Technology and Education

The salad days of the bull market may now be but a warm memory; amid whispers that the technology boom is at an end, the technology-heavy NASDAQ stock index has retreated from its previously high levels. Yet dreams of electronic success still tempt many into investments--universities included. In recent months, the College has made significant steps to encourage students who wish to participate in the technology gold rush and start their own companies. The decision is praiseworthy, as Harvard should enable students to pursue their interests to the fullest extent compatible with its academic mission. However, Harvard should not feel any pressure to follow the technology boom blindly; the academic mission and the student experience must remain at the forefront of all decisions made by the College.

Given that the boom has lasted for years, it is surprising that Harvard's attitude toward student-run businesses seems to have reversed in a semester. In early February, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 proposed relaxing a policy prohibiting students from using dorm resources for commercial purposes. Three weeks later, administrators of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences confirmed the existence of a plan for an institute that would provide resources in high-tech entrepreneurship. Dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences Venkatesh "Venky" Narayanamurti has mentioned such possibilities for the institute as a high-tech lab for providing capital, office space, alumni mentoring and speakers. The effort is intended to promote, rather than discourage, the entrepreneurial spirit that often spurs technological innovations.

The promotion of student-run businesses--through which students may enter the University to gain in profits as well as wisdom--inevitably conjures up the spectre of crass, unlearned, Visigothic commercial interests laying siege to the ivory tower of liberal arts education. However, although it is first and foremost an institution of arts and sciences, the College is aware that most students would like later to find gainful employment. The technology institute may, very much like the Institute of Politics and the Office of Career Services, benefit students by promoting activity in a non-academic field that augments the academic experience.

This augmentation of the academic experience ought to be the criterion for future efforts to spur technology-related entrepreneurship, and the College should be wary of dramatic changes in response to technological or commercial stimuli where the benefits to students are unclear. Such a warning is necessary because there are strong incentives for the College to begin to make such changes.

The first is money. Narayanamurti mentioned Harvard's wealthiest dropout, William H. Gates III, Class of 1977, as illustrating the principle that a student who wishes to devote time and energy to an entrepreneurial project should be able to do so within the framework of the College and should not feel forced to leave. Indeed, M.I.T. and Harvard have been the recipients of $20 million donations from Gates and from Steven A. Ballmer '77; there is no question that nurturing successful entrepreneurs could result in a remarkable return on the College's investment.

But Harvard, as a non-profit institution, should remember that not all entrepreneurs become captains of industry. Entrepreneurship and non-profit ventures also deserve strong encouragement, and any promotion of entrepreneurship should take non-profit efforts into account. The experience of operating a non-profit can be just as valid as finding the next "killer app"; the College must ensure that the hope of future donations from Internet billionaires does not push its preferences away from the public good.

The second incentive is a sense of competition with Stanford. That university, having been carried to greatness by its warm weather and proximity to Silicon Valley, has been Harvard's electronic bugbear, threatening to draw away students with promises of high technology and easy access to venture capital. Stanford has promoted technology (and especially the commercialization thereof) as its specific forte, and the recent appointment of computer scientist and provost John L. Hennessy as its next president was widely seen as an effort to capitalize on this reputation.

Perhaps the first hints of an institutional rivalry with Stanford have emerged only because of boredom with Harvard's permanent status of victory over Yale University. However, occasional defeats, such as the regrettable loss of eminent cyberlaw expert and Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies Lawrence Lessig to Stanford this April, might encourage a prestige-sensitive administration to emulate Stanford's approach despite concerns that such an approach could be inappropriate. Stanford teaches entrepreneurship within the engineering school as well as in the business school; its closest equivalent to Harvard's planned technology institute, the Mayfield program, is underwritten by a venture-capital firm, the Mayfield Fund. If Harvard does feel threatened by Stanford's growing prominence, it should not respond by diving headlong into commercial arrangements and bringing the profit motive directly into the classroom. Route 128 is not Silicon Valley and may never be. The proper path for Harvard to follow is one that makes use of its unique strengths, rather than one that attempts to embrace the approaches of other schools.

It is too early to say what role the technology boom will have in changing Harvard; the full effects will likely go far beyond entrepreneurship institutes, class websites or programs in distance education. However, it would be a great loss if the College, in an attempt to gain leadership in technology and to prepare students for commercial success after graduation, loses sight of its academic mission and full potential. Harvard must continue to keep these criteria in mind, no matter how sweet the silicon siren's call.