Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Chuanqi Shen: An Opportunism

When having conversations with the people of Stanford, the presidents (present and former), the deans , the trustees etc, it seems that all of them kept repeating the same things. All of them told us not to plan too far ahead, and when asked how they got to where they are today, all of them replied that it was due to a series of serendipitous events. In fact, the word "serendipitous" was repeated so often that I had a feeling they had it scripted. But thinking back about it, it does appear that boldly taking the future by its horns and taking chances as one goes along seems to be the Stanford way of doing things.

According to Isaac Stein, what is special about Stanford is that "we have no traditions, all our signposts point forward". And this seems be reflected in the risk-taking attitude that Stanford displays in many of its ventures. During the 2008 financial crisis, Stanford lost 27% of its endowment. Some schools that were similarly hit badly decided to spread their losses by cut their spending for the next 8 or even 10 years. President Hennessy, however, didn't want the school in remain in the "recession phase" for such a long period of time. He told the faculty that he only wanted to revert back to full spending after 2 years. It was a bold decision, and it meant that in during the period of 2008-2010, Stanford had to make big sacrifices. But the faculty accepted the decision, and Stanford was able to bounce back quickly afterwards. While many schools were still facing budget cuts, Stanford has been busily renovating buildings and creating the new Engineering Quad. Because of the quick recovery to full spending, Stanford was also able to invest efficiently and bring the endowment funds back to its pre-financial crisis level.

Peter Bing told a similar story. When the school decided to continue the construction of the Bing Concert Hall during the financial crisis, they faced a lot of difficulties, for they initially did not have enough funds. However, there was a silver lining in the cloud, for construction stopped everywhere, and Bing was able to find a contractor who was willing to take up the project at a price that just allowed them to break even. By constructing the Concert Hall when no one else was doing it, Stanford obtained a great deal.

A similar sentiment was echoed when Jim Plummer, dean of engineering, talked about the process of hiring new faculty. Jim Plummer said that he did not care about the past work a candidate has done. He would also not hire a candidate to fill in a gap (for example, if a professor working on biocomputation retired, he would not specifically look for a candidate in that field) Instead, he wants to look for the smartest person, no matter what he does. This is because when he hires faculty, he is assuming that the faculty will stay for at least 10 to 15 years. In such a long period of time, it is hard to predict which field is going to be the next big thing, and thus hiring faculty based on area is undesirable. However, he believes that as long as the faculty are great people, great work will be done.

And the above examples, I believe, exemplifies why Stanford was propelled by serendipitous events. Everyone is adventurous and risking-taking, willing to be flexible and try new ideas. And we always seem to succeed, because we get the smartest people. 

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