By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jason Smith

I wanted to ask something that didn't take his message at face value."”
—Nathan Chan
College fourth-year

Nathan Chan stood up in front of more than 1,700 people at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on April 20 to ask Bill Gates a tough question.

Chan asked whether it was realistic for students to devote most of their energy and talent to charitable work, as Gates did in 2008 when he took on a full-time role as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Why, Chan asked, shouldn't students "adopt a philosophy that's a little bit more selfish," in hopes of eventually acquiring wealth that could benefit society? Wasn't that the path that Gates and fellow philanthropist Warren Buffett had taken?

It was an intimidating moment for Chan, a College fourth-year. He was eager to question Gates, who was on campus as part of a five-stop tour of top universities, but he also hoped to challenge Gates' assumptions.

"I wanted to ask something that didn't take his message at face value," Chan said later.

Such frank exchanges were just what Gates was looking for. "That's a very fair question," replied Gates, the former head of Microsoft Corp. He said his aim is to inspire the brightest minds to find new ways to tackle big challenges, whether through full-time work or by devoting a fraction of time to issues like education, poverty, or global health. Pursuing a profitable career is fine, Gates said with a grin — but carving out even a little time for big problems could have a lasting effect.

The discussions that began during Gates' daylong visit to the University are continuing, with an exacting focus on ideas rather than the speaker's fame. While here, Gates spoke with researchers, faculty members, and the University's group of Gates Millennium Scholars. He also gave an interview to campus news media, in which he talked about how to use a rigorous education to help solve big problems. The dialogue is still taking shape on campus, as well as online through exchanges on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Talk gets many students thinking

Many students found the talk at Rockefeller inspiring, though others were skeptical that the themes could apply to them. Gates spoke at length about the striking progress worldwide in lowering child death rates since the 1960s, and the prospects for further gains through more work on vaccines and other public health initiatives. Students questioned him on subjects ranging from the effectiveness of teacher incentives to the structure of his foundation.

Third-year Lauren Greubel had mixed feelings about Gates' visit.

"He comes across as a very personable, normal person who truly cares about the work he is doing both with Microsoft and his foundation," she said. Still, the sociology major and Human Rights minor hoped to hear more about career opportunities in public service.

"Few of us are building microchips in our dorm rooms," she said, referring to Gates' early interest in computers.

Thesis a reminder of trip to UChicago

Fourth-year Jarrod Wolf, student government president, said the evening was valuable as a way for students to trade ideas with one of the world's most influential figures.

"It was very equalizing," Wolf said. "We were all just people having a discussion about how to make the world a better place."

Before Gates left the chapel, Wolf presented him with a bound copy of alumnus Sean Dickson's BA thesis, "Based on what evidence? The failure of evidence-based programming to prevent HIV among young Chinese men who have sex with men." The thesis had been honored as the best public policy thesis of 2009 at the College.

Dickson, AB'09, was thrilled to learn that Gates might read his work. After graduating, Dickson enrolled in a dual law and public health program at the University of Michigan.

"It's rewarding in that this is something I've thought a lot about," Dickson said of the thesis. "My paper was really challenging the model that is used by funding organizations, including the Gates Foundation."

Indeed, it seems Dickson's ideas took root. Later that night, Gates posted a note to his Twitter account: "Great visit at U of Chicago w/students & faculty. Thank you! I was presented with a thesis on HIV which I will read."

Originally published on May 3, 2010.