In my life thus far, I’ve had the good fortune of attending two of the best universities in the country, each with it’s own unique strengths. In the preceding months, those two schools, Stanford and Cornell, faced off in New York City’s competition for an applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island. As the competition unfolded, the ethos of each university was underscored.
Stanford has an attitude that levitates between confidence and arrogance that could be summed up simply as “we’re the best.” It’s starts at freshman orientation when students are told over and over that they are the chosen few, and that drum never stops beating. This attitude can be a bit much at times, but it is also self-fulfilling and, for the most part, productive. Students leave with a sense of greatness and many go on to do great things as a result.
Cornell, on the other hand, takes a more humble approach. There is a sense of excellence and history, but also an understanding that there’s more work to do (to move up in the rankings, attract the best applicants, spin out more technology, etc.). This attitude is healthy, but students (and alumni) must walk a fine line between the humility that leads to personal reflection and growth and the (unwarranted) inferiority complex that nags at some who, perhaps, wanted to go to Stanford. There are times when I wish I could tell Stanford “get over yourself” and times when I wish I could tell Cornell “act like you’re the best and you’ll be better for it.”
Cornell rocked the competition for the NYC campus. I won’t go into the details here, but to quote the mayor: “Of all the applications we received, Cornell and the Technion [Cornell’s partner] was far and away the boldest and most ambitious.” When the competition concluded, the appropriate response from Stanford’s administration should have been a statement congratulating Cornell and acknowledging that the better proposal won. Instead, Stanford entered the competition with the attitude that it was a foregone conclusion that it would win and then dropped out at the eleventh hour when it realized it had, in fact, lost, with a veiled excuse that it would not meet New York City’s terms.
I find it hard to believe that anyone walked away thinking, “Stanford is number one and the only reason it didn’t win was because it dropped out.” More importantly, Stanford’s actions and communications sent the wrong message. Do we really want to cultivate leaders who cannot admit that sometimes others are better, that they deserve to win, and that our collective society is better for it? Launching future leaders without humility is risky business—that’s how we end up with everything from life and career dissatisfaction to a variety of ethical breaches.
It’s also worth mentioning that, in part, Stanford owes its origins to Cornell. When the Stanfords decided to found a university, they used Cornell as a model and many of the first Stanford professors were from Cornell. Very few of my Stanford peers even know this fact.
So as a Stanford alumna, I would like to congratulate the competition (and as a Cornell alumna, I relish the victory on behalf of my alma mater).
P.S. Happy New Year to both of my readers! (Note to self: make a resolution to blog more.)