[Viewpoint] Dreaming of Korea’s Stanford

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[Viewpoint] Dreaming of Korea’s Stanford

Lately, Koreans have become well informed about Stanford University, whose official name is the Leland Stanford Junior University. The 180,000 members of the online cafe TaJinYo, or “We Request the Truth from Tablo” - a famous rapper in Korea - are all familiar with Stanford trivia, such as its founding year of 1891, its motto, “Die Luft der Freiheit weht” - meaning, “The wind of freedom blows” - and the seal of the Palo Alto tree.

Those who claim that Tablo did not graduate from Stanford’s undergraduate and master’s programs argue that Tablo did not attend Stanford because he called Harvard University Stanford’s rival.

Tablo had said, “Stanford and Harvard are, in fact, rival schools, and we often make fun of each other. If you go to the university bookstore, you can actually find souvenirs and goods ridiculing the other school.”

Many netizens claim that Stanford’s rival is the University of California, Berkeley, and if Tablo had actually attended Stanford, he would have known it. Just as Korea University is the rival of Yonsei University, Stanford’s de facto archrival is UC Berkeley. However, if you look into the history of the university, both UC Berkeley and Harvard are, in effect, rivals of Stanford. Stanford is a university that has made progress with Harvard in mind.

There is an urban myth that the founders of Stanford bore Harvard in mind when they established the university in California. Leland Stanford, a U.S. senator and former California governor, and his wife Jane Stanford visited the president of Harvard University in humble attire after their only child, Leland Stanford Jr., died a few days before his 16th birthday.

The couple intended to donate a facility to Harvard University in honor of their son, but their offer was rebuffed by Harvard. Infuriated by the impolite reception, the Stanfords decided that they would establish a university on the West Coast just as great as Harvard. And the fruit of their work is Stanford.

Stanford University officially denies the validity of this urban myth. It is true that Leland and Jane Stanford had a meeting with Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University at the time. They wished to build a university, a technical institute or a museum in memory of their son, and they sought advice from Eliot, who recommended founding a university.

Today, not many universities in the United States and the world are as prestigious as Stanford University. Stanford is constantly ranked in the top five to 10 for both liberal arts and science, fundamental and practical sciences and undergraduate and graduate programs. It is one of the top universities not only in the United States but in the world.

Students at Stanford call Harvard University “Stanford on the East Coast.” While Stanford is challenging the prestige of Harvard today, it was a small, regional university in the beginning. When the school opened in 1891, Stanford University had an enrollment of 559 students with 15 faculty members. The university struggled financially, and Jane Stanford, who was in charge of the school’s finances, at one point pawned her jewelry to pay professors’ salaries.

But Stanford University was a regional school with a greater perspective. It was established with a strong conviction to serve the development of the West Coast, especially California. At the beginning, the founding couple declared, “The children of California shall be our children.”

Until the 1930s, the school did not charge tuition. Frederick Terman, the dean of engineering and a provost, actively encouraged and supported faculty members and students to start their own companies beginning in the 1940s. The result is Silicon Valley, home to many technology companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. Terman is called “the father of Silicon Valley.”

Perhaps there is no point in probing the academic record of a singer instead of listening to his music. University ranking may not mean much, and it is childish to argue whether Harvard is the Stanford of the East or Stanford is the Harvard of the West.

However, we need to pay attention to the intention of why Shanghai Jiaotong University started to rank universities all over the world. Harvard, Stanford and UC Berkeley are ranked at the top of the list, and Shanghai Jiaotong University surveyed the schools in order to study the gap between universities in China and world-class universities.

A university that can surpass Stanford would come from one of the schools that endeavors to become the Stanford of Korea. From the financial crisis and IMF bailout to the latest controversy over Tablo’s degree, Koreans have boasted an amazing “collective learning” ability. If we put the energy into university development, we would get great ideas to improve higher education.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Kim Whan-yung
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