Want to help Stanford? Help state universities, says president

Marc Tessier-Lavigne discusses diversifying student intake and focusing on ethics of new technologies in Times Higher Education interview

December 23, 2019
Source: Getty
Level playing field Stanford takes pride in its need-blind admissions policy and 82 per cent of its students graduate debt-free

Stanford University’s president has acknowledged that his world-leading institution is not doing enough to enrol talented students from poorer backgrounds and has promised to do better in the future.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne said Stanford had spent the past 15 years being “very intentional about trying to diversify our student body, and we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of racial and ethnic diversity”.

But, he told Times Higher Education, “We’ve not made as much progress in socio-economic diversity, and that is definitely an area of focus for us in coming years.”

In the interview, Professor Tessier-Lavigne also emphasised his ambitions for incorporating ethical considerations into a range of Stanford course material – and the challenges of getting faculty to accept and engage with them.

The economic diversity problem has long been pervasive in the upper echelons of US higher education. A study by Raj Chetty, a professor of economics at Harvard University who was at Stanford in 2017 when the research was done, found that 38 top US universities had more students from families in the 1 per cent of income distribution than those from the nation’s bottom 60 per cent.

At Stanford, Professor Chetty and his team found, the comparison was similar, equal to the bottom 50 per cent.

Public universities, rather than elite private institutions such as Harvard and Stanford, have proven to be much better in moving students from low- or middle-income upbringings into the range of top wage earners, they said.

Stanford reports that 16 per cent of its students currently receive a Pell Grant, the main federal subsidy for low-income students, which is about half the nationwide average.

Professor Tessier-Lavigne said he had no specific goal for raising that 16 per cent figure, and the university-wide strategic plan that he announced last year does not address it directly.

Instead, sections of the plan concerning diversity and access talk of steps that include seeking a more diverse faculty, increasing need-blind financial aid and improving the campus climate for those who are admitted.

Stanford takes pride in its need-blind admissions policy, Professor Tessier-Lavigne said, and it has just increased from $125,000 (£95,369) to $150,000 the level of annual family income below which its students pay no tuition fees.

Currently, 82 per cent of Stanford students graduate without any debt, and the average among the others is just $14,000, he said.

Ethical considerations, meanwhile, are becoming a growing focus of attention at Stanford, Professor Tessier-Lavigne said. The university earlier this year opened its Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, arguing that a technology as powerful as AI demands dedicated research efforts to simultaneously address the accompanying ethical considerations.

The university’s long-range strategy envisages spreading that concept to almost all fields. Its initial form emphasises new course offerings such as the one formed by faculty from three departments – called ethics, public policy and technological change – which has already attracted a 300-student enrolment.

The popularity of the course was encouraging, Professor Tessier-Lavigne said. Tougher, he said, was the job of getting academics across the university to insert such lessons directly into their existing curriculum.

“The curriculum is decided by the faculty here,” he said. “So when we have these initiatives, it’s really to highlight things and to stimulate faculty to think about how they might incorporate things into their courses.”

Professor Tessier-Lavigne also said he has been cautioning state lawmakers who recognise the immense economic value to California of Stanford and Silicon Valley to also recognise the importance of robust state funding of higher education.

Two leading public research universities near Stanford – the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco, are critical but less-heralded elements of the academic-industry partnership in the region, Professor Tessier-Lavigne said. Like many states, however, California is still struggling to revive public funding for its colleges after the deep cuts that followed the 2007 recession.

Asked directly by one member what the California legislature could do to help Stanford, Professor Tessier-Lavigne said he replied: “The single most important thing for them to do for Stanford is to renew their support for the UC system.”

Professor Tessier-Lavigne, however, had no easy answers for other communities and universities that admire Silicon Valley and hope somehow to replicate even a part of it. Silicon Valley evolved over decades and the recipe involves multiple ingredients, with vital elements including encouraging technology transfer to local industry and helping researchers to finance their own ventures, he said.

Stanford’s own worry, Professor Tessier-Lavigne said, was more about maintaining that leadership, which involves remembering Intel founder Andy Grove’s warning that “only the paranoid survive”.

“There is sort of a relentlessness to how people go about things here,” he said. “That, I hope, means that we won’t fall behind.”



Print headline: Stanford head: to help us, help our state colleagues

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