In my opinion, Princeton is doomed to mediocrity in computer science. You still think the finest thing is to be a physicist or a mathematician. You will never believe that the finest thing to be is an engineer or a computer scientist or anyone who does anything of practical value."
These words, spoken by Jim Clark at a November 1997 Department of Computer Science advisory meeting, were chronicled by Michael Lewis '82 in the March 1, 1998 New York Times Magazine.
Clark, considered by many to be one of the most powerful figures in Silicon Valley, left his post as a Stanford University professor in 1982 to found Silicon Graphics Incorporated. After tiring of making graphics supercomputers, he then founded a little company named Netscape in 1994.
When he spoke at Princeton a few years ago, Chair of the Department of Computer Science David Dobkin asked Clark to join the department's advisory committee – composed of faculty and industry leaders – and Clark graciously accepted.
Clark's remarks came in response to a faculty question: Could Princeton transform itself into a technology hotbed like Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?
After reading The New York Times quote, I emailed Clark asking him about the context of the quoted remark. He responded a week later with an email that was intensely critical of the University administration's attitude toward computer science. He was angered by what he viewed as an imbalance in the amount of faculty allotted to physics vis à vis computer science. He believes that the administration views computer science as "uninteresting and easy," adding that "Princeton is stuck in time, at least with respect to the acknowledgement that computer science is an important discipline, and this will probably not change unless (the University administrators') narrow minds are exposed."
Clark has a taste for hyperbole, to say the least, but he does raise some interesting issues. Dobkin attributed Clark's outrage to a misunderstanding that transpired during the November advisory committee meeting. The administration had already committed to appointing several new professors to computer science department, but somehow Clark was led to believe that only one new faculty member would be appointed over the course of the next year. In actuality, Dobkin currently has the authority to hire up to three new professors.
It seems clear, however, that Princeton is not on the road to becoming the next Stanford. Rooted dead in the center of Silicon Valley, Stanford faculty and students have spun off what appears at times to be an endless stream of technology companies. For example, Sun Microsystems, a top maker of UNIX workstations, takes its name from Stanford University network. As Dobkin noted, however, "You can start a software company in your garage, you can't start an Ivy League university in your garage."
The commercial opportunities that exist at Stanford may not be available to students and faculty at Princeton. Dobkin speaks of the need for the computer science department to be able to explore "proof of concept" corporate ventures. While he does not believe that the Princeton computer science department should be constantly spinning-off corporations, he fears that the opportunity may not be available should testing a concept in the marketplace be a useful and profitable academic exercise.
In the end, Clark's comments seem to ask the question: Can Princeton University respond to "Internet time?" Time moves more quickly in the world of computer and network technology development, and it seems useful to ask whether Princeton is doing all it can to reap the intellectual benefits of this new discipline.
"My son was born the day Netscape went public," Dobkin notes, "Four years later, our (computer sciences) enrollment has doubled and Netscape has gone way up and way down."
Princeton University is not as volatile an institution as Netscape, Silicon Graphics, or Sun. Princeton University will exist long after each of these companies has been surpassed in the marketplace by companies offering the next big thing in software or hardware design. But Princeton's power to endure and its love of tradition should not prevent it from exploring the intellectual benefits of scholarly pursuits that are highly temporal and commercial in nature.
While both abstract and basic research are essential in fields such as physics and computer science, why is this University allowing Stanford and MIT to reap all the academic and monetary rewards, as well as the respect and notoriety, that come with involving oneself closely with the Internet industry? Stanford has basically created an entire industry in Silicon Valley and MIT's Media Lab is responsibility for some groundbreaking work that will dramatically alter the way we communicate and exchange information – where is Princeton's piece of the pie? Surely our minds are as great, surely our insight into the future is as strong and surely we have the drive to play a more active role in shaping the future of the Internet.