“The Advantage of the Research-Intensive University”
The University of the 21st Century

May 3, 1998
at the Peking University Centennial
Beijing, People’s Republic of China

“The Advantage of the Research-Intensive University”
The University of the 21st Century

The hundredth anniversary of China's 1898 Reforms and of Peking University is a special occasion. It merits the gathering of university presidents from around the world. The establishment of this university signaled China's commitment to create a university that would serve the nation and the world and that would meet international standards of scholarly excellence.

The many accomplishments of Beida in the intervening years - as well as its moments of despair - are known throughout the world. At the dawn of a new century, the original vision enunciated by its early leaders is at last within grasp. Of this I am confident: All will benefit as Beida draws upon the remarkable talents of this nation to become a leading center of creativity and innovation in the 21st century.

But, like my university and like universities around the world, Beida faces a major question: What qualities are necessary to serve society through excellence? This is the topic of my address. I am often asked to explain the "secret" ingredients of Stanford's relations with the Silicon Valley. The Silicon Valley has become a metaphor the world over for a productive relationship between a university and the surrounding region. And many visitors to Stanford seek to know the reasons for its success.

The answer is to be found not in some secret that Stanford has discovered, but rather in its rigorous adherence to several fundamental but universal purposes and characteristics of a research-intensive university.

In using the term "research-intensive university," I mean something very specific. Systems of higher education have become highly diversified and meet a variety of needs, especially societal needs for a skilled workforce. The institutions that have emerged to face these challenges are frequently labeled "universities." There is nothing wrong with this other than definitional confusion. What I have in mind, however, is an institution that meets three criteria: it selects its students; it is primarily dedicated to the search for knowledge; and it is marked by a spirit of critical inquiry. For simplicity's sake, I shall call this the research-intensive university. I do not use the common American designation "research university" because, as will become apparent, I do not think of the university as a research institute, but as an institution where the intensity of research is part and parcel of the traditional university functions of teaching and learning.

What research-intensive universities need to do now, as the 21st century approaches, is to think much harder about what distinguishes them as institutions from other societal institutions engaged in teaching, in order to bring into sharper focus for themselves and for society what is their unique and lasting task. And while some of that thinking bears on the non-secret I shall discuss today, its more crucial purpose is to clarify for the next century a role that was delineated most clearly nearly 200 years ago.

To begin, I should like to go back to the last decade of the 19th century, the era in which both Peking University and Stanford were founded. In the United States alone, three major universities were formed at about the same time: Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and The University of Chicago. As we know, Peking University resulted from the Hundred Day Reform of 1898 and was made the pinnacle of a multi-layered educational system that was meant to modernize the education and training of officials.1

An American university president who visited Beijing in 1910 observed critically that, at that time, the university was "not a well-ordered plan inspired by a lofty purpose, nor a high purpose supported by a well-ordered plan. It is rather a process, a becoming, a becoming of some sort, though of what sort it is hard to say."2

It is, of course, true for all universities that they are always a "becoming," or, as I am fond of saying, that all days at a university must be "first" days. In the case of Peking University, it became clear in 1917 where the process was leading. It is at this point that similarities emerge between Peking University and Stanford University. The appointment of Cai Yuanpei as Chancellor of Peking made him the real founder of a true university, one that rapidly became the foremost intellectual center of the country.3 Deeply influenced by his two stays in France and Germany (in Berlin and Leipzig) that amounted to a total of almost ten years, Chancellor Cai sought a synthesis of European and Chinese elements in higher education.

Cai's emphasis on university autonomy and academic freedom reflected the direct influence of the German model.4 The same model deeply affected the founding of Stanford, as well as Johns Hopkins and Chicago. David Starr Jordan, Stanford's first president, was an ichthyologist who read German fluently and who had been inspired by the spirit of scientific inquiry as exemplified by his role model Louis Agassiz. Agassiz in turn, was a protege of Alexander von Humboldt. Statues of Alexander von Humboldt and Louis Agassiz still stand on the facade of Stanford's Main Quadrangle. In yet another linkage, Alexander was the famous brother of Wilhelm von Humboldt, who took on the task of rethinking Prussian universities at the beginning of the 19th century and developed what has become known as the Humboldtian model.

Cai and Jordan not only shared the same intellectual heritage in their thinking about universities and their commitment to the value of rational analysis and the efficacy of the scientific method5 but, as unlikely as it sounds, they also had somewhat similar attitudes toward the academic tasks of the individual. As Eugene Lubot has written, Cai was "by temperament and education a moralist. He often stressed the impact that neo-Confucian values, such as self-examination and self-cultivation, had upon his life."6

Similarly, values of self-examination and self-cultivation were stressed continuously by David Starr Jordan. He saw them as among the main purposes of higher education, though, in his case, they obviously were not derived from Confucianism, but somewhat secularized Protestantism, with its emphasis on the autonomy of the individual.

I am stressing these shared origins because the story of Stanford (and therefore ultimately that of the relationship between Stanford and the Silicon Valley) is not a story of a university that set out to become a locomotive of economic change in its region and country. Rather it is the story of a university that, especially in the period following World War II, built on and increased its commitment to the highest-quality teaching and research, and the pursuit of innovation.

The first element of the non-secret regarding Stanford's productive relationship with Silicon Valley is the university's fundamental commitment to the building of scholarly "steeples of excellence" in research, learning and teaching, not to the training, as such, of engineers and business managers.

This commitment can be traced all the way to the background shared by Peking University and Stanford - Wilhelm von Humboldt and the German universities of the 19th century. In 1810, Humbolt wrote a memorandum entitled "On the Spirit and Organizational Framework of Intellectual Institutions in Berlin," that led to the founding of the University of Berlin. It was only ten pages in length, and constitutes perhaps the most concise reflections ever written on the university as an institution. These reflections have in no way lost their relevance, despite changes in the notion of scholarship and in the problems universities have experienced over the last two centuries.

Quite to the contrary, with universities seemingly hopelessly confused about their mission as they enter the 21st century, it is a matter of urgency to reflect on the university's core tasks and not be diverted by those who want the university to be all things to all people. I hope you will permit me to quote Humboldt on these matters as we continue.

The second element of Stanford's non-secret is that in spite of innumerable temptations, it has remained an institution that sees the combination of teaching and research as what it is primarily about. Therein lies the university's advantage. In remaining true to the Humboldtian concepts shared with Peking University in its founding era, Stanford developed an enduring institutional character that at its core does not change.

Humboldt clearly recognized the dialectical nature of the relationship between research and teaching. He expressed this relationship in the following blunt formulation: The university instructor does not exist for the sake of the students.

[B]oth teacher and student have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge. The teacher's performance depends on the students' presence and interest - without this, science and scholarship could not grow. If the students who are to form [the teacher's] audience did not [gather round] of their own free will, he [or she] would have to seek them out in [the] quest for knowledge. The goals of science and scholarship are worked towards most effectively through the synthesis of the teacher's and the students' dispositions. The teacher's mind is more mature but it is also somewhat one-sided in its development and more dispassionate; the student's mind is less able and less committed but it is nonetheless open and responsive to every possibility."7

Although Humboldt did much to strengthen the institutionalization of research and teaching in the university and to link the two as essential aspects of a university, the link between the two realms, in many universities around the world, has not been attained.8 In others, the two have become separated through the drastic reduction in funding and the relocation of research to institutions other than universities (as was the case in the former Soviet Union). The link is also nullified when teaching at the university is primarily carried out by those who have no direct relationship to research.

Not only do students profit when taught by scholars who are themselves engaged in creative endeavors; rather, scholarship itself is enriched when the younger generation consciously, if naively, questions it. This assumes, of course, discussion and the willingness for discussion in lectures, seminars, and laboratories.

It seems to me that in those universities overwhelmed by the sheer number of students or by hierarchical structures, or in countries in which research and teaching are fundamentally or even partially separated, much creative force lies fallow. My Humboldtian view of the matter is more radical than it may sound. My point is not what goes without saying - university teaching should be based on university research - but that university research benefits from teaching, not just from teaching graduate students but also from teaching first-year students.

The most successful method of knowledge and technology transfer on the part of the universities lies in educating first-rate students who themselves have been engaged in the search to know - men and women who will then be in a position to take on leadership roles in industry and business. Students who receive their training in university-based research arguably have a greater influence on the economy than the patentable inventions of university scientists. Therefore, attracting gifted students and interacting with them in a non-hierarchical manner is a crucial condition of success.

In this regard, I would like to cite the former Dean of Stanford's School of Engineering. According to Professor James Gibbons, what students learn by participating in research during the course of their education at universities, is nothing less than "the ability to think using primary principles and, in so doing, to produce innovative results."

It is precisely through the intensive participation in university research that graduate students develop the openness and curiosity that will later enable them to transfer the latest knowledge into innovative products. Outstandingly educated students are still the most meaningful contribution that university-level research has to make to technology transfer, a topic I will return to shortly.

In this context, the third important aspect of Stanford's non-secret must be taken into consideration: the university's freedom to set agendas. Academic freedom is the sine qua non of the university.

As Humboldt so nicely puts it: "One unique feature of higher intellectual institutions is that they conceive of science and scholarship as dealing with ultimately inexhaustible tasks: this means that they are engaged in an unceasing process of inquiry."9Concerning government, he writes: "The state must understand that intellectual work will go on infinitely better without it."10 This statement, however, explicitly does not pertain to finances.11

Academic freedom means, above all, freedom from politics. Insofar as this means freedom from politicians, the situation in many parts of the world nowadays is, by and large, better than in the 19th century. To be sure, the state and its bureaucracy anywhere frequently suffocate initiative and refuse to let in any fresh air.

Academic freedom also means freedom from pressures to conform within the university. Even Humboldt emphasized: "Intellectual freedom can be threatened not only by the government, but also by the intellectual institutions themselves, which adopt a particular point of view at their inception and then eagerly suffocate the rise of another."12

It would, however, be completely out of place if academic freedom were to be interpreted as though no one has the right or responsibility to hold professors accountable for shortcomings in their teaching. This is the responsibility of the university itself. Universities must continually be occupied with the improvement of their own quality. It is hard work, often unpleasant and, since it concerns human endeavors, perfection will never be attained. But we must begin with the notion of perfectibility. Too many of the world's universities seem to have given up the idea of working toward perfection.

In this respect, universities and politicians must worry about the imbalance that exists worldwide between the capacity of research intensive universities and the number of students. Quality and size have a complex relationship. To be sure, it is becoming more and more urgent to make the notion of education as a form of self-learning, as a form of understanding, accessible to large numbers of people. Being able to continue to learn is more important for a man or woman of action than is the accumulation of facts for future reference. The only problem is that universities are not always the most efficient institutions for accomplishing all of this.

In the end, society suffers because, in overcrowded research-intensive universities, investments in what economists call human capital can hardly be described as optimal. The burden of numbers frequently weakens the capacity of the university to encourage the talented ones and thus stands in the way of demanding the best from them.

At the same time, the university neglects the training of those who are less gifted because it is not at all prepared for this training, or does not want to prepare itself. A culture of excellence cannot grow if a university's capacity is over-taxed.

Humboldt also insisted that the university demands a measure of solitude. Edward Shils, the great sociologist of higher education, defined the solitude postulated by Humboldt as "freedom from distraction."13 In the contemporary world professors, students, and the university itself are constantly being distracted, letting themselves be distracted and even seeking distraction.

The temptations are endless. Universities and their associates are expected to carry out research, to educate and instruct, to contribute to society, to make their expertise available to business, to improve the speed of innovation, to become engines for the economy, to participate in the improvement of social conditions, to contribute to a higher quality of life and to obtain outside funding for research. Small wonder that the university has become a highly questionable institution.

The current situation is not solely the result of outside demands placed on the university. Rather, it is often a case of simultaneously being led into temptation and yielding to it. For many professors, for the university itself and occasionally also for students, giving in to temptation brings fame or profit or both, and is thus easy to justify. If the fate of the country - and in the face of globalization one could even say the fate of any country - depends on a professor's well-remunerated expert opinion, then the demise of the office hour with students is a price many are prepared to pay.

If we set no limits on this, even expect it, we should not complain that the university is losing its institutional character or that it is neglecting its chief tasks. This "distraction" is a world-wide phenomenon.

Among its principal sources is the area of technology transfer. Globally there exists a demand for a stronger connection and a greater partnership between universities and industry. As I said at the outset, Stanford University and Silicon Valley are seen as models for such partnerships. It is no longer a matter of debate, for instance, that Northern California owes much to the presence of its universities, including of course the great University of California, and their willingness to work with industry. For example, in the 1950s, contact between Stanford University and business was made easier by the founding of the Stanford Research Park adjacent to the university. We work actively toward securing patents and licensing rights. High-tech companies in Silicon Valley alone recorded earnings of 85 billion dollars in 1995, and according to one estimate, 62% of those earnings can be traced back to companies whose founders had connections to Stanford. They have created hundreds of thousands of jobs.14 And I am not even referring to businesses elsewhere in the United States or the world to which graduates of Stanford and other research-intensive universities have contributed.

With divisions such as Stanford's Center for Integrated Systems, we have created partnerships expressly between university and industry. However, partnerships of this sort demand relatively large investments in terms of both capital and time. The Center for Integrated Systems, which belongs to the university and possesses its own complex of buildings on campus, has as its task the integration of hardware and software systems. Represented in it are 40 professors, 200 students (largely doctoral candidates), approximately ten academic fields and some fifteen companies from the electronics industry worldwide represented here. The research priorities of the Center develop from meetings between researchers from the university and from industry: researchers from industry gain insights through time spent at the Center and in turn, doctoral candidates complete internships at the companies.

This kind of partnership is not a "distraction" but an enrichment, since universities learn from their partners in industry - and therefore it constitutes the fourth essential element of Stanford's non-secret. Such contacts strengthen the entrepreneurial spirit and the insight that technology transfer is a "bodily contact sport," that is to say, it assumes the willingness for personal interaction. This non-hierarchical interaction is very much part of the Stanford culture.

In a stimulating assessment of Silicon Valley, Annalee Saxenian, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has generalized this point for Silicon Valley as a whole. I quote:

Silicon Valley has a regional network-based industrial system that promotes collective learning and flexible adjustments among specialist producers of a complex of related technologies. The region's dense social networks and open labor markets encourage experimentation and entrepreneurship. Companies compete intensely while at the same time learning from one another about changing markets and technologies through informal communication and collaborative practices; and loosely linked team structures encourage horizontal communication among firm divisions and with outside suppliers and customers. The functional boundaries within firms are porous in a network system, as are the boundaries between firms and local institutions such a trade associations and universities.15

Nevertheless, one must beware of simplistic expectations. While boundaries to the business world should be porous, the research-intensive university's advantage in contributing to innovation lies in its ability to set agendas and remain open to chance and serendipity in research.

Stanford seeks continuously to maintain this openness and the results, I believe, indicate that this aspect of its character is indeed the fifth element of the university's non-secret. If a research-intensive university becomes dependent on the imperatives of business product development or governmental industrial policy, it loses the advantage that it gains from its commitment to the endless process of inquiry, the search to know. We also have to keep in mind that support from industry can be of great significance, but, in light of the expenses involved, will not supplant research funding from the state. Basic research is a public good that business, given its orientation towards profit, can produce only in a limited quantity on its own. This is an insight governments tend to forget all too frequently, especially in times of fiscal crisis. Stanford would not be where it is today but for government funding in the period since World War II.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the research-intensive university, in order to make contributions to the welfare of society, must still attempt to approximate the ideal type as defined at the beginning of the 19th century. However, the university as an institution will be deeply influenced by information technology, which will redefine the university and its relationship to society beyond the imagination of Humboldt and the founders of both Stanford and Peking University.

Information technology is advancing so rapidly that I cannot possibly cite mastery in this area as one of Stanford's non-secrets; however, I can say that our ability to deal with issues it raises successfully will be as critical to the university's future as any of the previous five elements of the non-secret I have described today has been to our progress thus far.

I will focus on four areas specifically. First, there is the World Wide Web as an encyclopedic source of information, as a library, and as an archive. Today, databanks with scientific, demographic, economic, and political information are accessible worldwide, as are legal decisions, not to mention newspapers. Catalogs of the library holdings of many universities are available to researchers without the necessity of undertaking a physical trip to that library. Increasingly, the complete texts of world literature are available on-line, as are scholarly journals and preprints. Entire archives are being created worldwide: Government documents can be found in their entirety, photos can be reproduced, film and audio material can be downloaded. Because these databases can be searched with great specificity and because links to relevant sites and documents are easily accessed, there are possibilities for research that, not long ago, could only be dreamed of. The web is wonderfully unlimited, robust, and open.

From the perspective of the university, what matters is that as a source of information, as a library and archive, the World Wide Web does not need a physical location at the university; thus the university's function as an organizer of knowledge and information will, in part, cease to exist.

Second, the domain of teaching is currently undergoing changes due to the new methods and forms of communication. In the near future, the "lecture" from the podium will be replaced by an interactive "presentation" in a virtual "theater" that may or may not take place in a lecture hall.

The third aspect is the most important, and one that simultaneously liberates and threatens the research-intensive university. As limitations of time and space fall by the wayside, much of what is currently tied to university teaching by those limitations will fall too. On-line teaching is beginning to attain a reality that is anything but speculative. At Stanford, for example, we give highly advanced math instruction to gifted high school students the world over whose schools do not offer these courses.

The amount of instruction offered on the world wide web is continually increasing. Any student in any country, as long as he or she can pay the fee, can matriculate at universities that offer "cyber instruction." Competition is evolving internationally into a tide that accreditation and testing monopolies will scarcely be able to stem. Given what I said earlier about the importance of the link between research and teaching, we have to be very careful before we accept this development as equivalent to the university as a physical institution.

Finally, the fourth aspect is the electronic links between scholars and students worldwide that already allow, for instance, for the immediate communication of new research hypotheses as well as their immediate falsification and refutation, or seminars conducted with participants in different locations. In this way, the walls of all universities will become more porous. I welcome this development that has begun to make possible the realization of an ancient dream: a worldwide "republic of learning," a global community of scholars.

But when all is said and done, the ultimate measure of a university remains in the contributions its research has made to human welfare. In that respect the university of the 21st century has to be measured by traditional yardsticks.

In 1954, the former American president Herbert Hoover, an alumnus of Stanford, eloquently evoked the character of universities and what they can do. The occasion was receipt of an honorary degree from the University of Tübingen, which dates back to 1477. Hoover said:

It is by the free shuttle of ideas between our universities that we weave the great tapestries of knowledge. Our academic traditions have developed a system that is peculiarly effective in spotting outstanding intellects and putting them to work in a climate that fosters creative, original thinking.
From the mutual building by our university faculties and laboratories devoted to abstract science have come most of the great discoveries of natural law. The application of these discoveries through invention and production has been the task of the engineers and technicians whom we train. Applied science dries up quickly unless we maintain the sources of discovery in pure science. From these dual activities of the scientists and the technicians, a great stream of blessings in health, comfort, and good living has flowed to all our people.16

Today I have attempted to stress why, for Stanford, being part of that great stream has had very little to do with secrets and a great deal to do with adherence to the fundamental purposes and character of a research-intensive university. A commitment to building "steeples of excellence" in research, learning and teaching; viewing the combination of teaching and research as what we are about, despite innumerable temptations; having the freedom to set agendas; seeking industry partnerships as enrichments to, not distractions from, the research process; maintaining porous boundaries; and being open to chance and serendipity in research - these are the non-secrets.

Their source is the common wellspring from which Stanford and Peking University both were drawn and from which blessings will continue to flow for our nations, and for all mankind, in the 21st century.

Thank you.

1. Ruth Hayhoe, China's Universities and Western Academic Models, in Philip G. Altbach and Viswanathan Selvaratnam (eds.), From Dependence to Autonomy: The Development of Asian Universities, Kluwer Academic Publishers (1989), 37.

2. Charles F. Thwing, The Imperial University of Peking, The Independent 69 (September 1910), 573.

3. Eugene Lubot, Peking University Fifty-Five Years Ago: Perspectives on Higher Education in China Today, Comparative Education Review 17 (vol. 1), 48-49.

4. Ruth Hayhoe, China's Universities 1895-1995: A Century of Cultural Conflict, Garland Publishing, Inc. (1996), 45.

5. As to Cai, see Lubot, 46.

6. Lubot, 45.

7. Wilhelm von Humboldt, On the Spirit and the Organisational Framework of Intellectual Institutions in Berlin, Minerva VIII: 2 (April 1970), 243f.

8. See Edward Shils, The Idea of the University: Obstacles and Opportunities in Contemporary Societies, Minerva XXX: 2 (Summer 1992), 301.

9. Humboldt, 243.

10. op cit., 244.

11. ibid.

12. op cit., 246, with some changes for clarity.

13. Shils, 309.

14. Joan Hamilton, Circuits of Knowledge, Stanford (May/June 1996), 48.

15. Annalee Saxenian, Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, Harvard University Press (1996), 2-3.

16. Herbert Hoover, Addresses Upon The American Road 1950-1955, Stanford University Press (1955), 95.