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Geography and Destiny

Geography and Destiny

By Michael S. Malone ’75, MBA ’77

Santa Clara won’t just be in Silicon Valley. It will be central to it like never before.

With the extraordinary $100 million gift by John A. and Susan Sobrato, Santa Clara University is now poised at last to finish its rapprochement to Silicon Valley and find its true role in the 21st century.

As often noted, SCU has always been in Silicon Valley—indeed, a college on this campus precedes the name Silicon Valley by a century—but never has been truly part of it. It has played many roles over the years in relation to Silicon Valley—precursor, exemplar, contributor, educator, oasis, sanctuary—but few would claim that the University is an integral part of the surrounding technology community.

Sure, Santa Clara has provided the region with generations of computer scientists and electrical engineers, intellectual property attorneys and middle managers. But if it was still farmland and orchards on the far side of Bellomy Street, and if canneries still stood tall beyond The Alameda—if it was still the Valley of Heart’s Delight—would Bronco life be that much different? Too often over the years, SCU has defined itself in contrast to the digital revolution beyond its gates, rather than as part of it.

That is about to change.

The new Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation, symbolically located near the heart of the University campus, is more than a new facility for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It represents something important and profound for SCU: an unprecedented commitment to the community in which it makes its home.

Santa Clara University has always made a major contribution to the technology revolution. But that contribution has always been piecemeal: inventions that emerged from the School of Engineering, a key ruling by a graduate of the law school, a C-level job filled by a business school MBA. You’d be hardpressed to find a successful company or hot startup in the Valley that doesn’t have its management ranks filled by SCU grads. And certainly the Valley has given back; just look at all of those noted Valley leaders who have filled the University’s Board of Trustees and served as advisors.

The new facility for STEM represents something very different: Context. Integration.

It’s there in the title. Santa Clara has always exhibited the well-rounded education expected from a great Jesuit institution. And that has been one of the University’s greatest strengths: Where other local institutions of higher learning have grown increasingly specialized and one-dimensional, Santa Clara has wisely chosen to continue to educate the whole person—and worry about the soul as much as the CV. In an era in which great entrepreneurs are as likely to hold humanities degrees as engineering degrees, it has proven to be a brilliant strategy.

But if SCU got right the beginning, it was still uncertain whether the University would successfully navigate the next step. As it has done so many times in the past, Silicon Valley is once again transforming itself. After having spent the opening years of this century devoted to software, code writing, and applications, the Valley is once again swinging back to a focus on hardware—on new platforms and devices.

Those new first-year students arriving on campus each fall now come from a world of robotics teams, drones, and Maker Faires. They build things. As such, they harken back to a much older Valley, of semiconductors and minicomputers … one that rewarded people who could integrate mathematics, applied science, mechanical engineering, and electronics. In other words, STEM, long before the term existed.

Santa Clara University, where those different disciplines remained siloed, operating (especially at the grad school level) almost as separate fiefdoms, had to change with the Valley—or be left behind. That’s why the University has spent much of the last decade planning for just such a STEM facility to prepare that new generation of students for a technologically innovative Valley characterized by machine intelligence, deep learning, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things. A Silicon Valley led by well-rounded makers, able to operate along the boundaries between hard science and applied engineering, commerce and culture, professionalism and ethical behavior. The question was: In the fastest-moving business community in history, could Santa Clara keep pace?

That question has now been answered. With the Sobrato gift, SCU can leapfrog what promised to be a long and unpredictable process … and get to work building and staffing the new facility. It is appropriate that the Sobratos, who played such a crucial role in building the Silicon Valley we know, should now lead Santa Clara University out into the Silicon Valley that will soon be.

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