ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
No place in America is more associated with high-tech fortunes than Silicon Valley, and no university is more associated with Silicon Valley than Stanford. No individual epitomizes the connections between Stanford and Silicon Valley more so than the university's President John Hennessy. He is a computer scientist, former department chair, dean of the engineering school and provost, and he's been a very successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor who sits on the boards of Google and Cisco. And he's our guest. Welcome.
JOHN HENNESSY: Delighted to be here, Robert.
SIEGEL: First, Stanford is a leader in offering free online courses, both via iTunes and through the consortium Coursera that now involves several major universities. How much of a Stanford education can be experienced thousands of miles from your idyllic campus via laptop or a smartphone?
HENNESSY: Well, still quite small parts of the total educational process, and, obviously, limited to courses that are fairly easy to capture with this kinds of technology. But we're still very much in the infancy. And I think over time, the online catalog will grow.
SIEGEL: Can you foresee offering for-credit courses and degrees online, and would they still be free?
HENNESSY: Well, I think we can see moving in that direction. One of the challenges, I think, that will exist once you start talking about giving credit is the requirement to assess student performance is significantly higher than it is if you're offering students the opportunity to be exposed to a course and do their own assessment. And that's going to demand, at least for the foreseeable future, significantly more effort on behalf of faculty and support staff in order to ensure that students have really mastered the material, which is of course what we demand on the home campus.
SIEGEL: In terms of what one can experience through an on-campus education, should Stanford aspire to make the university community or the potential for mentoring accessible online, or is that inevitably going to be what you move to California for, what you pay - by today's rates - $40,000 in tuition for?
HENNESSY: Well, I think there will be a difference between the on-campus experience. There are obviously courses that will not move very easily: small seminars, interactive courses. And, of course, a campus like ours provides an entire educational experience of people living and working together. Those things will be very hard to export online.
But there'll be other things. And I think we'll be serving, at least initially, a community for whom coming to Stanford is probably not practical.
SIEGEL: I'd like to ask you about the nexus of the university and the business world. People have raised questions about potential conflicts involving the companies you're involved with and your role as university president. But I'd like to address a broader potential conflict.
With so many fortunes springing out of Stanford - and some of them returning gifts to the university - how do you prevent Stanford from overemphasizing those fields that might make billionaires over those academic fields that might just make scholars or teachers?
HENNESSY: That's an excellent question, Robert. I think - and one that we certainly worry a lot about. I think the first key insight that I'd mention is most of our most successful startups began as fundamental research endeavors, not necessarily focused on a discovery that might lead to a company. In fact, in many cases, people would've said, well, that's not a question that has any immediate application to some new endeavor.
But I think the university also prides itself on being a broad-based institution, of having not only a great computer science department, but having a great history department, a great English department, a great political science department.
SIEGEL: Do you find yourself - or does the university find itself - say, in accepting applicants for an undergraduate life at Stanford, do you control the number of future engineers you're admitting to keep it down - I think it's about 25 percent of undergraduate majors now.
HENNESSY: It's about 25 percent. We don't control it. In fact, we do not do admissions by majors, so we do not consider that. Students will indicate what they might major in, but we find many students change their mind. The most popular major in freshman year is I don't know. And the second most popular is I changed my mind. So students will vary what they do.
I think the U.S. faces a challenge, the entire higher education sector. And the students are beginning to be more and more - they've been more and more career focused. And I think that causes us all to worry that some of the students who would traditionally go into humanities majors, in particular, are thinking that that's no longer a viable option for them. And I think that's completely wrong.
We see our students, they'll go major in history, and then they'll go to business school or medical school or law school afterwards. And we want to keep that avenue open, because I think it's important for the country to have that kind of broadly educated workforce.
SIEGEL: But there is, these days, a constant appeal for more science, technology, engineering and math, stem course education. You don't hear that same appeal for - even these days, I think you hear less about: Let's improve a language instruction. People think more in terms of: Let's develop a new app that will translate foreign languages.
HENNESSY: Yes. Certainly, that's true. We believe - I mean, we still have a foreign language requirement for every single student. And we've done that because we believe that learning a foreign language is more than just about the skill of translation. It's about engaging a culture and a history. And I think it would be a loss for the country if we lost that kind of commitment to a liberal arts bases for many of our students.
SIEGEL: As Stanford has prospered, California has been in desperate fiscal straits. And the public university systems of California have experienced very, very deep cuts. Are we on the road now to a two-level system of higher education in the U.S., well-funded private universities where you actually stand a chance of meeting your professor and overcrowded underserved public universities?
HENNESSY: I think that is a real danger. I think we all worry about the state of our public institutions. And here, we're 50 miles away from Berkeley, one of the best public universities in the world, and we worry about its future. And let me be absolutely clear. We have some great private universities, but the vast majority of people who get an undergraduate degree in this country do so in the public institutions. And if we lose them, we will lose the opportunity to have that next generation of highly educated people out working in our country.
SIEGEL: But how many institutions, how many private institutions can have a sticker price of tuition and fees and books of over $50,000 a year, and say, we'll admit on a need-blind basis because we have enough income coming in to be able to cover the cost of those who can't afford that.
HENNESSY: Well, probably only somewhere between 15 and 20, maybe 30 institutions if you count the small liberal arts colleges. And after that, it obviously becomes very difficult to do. Tuition makes up just too much of the revenue.
And I think we see the threat here will be both to the set of private institutions that depend heavily on tuition, and the growing debt burden that American families are seeing for sending their children to college, together with what's happening in the public, which is, as much as anything else, a reduction of state support, that squeeze is going to force us to focus a lot more on reducing the cost of education.
SIEGEL: Well, Professor Hennessy, thank you very much for talking with us today.
HENNESSY: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: John Hennessy is the president of Stanford University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Now that Stanford, Harvard and other top American universities are offering free online courses, will students one day be able to get course credits and degrees online from these schools without having to pay for it? Stanford's president says his school "can see moving in that direction."
Stanford University President John Hennessy is a computer scientist and successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He currently sits on the boards of Google and Cisco Systems.
Tony Avelar / AP
As Stanford, Harvard and other top American universities digitize more courses for free public consumption, will students one day be able to get an actual degree online from these institutions without having to pay for it?
John Hennessy, president of Stanford University, says his school "can see moving in that direction."
Currently, Stanford offers online courses on subjects such as cryptography and human-computer interaction — all free, but without credit. (Students do get a "certificate of completion" signed by the instructor for successfully completing the coursework.)
One major challenge to offering actual credit, according to Hennessy, will be how to assess the performance of a degree-seeking student in an online course.
"The requirement to assess student performance is significantly higher than it is if you're offering students the opportunity to be exposed to a course and do their own assessment," Hennessy tells All Things Considered's Robert Siegel. "And that's going to demand, at least for the foreseeable future, significantly more effort on behalf of faculty and support staff in order to ensure that students have really mastered the material."
Hennessy says Stanford's online course program is "still very much in the infancy [stage]" and the university's small seminars and more interactive courses are difficult to duplicate digitally. But he says the new program is meeting the needs of some students.
"I think we'll be serving, at least initially, a community for whom coming to Stanford is probably not practical," Hennessy says.
As you can hear in the above audio of the full interview, Stanford's president also speaks about how the school, well-known as an incubator for successful Silicon Valley startups, tries to balance against an overemphasis of career-focused tracks for students, as well as his concerns about declining financial support for public universities.