How Stanford Lost Its Soul

How Stanford Lost Its Soul

A distinguished university known for its embrace of corporate funding has come down with a bad case of Covid-19 contrarianism.


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Stanford University enjoys an international reputation for excellence and an endowment of more than $27 billion, making it the third-wealthiest private school in America. The endowment lags behind only Harvard and Yale. In some ways, Stanford’s wealth is all more impressive since, unlike its venerable Ivy League rivals, the school itself is the very source of its own fortune. The campus is surrounded by Big Tech firms that were more or less created by its former students. Start at the center of Stanford and head north to go to Facebook, south to hit Apple, east to run into Google. The close proximity is no accident: Silicon Valley is the child of Stanford. Big Tech, out of filial gratitude, is always happy to lavishly fund its alma mater.

But during the current pandemic, Stanford is making a mark for something less admirable than birthing the tech revolution. Stanford has become the main academic vector for contrarian Covid-19 thinking, helping give legitimacy to arguments that the world is overreacting to the virus.

In March, Richard Epstein, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a Stanford-affiliated think tank, published an influential article arguing that America could expect only around 500 deaths from the pandemic. He later revised that number to 5,000. Still later, he said he meant 50,000. Even that number, of course, is far short of the more than 93,000 Americans who have already died of Covid-19—a figure that itself is almost certainly an undercount.

It’s easy enough to dismiss Epstein as a buffoon. He’s a law professor, not an epidemiologist, and is known for his extremist libertarian views.

Much more serious was the April 17 study released by a team headed by Dr. John Ioannidis, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Unlike the interloper Epstein, Ioannidis is one of the world’s leading experts on epidemics. The study reported findings based on tests done in Santa Clara County showing that the virus was much more prevalent than previously suspected, which also means the overall mortality rate is much lower than commonly assumed.

The Santa Clara study, as it came to be called, was quickly picked up by the right-wing media, eager for ammunition for the argument that the lockdown had to be ended quickly. “Most of the population has minimal risk, in the range of dying while you’re driving from home to work and back,” Ioannidis told Fox News.

The Santa Clara study was a preprint, meaning it had not been peer reviewed but was being shared so it could be examined by colleagues. The response of the scientific community was harsh. As a column in The New York Times by Aleszu Bajak and Jeff Howe noted, “What followed next was the academic version of a roast, with critics raising issues with the researchers’ recruitment method (Facebook ads), flaws in their statistical methods, and even the tests themselves—manufactured in China, and since banned from export.”

Last Thursday, Stephanie M. Lee of BuzzFeed reported that the Santa Clara study had been “funded in part by David Neeleman, the JetBlue Airways founder and a vocal proponent of the idea that the pandemic isn’t deadly enough to justify continued lockdowns.” The airline industry, of course, has been badly hit by the pandemic, so Neeleman has a vested interest in any research that makes the case that the lockdown is an overreaction.

Drawing on a whistle-blower’s evidence, Lee documented just how closely Neeleman had been involved in shaping the Santa Clara study. Beyond helping to fund the research, Neeleman tried to facilitate the study by pressuring Dr. Taia Wang, a Stanford infectious disease expert. Ioannidis’s team wanted Wang to give her stamp of approval to the test they were using. Wang was reluctant, writing that the experiments she conducted on the test left her “alarmed.”

Neeleman wrote to Wang emphasizing the urgency of quick approval for the tests. “If you are willing to do a 5,000 test in New York, just tell me the cost and I will raise the money immediately,” Neeleman wrote. “Time is of the essence.” Wang resisted Neeleman’s wheedling. As BuzzFeed reports, “In her email to the group of faculty, Wang was clear: She did not want her name on the paper and did not trust the test.”

The Santa Clara study is likely to be remembered as a major black mark against Stanford. But the tainting of research by big money is not a new story. Stanford has long had this problem. As Ken Auletta noted in The New Yorker in 2012:

At Stanford more than elsewhere, the university and business forge a borderless community in which making money is considered virtuous and where participants profess a sometimes inflated belief that their work is changing the world for the better. Faculty members commonly invest in start-ups launched by their students or colleagues. There are probably more faculty millionaires at Stanford than at any other university in the world.

John L. Hennessy, the president of Stanford from 2000 to 2016, boasted, “I’ve cut billion-dollar deals in the Valley with a handshake.” Hennessy sat on the boards of Google and Cisco Systems while running Stanford. He was keen on encouraging Stanford students to start tech companies, with some of the profits flowing back to the school, and facilitated an environment where the university merged with the corporate giants that surround it. As Auletta observes, “The attitude on campus [is] that business is a partner to be embraced, not kept at arm’s length.”

Some Stanford scholars have been troubled by the school’s easy fusion with big business. “The entire Bay Area is enamored with these notions of innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, mega-success,” Stanford historian David Kennedy told The New Yorker. “It’s in the air we breathe out here. It’s an atmosphere that can be toxic to the mission of the university as a place of refuge, contemplation, and investigation for its own sake.”

While enjoying the lucre of high-tech plutocracy, Stanford has become prone to petty acts of anti-intellectual spite, as when the administration pushed to end funding for the university’s press in 2019. “Stanford’s commitment to the humanities has, at least in recent decades, been a matter of debate,” argues Grant Barnes, a former director of the Stanford University Press. More bluntly, the humanities are second-class disciplines at Stanford. The history program there saw a 40.1 percent decline in enrollment in the last decade. By contrast, Princeton in roughly the same period saw a 5.6 percent increase in history majors.

The flourishing of Covid-19 contrarianism is only one symptom of a larger sickness at Stanford. The university is richer than it has ever been, but the school has lost its soul.

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