Stanford University recently announced that billionaire Peter Thiel will be teaching a course, entitled Computer Science 183: Startup for the 2012 spring term. Now there’s quite a bit of curiosity as to what Mr. Thiel actually plans to teach the course’s attendees. This is due to the fact that Thiel is the founder of the Thiel Foundation as well as being a Silicon Valley entrepreneurial superstar.
Each year, the Thiel Foundation pays $100,000 to 24 qualified young people under the age of 20 not to attend college for two years. These people are asked to start up businesses ventures under the mentorship of the Thiel Foundation in lieu of attending college. This seems a bit ironical since the foundation’s founder made his fortune from investing in businesses started up by people who hold various college degrees.
Will Thiel be a legit professor or the Pied Piper in disguise?
Even the Stanford faculty and Board of Trustees are speculating as to what Thiel’s underlying agenda may be. Some believe Peter intends to use the class to advocate his own belief that college is a waste of time and money for intelligent, young entrepreneurs. They believe he will try to lure the students into leaving college or possibly recruit them to work for some of his own companies. With Peter Thiel getting to have final say on which students get to participate in his course, it’s easy to understand how these concerns could arise. It certainly would be difficult for a young college student to resist the temptation to exchange years of vast debt and boring studies for an exciting business startup venture with a billionaire-backer.
According to Mehran Sahami, the curriculum committee took into consideration what Thiel might attempt to do. They felt that the students would benefit from the experience and would manage to make the right educational choices. If Vivek Wadhwa, one of Stanford’s Rock Center of Corporate Governance fellows is a sample of the students attending the class; then Sahami may be right. Wadhwa thinks it would be very hypocritical for Thiel to advocate dropping out of college while he’s teaching a college course and holds two degrees himself. Wadhwa asked, “What’s he going to do? Tell students, ‘When you graduate from my class, drop out right after that?” However, Thiel has already made that statement to his students through a spokesman. He said, “If I do my job right, this is the last class you’ll ever have to take.
Will the course be the last class the 250 students ever need to take?
Many people are wondering if Thiel is right. Will it be the last class the students will ever need to take? Some students, like Nruthya Madappa, are looking forwards to having Peter Thiel challenge their perspectives on the value of a higher education. Madappa, a senior in electrical engineering, signed up for the course just minutes after the course enrollment went live.
It’s a win-win-win situation
It’s actually a win-win-win situation for everyone involved if you think about it. The students win by gaining some vital insight to the business world through the eyes of billionaires. Stanford University wins because having a renowned billionaire teaching one of its courses will increase its already elite prestige. Peter Thiel wins because he has another outlet for sharing his personal views about business startups, entrepreneurships, and education. He also wins out because he can use the classroom to spot potential business partners or highly-qualified employees before anyone else can get hooks into them.
As for being hypocritical, Thiel’s spokesman pointed out that Peter never wanted to abolish colleges. He simply wanted to point out that the cost of a higher education was becoming too high for most students, and that for some, it would never be worth paying the high price. As was also pointed out by students, faculty and Thiel, even if a student did leave for a year or two, he or she could always return. Stanford University encourages students to 1-2 years leave of absence to pursue their personal or business interests. Thiel is simply encouraging young people to take 1-2 years to test their entrepreneurial metal before wasting a lot of time and money developing an education they may not need.
Technically, leaving college courses to receive personal mentoring from a foundation specializing in entrepreneurship isn’t really foregoing a higher education anyway. Either way, the person is still a student learning from some form of institution claiming to provide a higher education in a specific field of interest. The only real difference in this particular case is that the foundation pays the person to learn whereas the college collects payment from the person. Either way, there’s not sure guarantee that the person will be a successful technology entrepreneur.