He’s sparking a discussion on who we are and what we stand for.

    Perhaps that’s why we all feel a bit miffed at being pigeon-holed as “the tech industry feeder school”? It touches a nerve because we wonder sometimes — are the rest of us truly welcome here? (And I say this as an engineer who cares a helluva lot about the humanities.) This is our home too!

    Perhaps we ought to fight the people who perpetuate the problematic culture described in his article (and you know they exist), rather than the person who critiques it. I’d say you and Mr. Thompson are not antagonists, but natural allies, in creating the kind of Stanford we wish to inhabit.

  24. RT says:

    I don’t get what’s up with the editor of the New Yorker. They ran pretty much the same article last year, in early April, but this time it’s far less in-depth, so what’s the point of this squib?

  25. Nick Thompson says:

    Hello! Thank you for all the feedback (particularly the positive sort). I’ve written a follow-up post in response to the many letters and comments I’ve received. It should explain in more detail the issues I think are the most important.

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/04/the-end-of-stanford-part-ii.html

  26. Joshua Valdez says:

    Thank you for writing this Kristi.

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