A Star Graduate of France’s Elite School Wants to Close Its Doors

President Emmanuel Macron suggests shutting the École Nationale d’Administration, a symbol of cronyism for many protesters

STRASBOURG, France—One school has been the cradle of the French establishment for decades, grooming future presidents, prime ministers and chief executives.

Now, one of its most illustrious alumni, President Emmanuel Macron, wants to shut his alma mater, the École Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, an institution that has become a symbol of France’s close-knit elite and persistent class divide.

Mr. Macron aims to placate yellow-vest protesters who have bedeviled his government for months, accusing him of paying too little heed to the economic pain of the working and rural class.

ENA has become a particular target, along with its graduates, known as énarques.

The president’s proposal comes at the end of months of high-profile public debates he organized in response to the demonstrations.

“We need to abolish ENA,” Mr. Macron said in April.

The school’s closure would be part of a broader push to overhaul France’s education system for high-ranking civil servants in an effort to improve opportunities for the underprivileged. Mr. Macron has pledged “to build something new that works better,” but hasn’t provided further details.

ENA was designed as a meritocracy to open better opportunities to all students regardless of their background. But critics say the school has become a breeding ground for cronyism, perpetuating a social pecking order that allows énarques to monopolize top positions in society. They run the prime minister’s office, the finance ministry, the central bank, two of the highest courts and many top private-sector companies. Three of France’s past four presidents are graduates of the two-year program.

“It’s a very French hypocrisy. The system is egalitarian on paper but unequal in practice,” said Jean-Pascal Lanuit, a senior official at the culture ministry and a former ENA student.

But many believe shutting ENA won’t change an elitist culture perpetuated by a two-tier education system. On one side, there are highly competitive institutions known as grandes écoles, public and private schools that are akin to the U.S. Ivy League schools, including engineering school École Polytechnique and business school HEC Paris.

On the other are universities open to almost everyone, but with sometimes crowded classrooms and crumbling facilities.

ENA was founded after World War II to better train high-ranking civil servants and open top government positions that had been reserved for “wealthy students living in Paris,” according to a 1945 government document. The creation was orchestrated by the then-general secretary of the French communist party, under Charles de Gaulle’s temporary government.

.. The Strasbourg-based school recruits about 80 students every year—compared with 2,000 undergraduates at Harvard University—based on a rigorous competitive entrance exam that includes five written tests lasting as long as five hours each in law, economy, social issues and public finances.

Tuition is free and students receive a monthly stipend to pay for books and housing.

But critics say ENA counts few students from rural, low-income families, and most current students are young white men.

The main reason, critics say, is the growing inequality of the French education system. Indeed, most ENA students have attended France’s top high schools and one of the best preparatory classes for the entrance exam. As a result, instead of promoting social mobility, the system ends up subsidizing the education of the rich with taxpayers’ money.

Many ENA students come from similar neighborhoods and attended the same schools. “I knew almost everyone there when I arrived in school,” said Florian Paret, a 27-year-old Parisian and second-year student at ENA, who graduated from the elite Paris Institute of Political Studies.

There are fewer opportunities for social advancement today compared with 40 years ago, said Ségolène Royal, a former minister and socialist candidate for the 2007 presidential elections who attended ENA and graduated in 1980.

“I’m not sure that it would have been possible for me today to follow the same path because there’s a kind of state aristocracy that has established itself,” said Ms. Royal, who came from a middle-income family in eastern France, recently. While at ENA, she met François Hollande, who would become her long-term partner and French president.

Once inside ENA, competition is fierce because top-ranked students can cherry-pick the most prestigious government posts upon graduation, including working at France’s highest courts or powerful state auditing bodies.

“Competition is part of the school’s DNA,” said Alexandre Allegret-Pilot, 30, who had degrees in biology, law and business before entering ENA.

After they graduate, énarques must work for the government for at least 10 years. If they leave earlier, they need to partly reimburse the school for tuition; usually private companies that hire young énarques pay back ENA as part of the hiring compensation.

Today, more former students move between the private and public sectors, deepening the perception that énarques monopolize top positions. After joining the state auditing body, Mr. Macron worked for private bank Rothschild & Cie. from 2008 to 2012, before moving back to government.

The vast majority of énarques, however, work for the government for their entire career. Few actually run for office, even if the school is known for producing presidents and ministers.

“ENA is being used as a scapegoat,” said Joachim Bitterlich, a former German diplomat and member of ENA’s board, who graduated in 1974.

More recently, ENA, which accepts a few international students a year, has sought to broaden its student body, notably by creating preparatory classes for the entrance exam for students from underprivileged areas.

“ENA can change,” said Daniel Keller, who heads the alumni association. “But I’m all for preserving the ENA brand. It’s a label that has value.”

It will be up to Frédéric Thiriez, an énarque Mr. Macron chose in April to lead the overhaul of France’s civil servants’ training.

Even if ENA were to close, it isn’t clear if that will be enough to appease the yellow vests.

“That’s secondary,” said Theo Feugueur, a 19-year-old law student in the Paris region, who takes part in yellow-vest protests every Saturday. “He should abolish all the grandes écoles.”

 

I Wore A Fleece Vest To Work To See If I Felt Like A Tech Bro

My five-day journey into the heart of cold arms.

As a heterosexual woman over 30, I have been haunted by this photo of Jeff Bezos looking surprisingly swole since it appeared during the Sun Valley Conference last summer. I don’t want to get into it, and neither do you, but let’s all agree that his vest and aviators are definitely a LOOK.

Bezos’s vest showing off his sun-dappled biceps is perhaps the perfect example of what I’m calling the “Power Vest” — fleece or quilted vests that are favored by all kinds of bros:

  • tech bros of Silicon Valley,
  • finance bros of New York,
  • sales bros and
  • finance bros all over the country

(I have no evidence that this is an international trend, and presumably this doesn’t apply to warmer parts of the US).

The Power Vest is practical and casual, yet it somehow enhances the illusion of a man’s professional competence, unlike, say, flip-flops. It’s a contradiction: It shouldn’t be office appropriate, and yet it’s ubiquitous.
I should clarify here I am speaking about vests worn by men. Yes, people of all genders people wear vests of all kinds. But this is a particular slice of bro culture. Women’s business attire has a whole different set of rules, even in these same industries. The Power Vest flaunts a very cruel male privilege: being comfortable.

Clothes send a message. The vests are not just a convenient warmth layer. There is meaning there. There are layers to this layer. The adoption of the vest by men who work in industries like tech and finance says something about this garment.

The vest means power. And as a lowly woman, I would like some power. Or at least to FEEL powerful — like a master of the universe, able to make snap decisions and be feared and respected by all I come in contact with. Which is why I decided I would wear a vest to the office for a week.

My first order of business was to decide what kind of vest to wear: fleece or quilted. I talked to my editors who are based in San Francisco, and they both emphatically said quilted, specifically Patagonia Nano Puff. But I was imagining a more dressed-up bro look — a fleece vest over a crisp white shirt and maybe even slacks and brown leather shoes.

I think here is the divide: West Coast tech bros always wear quilted vests, and East Coast finance bros still wear fleece.

It was clear I needed an impartial person who thinks really hard about different types of Power Vests and what they mean. It would be useless to ask the bros themselves, because everyone knows bros can’t be asked for opinions, at least not for articulate ones about fashion. So I reached out to possibly THE perfect expert for this: Eric Daman, the costume designer for the TV show Billions, which is about people who work at a hedge fund, but also about the depravity of toxic masculinity amplified by the excesses of money. Which is to say, a show loaded with Power Vests.

Not all Billions characters wear vests: The main character, Bobby Axelrod, never wears them (Daman explains his look is more of perfectly fitting Tom Ford tee) — and his lieutenant “Wags” sticks to suits, a kind of throwback to the precrash era. But one character on Billions, “Dollar” Bill, has been my fleece business vest inspo. “Dollar Bill always wears his Axe Capital [the name of the fictional hedge fund] fleece,” Daman said. He’s older, less hip, and notoriously cheap, hence wearing the free company swag. It’s also a statement of his character’s willingness to do anything for his boss. “I think out of devotion and honor that he chooses to only wear the fleece,” explained Daman. “It’s kind of like how the Scottish clans have their own tartan.”

Two other vest-wearing characters are also carefully chosen. One analyst, Ben Kim, who is younger, wears an Arc’teryx brand vest, made of a thin performance fabric, which is hipper and more youthful than a stodgy fleece or puffer. Another character, Everett, who was poached from another fund and therefore already has his own money, wears a Burberry vest to signal his higher financial status.

Indeed, I learned that vests can get quite expensive. That Jeff Bezos vest? It appears to be a $995 Ralph Lauren. You didn’t think Bezdaddy was going to slum around in a Patagonia, did you?

My vest budget was more limited. My editor informed me that BuzzFeed News was certainly not going to expense a $150 Nanopuff, so I decided to stick with something more modest: an L.L.Bean fleece vest I got as a teen in 1995 and was still at my parents’ house.

Monday

I was pretty into my first outfit: loose black jeans, off-white vintage button-down with a weird scene of a pond and ducks on the front, and of course, my vest. A jaunty masculine look. Looking in the mirror at home I saw a savvy businessperson. The Power Vest was working!

I got to the office and my deskmate, Joe, looked at me and said, “Nice vest. You know what you look like?”

“What?” I asked.

“An asshole.”

Mission accomplished!

At midmorning I experienced a moment of extreme powerlessness. I noticed our floor was out of milk for coffee, so I went to grab a gallon from another floor. The BuzzFeed office has several floors, broken up by department. I sit on the news floor. I see these people every day, I know them, I don’t feel ashamed of wearing a relatively ugly vest around them. The next floor up, where I was getting milk, is where the fashion and lifestyle team sits.

All of a sudden I felt a deep sting of shame, aware of how utterly uncool I looked in front of these people who were dressed much more fashionably. It was that burning shame feeling of when you walk into a room of strangers and realize you’re extremely over- or underdressed. I wanted to scream “It’s for an article!” as a disclaimer, but that would’ve been very weird since no one was asking.

Tuesday

It was harder to figure out what kind of outfit to wear for day 2. I settled on a black button-down blouse with white piping and black jeans again. I don’t really think it worked quite as well — it seemed mismatched to have a casual vest over this dressier top. I didn’t feel powerful.

However, I did find that the vest was the perfect weight to wear under my light raincoat on a chilly April day. Useful!

Wednesday

My other deskmate, Davey, overheard me talking about my vest experiment and said, “Ooooh, I thought you just looked really bad this week for some reason. Like, your outfits just looked…awful.”

Dara, who sits across from me, also seemed relieved. “I was wondering why you were wearing that weird maroon and teal vest every day.”

This was not empowering at all, although I appreciated their candor. I’d also like to remind Dara, who is 23, that I acquired the vest when she was 1 year old.

Thursday

I paired the vest with blue jeans and an olive green shirt that is pure polyester but kind of MAYBE can pass for silk (if you are very unaware of what real silk is), so is something that can be sort of dressed up a bit. This is a shirt I wear a lot, since it fits into my current personal style of “looks professional but is machine washable.”

At this point, I realized I just looked bad. Power levels were very low.

Friday

It was even colder, and I really struggled with what I could wear under the vest that would keep me warm enough. The vest was too bulky to fit under my warmer wool coat, and a sweater would be too hot once I got to the office. I settled on a black T-shirt with an aqua cardigan sweater. This was truly a terrible, horrible outfit.

Once I got to the office, I shed the cardigan and just went with the T-shirt. I can’t even really describe this outfit other than like spinster aunt horseback-riding instructor, but even worse.

After work, I went out for drinks with coworkers. I probably should have felt embarrassed for wearing a dorky fleece vest out in public (other than the office), but by this point I just didn’t care anymore and solely focused on enjoying some happy-hour-priced wine (I guess I’m cheap, like “Dollar” Bill).

The Power Vest is a form of male privilege, a hideous fleece totem of the patriarchy’s oppression of non-cis-male people in the workplace.

The Power Vest was a complete failure. Instead of feeling powerful, I felt like a fucking dork. I’m not the most fashionable person in the world, but I like to look nice and I care about clothes. A good outfit can make me feel good, and wearing a blazer makes me feel professional. Looking like a total idiot in a shitty ‘90s fleece vest makes me feel like shit.

Week-long experiments about trying a new fashion or beauty routine are a staple here at BuzzFeed –”My Boyfriend Dressed Me for a Week and This Is What Happened” or “This Is What I Learned Going Makeup Free for a Week.” Typically, these have a happy ending, and the guinea pig comes away with a positive learning experience about self-acceptance or willingness to try new things. There was no happy ending to my Power Vest experiment. I came away more sure than ever that I needed to stay in the conventional lanes of “professional attire.” It’s easy to say you should dress for yourself, but you can’t also pretend that we aren’t all judged in the workplace for our clothing, and doubly so for women. If you find it tiresome to ponder what minute variations of men’s vests can mean for professional status, just imagine the war zone that is womenswear.

Dressing casually while still looking powerful and important at the office doesn’t really work the same for women. The Power Vest is a form of male privilege, a hideous fleece totem of the patriarchy’s oppression of non-cis-male people in the workplace. The Patagonia Nano Puff is complicit in the power structure that led to #MeToo.

The Power Vest’s power was out of reach for me. Not only did I feel like a slob, I had a less productive week at work than usual, and I blame the vest for that. I only hope that my journey into the vest life can help others. I suffered so that you don’t have to; I carefully considered the sociological elements of sleeveless outerwear so that you can comment “I can’t believe someone got paid to write this” in the comments. Yes, I am that brave journalist putting my life on the line to set the truth free. Thank you for your consideration of this for next year’s Pulitzers.

Who Do Jared and Ivanka Think They Are?

According to “Kushner, Inc.,” Gary Cohn, former director of the National Economic Council, has told people that Ivanka Trump thinks she could someday be president. “Her father’s reign in Washington, D.C., is, she believes, the beginning of a great American dynasty,”

.. Kushner, whose pre-White House experience included owning a boutique newspaper and helming a catastrophically ill-timed real estate deal, has arrogated to himself substantial parts of American foreign policy. According to Ward, shortly after Rex Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of state, Kushner told him “to leave Mexico to him because he’d have Nafta wrapped up by October.”

.. As political actors, the couple are living exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a psychological phenomenon which leads incompetent people to overestimate their ability because they can’t grasp how much they don’t know.

Partly, the Jared and Ivanka story is about the “reality distortion field” — a term one of Ward’s sources uses about Kushner — created by great family wealth. She quotes a member of Trump’s legal team saying that the two “have no idea how normal people perceive, understand, intuit.” Privilege, in them, has been raised to the level of near sociopathy.

.. Ward, the author of two previous books about the worlds of high finance and real estate, has known Kushner slightly for a long time; she told me that when he bought The New York Observer newspaper in 2006, he tried to hire her. She knocks down the idea that either he or his wife is a stabilizing force or moral compass in the Trump administration. Multiple White House sources told her they think it was Kushner who ordered the closing of White House visitor logs in April 2017, because he “didn’t want his frenetic networking exposed.” Ward reports that Cohn was stunned by their blasé reaction to Trump’s defense of the white-nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, Va.: “He was upset that they were not sufficiently upset.”

Still, even if you assume that the couple are amoral climbers, their behavior still doesn’t quite make sense. Ward writes that Ivanka’s chief concern is her personal brand, but that brand has been trashed. The book cites an October 2017 survey measuring consumer approval of more than 1,600 brands. Ivanka’s fashion line was in the bottom 10. A leading real estate developer tells Ward that Kushner, now caught up in multiple state and federal investigations, has become radioactive: “No one will want to do business with him.” (Kushner resigned as C.E.O. of Kushner Companies in 2017, but has kept most of his stake in the business.)

To truly make sense of their motivations, Ward told me, you have to understand the gravitational pull of their fathers. Husband and wife are both “really extraordinarily orientated and identified through their respective fathers in a way that most fully formed adults are not,” she said.

“You’ll notice that the U.S. position toward Qatar changes when the Qataris bail out 666 Fifth Avenue,” said Ward, adding, “We look like a banana republic.” Maybe that’s why Jared and Ivanka appear so blithely confident. As public servants, they’re obviously way out of their depth. But as self-dealing scions of a gaudy autocracy? They’re naturals.

 

The Ethical Dilemma Facing Silicon Valley’s Next Generation

Stanford has established itself as the epicenter of computer science, and a farm system for the tech giants. Following major scandals at Facebook, Google, and others, how is the university coming to grips with a world in which many of its students’ dream jobs are now vilified?

At Stanford University’s business school, above the stage where Elizabeth Holmes once regurgitated the myths of Silicon Valley, there now hangs a whistle splattered in blood. More than 500 people have gathered to hear the true story of Theranos, the $9 billion blood-testing company Holmes launched in 2004 as a Stanford dropout with the help of one of the school’s famed chemical engineering professors.

When Holmes was weaving the elaborate lies that ultimately led to the dissolution of her company, she leaned heavily on tech truisms that treat dogged pursuit of market domination as a virtue. “The minute that you have a backup plan, you’ve admitted that you’re not going to succeed,” she said onstage in 2015. But Shultz and Cheung, who faced legal threats from Theranos for speaking out, push back against the idea of pursuing a high-minded vision at all costs. “We don’t know how to handle new technologies anymore,” Cheung says, “and we don’t know the consequences necessarily that they’ll have.”

The words resonate in the jam-packed auditorium, where students line up afterward to nab selfies with and autographs from the whistleblowers. Kendall Costello, a junior at Stanford, idolized Holmes in high school and imagined working for Theranos one day. Now she’s more interested in learning how to regulate tech than building the next product that promises to change the world. “I really aspired to kind of be like her in a sense,” Costello says. “Then two years later, in seeing her whole empire crumble around her, in addition to other scandals like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica and all these things that are coming forward, I was just kind of disillusioned.”

..But the endless barrage of negative news in tech, ranging from Facebook fueling propaganda campaigns by Russian trolls to Amazon selling surveillance software to governments, has forced Stanford to reevaluate its role in shaping the Valley’s future leaders. Students are reconsidering whether working at Google or Facebook is landing a dream job or selling out to craven corporate interests. Professors are revamping courses to address the ethical challenges tech companies are grappling with right now. And university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne has made educating students on the societal impacts of technology a tentpole of his long-term strategic plan.

As tech comes to dominate an ever-expanding portion of our daily lives, Stanford’s role as an educator of the industry’s engineers and a financier of its startups grows increasingly important. The school may not be responsible for creating our digital world, but it trains the architects. And right now, students are weighing tough decisions about how they plan to make a living in a world that was clearly constructed the wrong way. “To me it seemed super empowering that a line of code that I wrote could be used by millions of people the next day,” says Matthew Sun, a junior majoring in computer science and public policy, who helped organize the Theranos event. “Now we’re realizing that’s maybe not always a good thing.”

.. Because membership costs $21,000 per year, the career fairs tend to attract only the most renowned firms.

Honestly, I think they’re horrific,” says Vicki Niu, a 2018 Stanford graduate who majored in computer science. She recalls her first career fair being as hectic as a Black Friday sale, with the put-on exclusivity of a night club. (Students must present their Stanford IDs to enter the tent.) But like other freshmen, she found herself swept up in the pursuit of an internship at a large, prestigious tech firm. “Everybody is trying to get interviews at Google and Facebook and Palantir,” she says. “There’s all this hype around them. Part of my mind-set coming in was that I wanted to learn, but I think there was definitely also this big social pressure and this desire to prove yourself and to prove to people that you’re smart.”

Stanford’s computer science department has long been revered for its graduate programs—Google was famously built as a research project by Ph.D. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin—but the intense interest among undergrads is relatively new. In 2007, the school conferred more bachelor’s degrees in English (92) than computer science (70). The next year, though, Stanford revamped its CS curriculum from a one-size-fits-all education to a more flexible framework that funneled students along specialized tracks such as graphics, human-computer interaction, and artificial intelligence. “We needed to make the major more attractive, to show that computer science isn’t just sitting in a cube all day,” Mehran Sahami, a computer science professor who once worked at Google, said later.

The change in curriculum coincided with an explosion of wealth and perceived self-importance in the Valley. The iPhone opened up the potential for thousands of new businesses built around apps, and when its creator died he earned rapturous comparisons to Thomas Edison. Facebook emerged as the fastest-growing internet company of all time, and the Arab Spring made its influence seem benign rather than ominous. As the economy recovered from the recession, investors decided to park their money in startups like Uber and Airbnb that might one day become the next Google or Amazon. A 2013 video by the nonprofit Code.org featured CEOs, Chris Bosh, and will.i.am comparing computer programmers to wizards, superheroes, and rock stars.

Stanford and its students eagerly embraced this cultural shift. John Hennessy, a computer science professor who became president of the university from 2000 to 2016, served on Google’s board of directors and is now the executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet. LinkedIn founder and Stanford alum Reid Hoffman introduced a new computer science course called Blitzscaling and brought in high-profile entrepreneurs to teach students how to “build massive organizations, user bases, and businesses, and to do so at a dizzyingly rapid pace.” (Elizabeth Holmes was among the speakers.) Mark Zuckerberg became an annual guest in Sahami’s popular introductory computer science class. “It just continued to emphasize how privileged Stanford students are in so many ways, that we have the CEO of Facebook taking time out of his day to come talk to us,” says Vinamrata Singal, a 2016 graduate who had Zuckerberg visit her class freshman year. “It felt really surreal and it did make me excited to want to continue studying computer science.”

In 2013, Stanford began directly investing in students’ companies, much like a venture capital firm. Even without direct Stanford funding, the school’s proximity to wealth helped plenty of big ideas get off the ground. Evan Spiegel, who was a junior at Stanford in 2011 when he started working on Snapchat, connected with his first investor via a Stanford alumni network on Facebook. “Instead of starting a band or trying to make an independent movie or blogging, people would get into code,” says Billy Gallagher, a 2014 graduate who was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. “It was a similar idea to, ‘Here’s our band’s vinyl or our band’s tape. Come see us play.’”

..But it’s not just that coding was a creative outlet, as is often depicted in tech origin stories. Working at a big Silicon Valley company also became a path to a specific kind of upper-crust success that students at top schools are groomed for. “Why do so many really bright young kids go into consulting and banking?” asks Gallagher. “They’re prestigious so your parents can be proud of you, they pay really well, and they put you on a career path to open up new doors. Now we’re seeing that’s happening a lot with Google and Facebook.”

By the time Niu arrived in 2014, computer science had become the most popular major on campus and 90 percent of undergrads were taking at least one CS course. As a high schooler, her knowledge of Silicon Valley didn’t extend much further than The Internship, a Vince Vaughn–Owen Wilson comedy about working at Google that doubled as a promotional tool for the search giant. She soon came to realize that landing a job at one of the revered tech giants or striking it rich with an app were Stanford’s primary markers of success. Her coursework was largely technical, focusing on the process of coding and not so much on the outcomes. And in the rare instances when Niu heard ethics discussed in class, it was often framed around the concerns of tech’s super-elite, like killer robots destroying humanity in the future. “In my computer science classes and just talking to other people who were interested in technology, it didn’t seem like anybody really cared about social impact,” she says. “Or if they did, they weren’t talking about it.”

In the spring of her freshman year, Niu and two other students hosted a meeting to gauge interest in a new group focused on socially beneficial uses of technology. The computer science department provided funding for red curry and pad thai. Niu was shocked when the food ran out, as more than 100 students showed up for the event. “Everybody had the same experience: ‘I’m a computer science student. I’m doing this because I want to create an impact. I feel like I’m alone.’”

From this meeting sprang the student organization CS + Social Good. It aimed to expose students to professional opportunities that existed outside the tech giants and the hyperaggressive startups that aspired to their stature. In its first year, the group developed new courses about social-impact work, brought in speakers to discuss positive uses of technology, and offered summer fellowships to get students interning at nonprofits instead of Apple or Google. Hundreds of students and faculty engaged with the organization’s programming.

In Niu’s mind, “social good” referred mainly to the positive applications of technology. But stopping bad uses of tech is just as important as promoting good ones. That’s a lesson the entire Valley has been forced to reckon with as its benevolent reputation has unraveled. “Most of our programming had been, ‘Look at these great ways you can use technology to help kids learn math,’” Niu says. “There was this real need to not only talk about that, but to also be like, ‘It’s not just that technology is neutral. It can actually be really harmful.’”

Many students find it difficult to pinpoint a specific transgression that flipped their perception of Silicon Valley, simply because there have been so many.

The torrid pace of bad news has been jarring for students who entered school with optimistic views of tech. Nichelle Hall, a senior majoring in computer science, viewed Google as the ideal landing spot for an aspiring software engineer when she started college. “I associated it so much with success,” she says. “It’s the first thing I thought about when I thought about technology.” But when she was offered an on-site interview for a potential job at the search giant in the fall, she declined. Project Dragonfly, Google’s (reportedly abandoned) effort to bring a censored search engine to China, gave her pause. It wasn’t just that she objected to the idea on principle. She sensed that working for such a large corporation would likely put her personal morals and corporate directives in conflict. “They say don’t do evil and then they do things like that,” she says. “I wasn’t really into the big-company idea for that reason. … You don’t necessarily know what the intentions of your executives are.”

  • ..Google has hardly been the most damaged brand during the techlash. (The company says it has not seen a year-over-year decline in Stanford recruits to this point.)
  • Students repeatedly bring up Facebook as a company that’s fallen out of favor.
  • Uber, with its cascade of controversies, now has to “fight to try and get people in,” according to junior Jose Giron.
  • And Palantir, the secretive data-mining company started by Stanford alum Peter Thiel, has also lost traction due to Thiel’s ties to Trump and worries that the company could help the president develop tech to advance his draconian immigration policies. “There’s a growing concern over your personal decision where to work after graduation,” Sun says.

There’s a lot of personal guilt around pursuing CS. If you do that, people call you a sellout or you might view yourself as a sellout. If you take a high-paying job, people might say, ‘Oh, you’re just going to work for a big tech company. All you care about is yourself.’”

Landing a job at a major tech firm is often as much about prestige as passion, which is one reason the CS major has expanded so dramatically. But a company’s tarnished reputation can transfer to its employees. Students debate whether fewer of their peers are actually taking gigs at Facebook, or whether they’re just less vocal in bragging about it. At lunch at a Burmese restaurant on campus, Hall and Sun summed up the transition succinctly. “No one’s like, ‘I got an internship at Uber!’” Sun says. Hall follows up: “They’re like, ‘I got an internship … at Uber …’”

The concerns are bigger than which companies rise or fall in the estimation of up-and-coming engineers. Stanford and computer science programs across the country may not be adequately equipped to wade through the ethical minefield that is expanding along with tech’s influence. Sahami acknowledges that many computer science classes are designed to teach students how to solve technical problems rather than to think about the real-world issues that a solution might create. Part of the challenge comes from computer science being a young discipline compared to other engineering fields, meaning that practical examples of malpractice are emerging in real time from today’s headlines.

Vik Pattabi, a senior majoring in computer science, originally studied mechanical engineering. In those classes, students are constantly reminded of the 1940 collapse of Tacoma Narrows Bridge: A modern marvel was destroyed because its highly educated engineers did not foresee all the possible threats to their creation (in that case, the wind). Pattabi’s CS coursework hasn’t yet included a comparable example. “A lot of the second- and third-order effects that we see [in] Silicon Valley have happened in the last two or three years,” Pattabi says. “The department is trying to react as fast as it can, but they don’t have 30 years of case studies to work with.”

Another issue is the longstanding divide on campus between the engineering types—known as “techies”—and the humanities or social sciences majors, known as “fuzzies.” Though the school has focused more on interdisciplinary studies in recent years, there remains a gap in understanding that’s often filled in by stereotype. This sort of divide is a common aspect of college life, but the stakes feel higher when some of the students will one day be programming the algorithms that govern the digital world. “There’s things [said] like, ‘You can’t spell fascist without CS.’ People will tell you things like that,” Hall says. “I think people may feel antagonized.”

The school’s deep ties to the Bay Area’s corporate giants, long a much-touted recruitment tool, suddenly look different in light of the problems that the industry has created. At the January career fair, members of Students for the Liberation of All Peoples (SLAP), an activist group on campus that aims to disrupt Stanford’s “culture of apathy,” handed out flyers that urged students not to work at Amazon and Salesforce because of their commercial ties to ICE and the United States Border Patrol. (Employees at the companies have raised similar concerns.) “REFUSE to be part of the Stanford → racist tech pipeline,” the flyer reads, in part.

Two students in the group said they were asked to leave the career fair by Computer Forum officials. When the students refused to comply, they say they were escorted out by campus police under threat of arrest for disrupting a private event. A Stanford spokesperson confirmed the incident. “The protesting students were disruptive and asked by police to leave,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The students were given the option to protest outside the event or in White Plaza. They chose to leave.”

For members of SLAP, the exchange reinforced the ways in which Stanford institutionally and culturally cuts itself off from the issues occurring in the real world. “You might hear this idea of the ‘Stanford bubble,’ where Stanford students kind of just stay on campus and they just do what they need to do for their classes and their jobs,” says Kimiko Hirota, a SLAP member and junior majoring in sociology and comparative studies in race and ethnicity, who participated in the career fair protest. She said many of the students she talked to had no idea about the tech firms’ government contracts. “To me the amount of students on campus that are politically engaged and are actively using their Stanford privilege for a greater good is extremely small.”

The computer science major includes a “technology in society” course requirement that can be fulfilled by a number of ethics classes, and teaching students about their ethical responsibilities is a component of the department’s accreditation process. CS + Social Good has expanded its footprint on campus, teaching more classes and organizing more events like the Theranos talk starring the whistleblowers. Yet the flexibility of the CS major cuts both ways. It means that students who care to take a holistic approach to the discipline can combine rigorous training in code with an education in ethics; it also means that it remains all too easy for some students to avoid engaging with the practical ramifications of their work. “You can very much come to Stanford feeling very apathetic about the impact of the technology and leave just that way without any effort,” Hall says. “I don’t feel as though we are forced to encounter the impact.”

On a Wednesday afternoon, students spill into a lobby in front of a standing-room-only auditorium in the School of Education, where Jeremy Weinstein is talking about the promise and perils of using algorithms in criminal justice. Next year Californians will vote on a bill that would replace cash bail with a computerized risk-assessment system that calculates an arrested person’s likelihood of returning for a court appearance. The idea is to give people who can’t afford to make bail another way to get out of jail through a fairer policy. But such algorithms have been found to reinforce racial biases in the criminal justice system, according to a ProPublicainvestigation. Instead of being a solution to an unfair process, poorly implemented software could create an entirely new form of systemic discrimination. Students were asked to vote on whether they supported cash bail or the algorithm. The class was evenly split. Unlike in most CS classes, Weinstein could not offer students the comfort of a “correct” answer. “We need to deconstruct these algorithms in order to help people see that technology is not just something to be trusted,” he says. “It’s not just something that’s objective and fair because it’s numerical, but it actually reflects a set of choices that people make.”

Though Weinstein is a political science professor, he’s one of three educators leading the new version of the CS department’s flagship ethics course, CS181. Teaching with him are Sahami, the computer science professor, and Rob Reich, a political science professor and philosopher. The trio devised the course structure over a series of coffee-fueled meetings as the tech backlash unfolded during the past year and a half. After discussing algorithmic bias, the class will explore privacy in the age of facial recognition, the social impacts of autonomous technology, and the responsibilities of private platforms in regard to free speech. The coursework is meant to be hands-on. During the current unit, students must build their own risk-assessment algorithm using an actual criminal history data set, then assess it for fairness. “We run it like a talk show,” Weinstein says. “There’s a lot of call-and-response, asking questions, getting people to talk in small groups.”

While Stanford’s computer science program has had an ethics component for decades, this course marks the first time that experts in other fields are so directly involved in the curriculum. About 300 students have enrolled in the course, including majors in history, philosophy, and biology. It provides an opportunity for the techies and fuzzies to learn from one another, and for professors removed from the Valley’s tech culture to contextualize the industry’s societal impacts. In the course overview materials, the moral reckoning occurring in the tech sector today is compared to the advent of the nuclear bomb.

The course’s popularity is a sign that the gravity of the moment is weighing on many Stanford minds. Antigone Xenopoulos, a junior majoring in symbolic systems (a techie-fuzzie hybrid major that incorporates computer science, linguistics, and philosophy), is a research assistant for CS181. She wasn’t the only student who quoted a line from Spider-Man to me—with great power comes great responsibilitywhen referencing the current landscape. “If they’re going to give students the tools to have such immense influence and capabilities, [Stanford] should also guide those students in developing ethical compasses,” she says.

 ..While the early years of the decade saw prominent tech executives like Holmes and Zuckerberg teaching students how to lifehack their way to success, the new ethics course will bring in guest speakers from WhatsApp, Facebook, and the NSA to answer “hard questions,” Sahami says “I wouldn’t say industry is influencing Stanford,” he says. “I would say the relationship with industry allows us to have more authentic conversations where we’re really bringing in people who are decision-makers in these areas.”
.. Some of the more critical voices from within the industry are also taking on more permanent roles at Stanford. Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook, taught a “hack lab” for non-CS majors last fall, helping them understand cybersecurity threats. He’s now developing a more advanced computer science course, to be piloted later this year, that explores trust and safety issues in the era of misinformation and widespread online harassment. Stamos led Facebook’s internal investigation into Russian political interference on the platform and clashed with top executives over how much of that information should be made public. He left the company in August to join Stanford, where he hopes to impart lessons from his time battling a digital attack that was waged not through hacking, but through ad purchases, incendiary memes, and politically charged Facebook events. “One of the things we don’t teach computer science students is all of the non-technically advanced abuses of technology that cause real harm,” Stamos says. “I want to expose students to [things like], ‘These are the mistakes that were made before, these are the kinds of problems that existed, and these are the company’s reactions to those mistakes.’”

Stamos rejects the idea that ethics is the correct framework to think about addressing tech’s most pressing issues. “The problem here is not that people are making decisions that are straight-up evil,” he says. “The problem is that people are not foreseeing the outcomes of their actions. Part of that is a lack of paranoia. One of our problems in Silicon Valley is we build products to be used the right way. … It’s hard to envision all the misuses unless you understand all the things that have come before.”

While he says that Stanford bears some responsibility for the Valley’s tunnel vision, he praises the school for welcoming tech leaders with recent, relevant experiences to help students prepare for emerging threats. “When I was going to school, computers were important, but we weren’t talking about building companies that might change history,” Stamos says. “The students who come to me are really interested in the impact of what they do on society.”

Stamos regularly fields questions from students about whether to work at Facebook or Google. He tells them that they should, not in spite of the companies’ mounting issues, but because of them.If you actually care about making communication technologies compatible with democracy, then the place to be is at one of the companies that actually has the problems,” he says. “Not working at the big places that could actually solve it does not make things better.”

The tech giants continue to consolidate power even as they face withering criticism. Facebook’s user base growth accelerated last quarter despite its scandals. Uber will go public this year at a valuation as high as $120 billion. Apple, Amazon, and Google are all planning to open large new offices around the country in the near future. And for all the optimistic talk of working at ethically minded startups among students, creation of nascent businesses is at roughly a 40-year low in the United States. Small firms that enter the terrain of the Frightful Five are typically acquired or destroyed.

It is hard to find a Stanford computer science student, even among the ethically minded set CS + Social Good has helped cultivate, who will publicly proclaim that they’ll never work for one of these dominant companies, as all of them offer opportunities for high pay, engaging individual work, and comforting job security. International students have to worry about securing work visas however they can; students on financial aid may need to make enough money to support other family members. And for many others, it’s not clear that anything that’s happened in the Valley is truly beyond the pale. In that sense, the engineers are just like us, aghast at the headlines but still clicking away inside a system that’s come to feel inescapable. “These events feel too big for most students to take into account,” says Jason He, a master’s student in electrical engineering. “At the end of the day, I think for a lot of students who have been paying a lot of money for their education, if the six-figure salary is offered, it’s pretty hard for students to turn down.”

There is still an opportunity, the thinking at Stanford goes, for every company to do good. Nichelle Hall, the senior who declined the Google interview, landed a job working on Medium’s trust and safety team. But she recognizes that she may have set her qualms aside if Google had been her only employment option. “Some of the feedback that CS + Social Good gets is, ‘Oh, the members end up working for Facebook, they end up working for Google,’” says Hall, who’s been involved with the organization since 2017. “People who care about this intersection of social impact and computer science will go to these companies and do a better job than if they weren’t interested in this stuff.”

Impact is the word that I heard more than any other while on campus. It’s how students framed their decision to go to Stanford, to pursue a career in computer science, to do good in the world after graduating. It’s a word that Hoffman used to describe his Blitzscaling class, and one Holmes used to explain to students why she dropped out of school. “I had the tools that I needed to be able to go out and begin making this impact,” she said. It’s the currency of Silicon Valley, that people spend for good and for ill.

The ability to create impact with a few lines of code has long been what separated software engineers from the rest of us, and turned the Valley into a self-proclaimed utopia of young rebels using technology to save the world from its older, antiquated self. But that’s not the image anymore. Now aspiring engineers draw a comparison between their chosen profession and investment banking. The finance industry wrecked the world a decade ago because of its misunderstanding of complex, automated systems that spun out of control—and its confidence that someone else would ultimately pay the price if things went wrong. You see this confidence in Zuckerberg’s incredulous response when anyone suggests that he resign, and in Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s initial refusal to testify before Congress. And you can see it at Stanford, where the endowment has never been higher, the fundraising has never been easier, and the career fair is still filled with slogans vowing to make the world a better place.

Perhaps this entire strip of land known as the Valley will fully calcify into a West Coast Wall Street, where the people with all the insider knowledge profit off the muppets who can’t stop using their products. If today’s young tech skeptics turn to cynics when they enter the working world, such a future is easy to imagine. But—and this is the hopeful, intoxicating, dangerous thing about technology—there’s always bright minds out there who think they can build a solution that just might fix this mess we’ve made. And people, especially young people, will always be enthralled by the romance of a new idea. “We’re creating things that haven’t necessarily existed before, and so we won’t be able to anticipate all the challenges that we have,” says Hall, who graduates in just four months. “But once we do, it’s important that we can reconcile them with grace and humility. I’m sure it will be a hard job, but it’s important that it’s hard. I’m up for the challenge.”