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Monday, March 12, 2012

Peter Thiel, university-hater, heads to campus

Peter Thiel, the superstar Silicon Valley investor, has famously dismissed university as a waste of time and money, and even offered students cash to drop out.

But his views apparently do not apply to himself - or to Stanford University.

Thiel, 44, will teach at the elite university this spring, sharing pearls of entrepreneurial wisdom in a class called "Computer Science 183: Startup." The course is already oversubscribed, with Thiel's return to his alma mater sparking both enthusiasm and skepticism on a campus increasingly obsessed with start-up success.

"It's puzzling to us what he has to say," said Nruthya Madappa, a senior in electrical engineering who saw rumors of Thiel's class explode on her Facebook news feed on a recent evening and rushed to sign up "several minutes" after course enrollment went live.

"He's famously known to make people furious with his views and the way he questions things," she said. "But he's challenging us to look at our education here in a different way."

Thiel, who co-founded online payment processor PayPal and later reaped billions with bets on gilded names like Facebook, LinkedIn and Zynga, is known for his maverick ways, even emerging recently as the main financial backer for libertarian presidential contender Ron Paul. Thiel has argued that the brightest young minds should strike out on their own and start companies rather than take on crushing debt to pursue a college degree.

Never mind that Thiel himself holds both a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a law degree from Stanford; he has backed up his talk with his checkbook. Last year, Thiel started a fellowship that offered $100,000 to 20 budding entrepreneurs between the ages of 14 and 20 who would drop out to focus on their ventures.

But Thiel last year also submitted a formal course proposal to Stanford after approaching Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford computer science professor, to discuss the possibility of teaching. (Thrun has since left the university to work on an online education project.)

"If I do my job right, this is the last class you'll ever have to take," Thiel said through a spokesman.

Mehran Sahami, the department's associate chair for education, said the curriculum committee debated whether Thiel would use the class as a conduit to recruit students to his companies. Other faculty voiced concerns that they were "not sure of his motivations given his history with respect to universities," Sahami said.

"We went into this with eyes wide open," said Sahami, a former research scientist at Google. "But on balance, this would be something our students would benefit from."

Still others, like Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford's Rock Center of Corporate Governance, were not so sure.

"It's hypocritical, but I'm not surprised," Wadhwa said. "The same people who go around bashing education are the most educated. What's he going to do? Tell students, ‘When you graduate from my class, drop out right after that?'"

Jim O'Neill, the head of the Thiel Foundation, which administers the entrepreneurship fellowship, said that the investor has been concerned for several years about the skyrocketing cost of tuition and the burdens of student debt for many graduates.

"He's only said that college is good value for some people, it's just not necessarily a good value for everyone," O'Neill said. "He's not calling for the abolition of college."

Thiel chose to deliver his message in the classroom because he "wants to reach out to people in many different spaces," O'Neill said, adding that Thiel chose Stanford, his alma mater, because the university's startup culture made it a "natural fit."

Continue reading - Reuters - Peter Thiel, university-hater, heads to campus

Peter Thiel on libertarianism, starting a campus newspaper, and some advice to students.

Peter Thiel at the ISFLC 2012

Peter Thiel Answers Student Questions at the ISFLC 2012

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