Mar 13, 2012 07:43 PM EDT
Peter Thiel, university-hater, heads to campus
By Gerry Shih
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Peter Thiel, the superstar Silicon Valley investor, has famously dismissed university as a waste of time and money, and even offered students cash to drop out.
But his views apparently do not apply to himself - or to Stanford University.
Thiel, 44, will teach at the elite university this spring, sharing pearls of entrepreneurial wisdom in a class called "Computer Science 183: Startup." The course is already oversubscribed, with Thiel's return to his alma mater sparking both enthusiasm and skepticism on a campus increasingly obsessed with start-up success.
"It's puzzling to us what he has to say," said Nruthya Madappa, a senior in electrical engineering who saw rumors of Thiel's class explode on her Facebook news feed on a recent evening and rushed to sign up "several minutes" after course enrollment went live.
"He's famously known to make people furious with his views and the way he questions things," she said. "But he's challenging us to look at our education here in a different way."
Thiel, who co-founded online payment processor PayPal and later reaped billions with bets on gilded names like Facebook, LinkedIn and Zynga, is known for his maverick ways, even emerging recently as the main financial backer for libertarian presidential contender Ron Paul. Thiel has argued that the brightest young minds should strike out on their own and start companies rather than take on crushing debt to pursue a college degree.
Never mind that Thiel himself holds both a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a law degree from Stanford; he has backed up his talk with his checkbook. Last year, Thiel started a fellowship that offered $100,000 to 20 budding entrepreneurs between the ages of 14 and 20 who would drop out to focus on their ventures.
But Thiel last year also submitted a formal course proposal to Stanford after approaching Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford computer science professor, to discuss the possibility of teaching. (Thrun has since left the university to work on an online education project.)
"If I do my job right, this is the last class you'll ever have to take," Thiel said through a spokesman.
Mehran Sahami, the department's associate chair for education, said the curriculum committee debated whether Thiel would use the class as a conduit to recruit students to his companies. Other faculty voiced concerns that they were "not sure of his motivations given his history with respect to universities," Sahami said.
"We went into this with eyes wide open," said Sahami, a former research scientist at Google. "But on balance, this would be something our students would benefit from."
Still others, like Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford's Rock Center of Corporate Governance, were not so sure.
"It's hypocritical, but I'm not surprised," Wadhwa said. "The same people who go around bashing education are the most educated. What's he going to do? Tell students, 'When you graduate from my class, drop out right after that?'"
Jim O'Neill, the head of the Thiel Foundation, which administers the entrepreneurship fellowship, said that the investor has been concerned for several years about the skyrocketing cost of tuition and the burdens of student debt for many graduates.
"He's only said that college is good value for some people, it's just not necessarily a good value for everyone," O'Neill said. "He's not calling for the abolition of college."
Thiel chose to deliver his message in the classroom because he "wants to reach out to people in many different spaces," O'Neill said, adding that Thiel chose Stanford, his alma mater, because the university's startup culture made it a "natural fit."
SPECIAL GUEST ZUCKERBERG?
With several weeks to go until Stanford's spring quarter begins, Thiel's class - capped by the university at 250 spots, the capacity of the lecture hall - is already oversubscribed. There is a wait-list. And those who have managed to enroll in time may participate only with Thiel's consent.
"Inner accounts from the early days of startups including PayPal, Google and Facebook will be used as case studies," the listing for CS: 183 reads. "The class will be taught by entrepreneurs who have started companies worth over $1B and VCs(venture capitalists) who have invested in startups including Facebook and Spotify."
Students expect the lectures - and particularly the guest appearances - to be high-wattage affairs. There's already speculation over who he might bring in: Sean Parker? Mark Zuckerberg?
"It could be anybody," Madappa said. "He's well-connected in the Valley. Who knows who he's going to pick to come?"
The excitement bubbling around Thiel's class speaks to the startup-mania that's consumed Stanford perhaps more than any other American university. Although interest waned in the 2000s, Stanford's introductory computer science class recently broke an enrollment record last set during the 1999-2000 academic year, at the height of the dot-com bubble, when 762 students took the course during the 1999-2000 academic year.
Sitting in the student union cafe on a recent evening, Zach Weiner, a senior majoring in symbolic systems, described a campus where Andrew Luck, the football team's star quarterback and 2011 Heisman Trophy runner-up, could pass largely unharassed but where the undergraduate daughters of the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla are considered quasi-celebrities.
"Kids are rabid about entrepreneurship," Weiner said. "They say Stanford can't sell out a home football game but they can sell out a Peter Thiel talk 20 times over."
Travis Kiefer, 24, is one former student who followed Thiel's recommended path. He left Stanford before his senior year and moved into a two-bedroom house off University Avenue in Palo Alto - just a few blocks from the storied garage where Hewlett-Packard was born - to start a travel website.
Although his parents "expressed very strongly that they want to come out and see me in a cap and gown," Kiefer said they would understand if he never returned. But Kiefer called Thiel's arguments "too extreme," saying that skipping college altogether "might work for some people, but those people are so few and far between."
Kiefer said he fully planned to return if his startup stalled, thanks to Stanford policies that do not penalize but almost encourage leaves of absences.
"It's really easy to just take a year off," Kiefer said. "They welcome you back with open arms."
Harry Elam, a vice provost of undergraduate education, said that exposing students to Thiel's arguments was consistent with the university's mission.
In fact, he said, the university considered one of its most important commencement speeches in recent years to be the 2005 address by Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO, who recounted his own experience dropping out of Reed College in 1972.
"The spirit of the message, and the idea of what it takes to succeed in entrepreneurship, is something we understand," Elam said.
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