What makes Stanford special? Learning and doing are closely linked

Before coming to Stanford as a Knight Journalism Fellow last August, I hadn’t spent much time on campuses of truly elite universities. But I had brushed up against places like Columbia, Cambridge and Harvard closely enough, and often enough, to think I had a general idea of what value they have in contemporary society. But after eight months here on The Farm, I can see now that I had it all wrong.

The value of a place like Stanford isn’t just the caliber of teachers, the intensity of the research, or the whip-smart intelligence of the students, just about all of whom are brighter than me. It’s not even about the fact that so many talented and ambitious — and let’s admit it, privileged — people are thrown together in a single spot, slammed up against the pressure of time, though that’s certainly part of it.

In the first week of my third and final quarter here, I began to see just exactly what it is that Stanford offers that other schools, including the state schools from which I earned my bachelor’s and law degrees, can’t.

Tackling big problems

Let me explain by talking about two courses I am taking this quarter. Both courses have brought together graduate or professional students from a wide range of disciplines — physicists with poets, law-students with MBAs, and economists with computer scientists.

Both courses tackle very large problems. One is about financial engineering and the role complicated financial products, like derivatives and credit swaps, played in the 2008 financial crisis. The other is about the way foreign investors’ surging interest in the enormous mineral wealth in war-ravaged and impoverished Sierra Leone has so far failed to enrich anyone but middlemen and, sometimes, the investors.

These are both very complex topics, as you would expect at the graduate level of an elite university. They are both taught by deeply experienced teachers who can bridge the worlds between academic research and on-the-ground impact. They also both rely on a tremendous amount of interaction between the students and practitioners who deal with the problems daily.

In the Wall Street class, we’re taught by Tanya Beder, chairman of SBCC Group and a Wall Street luminary, and we will be hearing from top government and private-sector officials throughout the 10-week term. The deputy chief of the New York branch of the Federal Reserve will be in, as will the primary author of the Dodd-Frank legislation — along with a host of others.

On-the-ground learning

The Sierra Leone class is taught jointly by renown political scientist Jeremy Weinstein (a former member of the National Security team for President Obama) and Jenny Stefanotti, a fellow at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. It’s only bringing one major expert over to talk to us. But eight members of the class, including me, were invited on a nine-day, fact-finding trip that took us to meet a host of top government officials in the West African nation’s capital. From there, we headed deep into the nation’s interior to meet the miners, farmers and landowners that are so deeply affected by the exploitation of the diamonds, gold and other underground wealth.

We saw need so raw that is hard to put into words. Babies with bellies distended from hunger and disease. A village where cholera had claimed 15 victims just three months before. Chiefs on the take and some fighting, fruitlessly, for the interests of their people. Investors with big dreams, and often big promises — most of which went unpaid.

In meetings with the top government officials throughout the capital and in a half dozen villages deep into the malaria-plagued interior, we came away with a visceral sense of how human beings are being impacted by the problems we’ve been asked to study.

I think a lot of very good universities would take us this far, though many would lack the resources to bring students into such close encounters with the people making policy or living with its results.

Framing around real solutions

What I think makes Stanford special, however, is its commitment to frame these courses as project-based efforts to find real solutions.

We’re not going to undo the financial mess from 2008 in our class in the law school. But the expectation is that the project teams will come up with not just a description of what went wrong, but also a recipe for what how to change things to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

And then — the crucial step — the students are expected to pitch their ideas to government, investors and others willing to bet on change. What could happen next are policy changes, or maybe a company or technology changing the way Wall Street works. The examples of these kinds of real-world impacts are all over the campus.

In the end, it’s that confidence that is the real difference-maker at Stanford.

In the Sierra Leone course, we’re working with Simeon Koroma, a lawyer who founded a civil society organization in Sierra Leone that has trained scores of paralegals in some 19 villages — places where no lawyers come and few citizens had anything like access to justice. Now their disputes are mediated, their grievances heard and negotiations with mining and agricultural companies can be observed by skilled advisors.

He is looking at ways to take these efforts to a large scale and attack head-on the injustices that have attached themselves to the exploitation of the wealth beneath the surface, deep in the interior of the country. In the coming weeks, 16 of us will be working with Simeon to develop potential tools he and his allies can use to improve the lives of villagers. Along the way, it’s a way to test whether early enthusiasm for human-centered design can find wide-scale utility in the social sciences. It’s an experiment that other scholars and civil society groups will be watching closely as we progress.

Knowledge and action

I don’t whether our rebooting government class will actually make things better in the villages, but as I think of the faces of the poor but smiling children I met there, I feel very good about the fact we are going to try, and that the university has expended enormous resources to make sure we have every opportunity to succeed, if success if possible.

So now that the end of this year at Stanford is near at hand, I can answer the question of what does an elite university do that other, more ordinary places don’t: It demonstrates to its students, and its faculty, that understanding the world deeply enough can lead to actually changing it. By rejecting the old city vs. tower divide, the gap between doing and thinking, Stanford is a place that shrinks the distance between the real world and the academy. It insists that knowledge and action are linked, best understood as two sides of the coin we call wisdom.

I hope that’s a lesson I take with me back into the world of journalism when I leave here.