After 15 years, President Hennessy is stepping down. In that time, he’s seen our school through two financial crises, the fear and turmoil of 9/11, the start of two wars and four presidential elections, to name but a few major events. Students come and go every year, but the president often remains, through national and international changes, through campus triumphs and failures and through year after year of students demanding a better school for themselves. Through change. In other words, he or she matters. Who they are matters. And more specifically, who we choose as our next president, matters.
The conversation about what we want our president to be should start with understanding the role not only of the president, but also that of the people he or she selects, particularly the provost.
The president is the front man – the spokesperson in non-Stanford spaces, charged primarily with outreach and fundraising. It is the provost that has a more hands on role, as far as student life is concerned. Our deans, our academic directors, our vice provost – we interact with all of these positions on a daily basis, and they report directly to the provost. The sexual assault task force report, OpenXChange, emails intended to quell student concerns, all had Provost Etchemendy’s name signed on the dotted line. The choice of a president cannot be expected to dramatically change the campus climate – that will most directly happen through the president’s selection of a provost. However, the president will represent our school, build the Stanford brand in the public eye, and help set the long-term course of the University.
Hennessy is considered a leader in higher education policy issues. He led fundraising for research, access and affordability, financial aid and has connections to Silicon Valley. He is respected in Silicon Valley and seen as another CEO in its midst — a powerful tool to have at the helm of a school with such a symbiotic relationship with the technology world. So, Hennessy has, by most standards, been a successful President. But where do we go from here?
Historically, Stanford has chosen from within. Our presidents tend to start as professors or administrators within the institution before moving into the more prominent position. But is this an advantage? Or does this limit our ability to innovate on an institutional level? Perhaps we should consider who would be the most objective about our collective progress. And that isn’t necessarily another Stanford professor.
Within that question is another more targeted question: Should the next president be tech-focused, or is it in our best interest to mold Stanford’s image into something more well-rounded?
There are compelling arguments on both sides of each of these questions, and the caliber of people most likely on the list of presidents-to-be makes it hard to say there’s a right or wrong answer. But let’s try this out for size:
As students, we want a president who values the entire academic enterprise of the university, and is not solely focused on either engineering or humanities. That doesn’t mean he or she needs a particular background, but it does mean he or she should have an appreciation for the ways diverse schools of thought contribute to a stronger institution.
As far as tech or non-tech, the Editorial Board would support a presidential choice that is not selected primarily on the basis of the candidate’s connection to technology companies. Specifically, the Board votes for diversity of perspective; for the person with the CEO know-how of the innovative, fearless Silicon Valley stereotype, and an ability to recognize the strengths and privileges that come with being in the Silicon Valley nest, without forgetting we can do more than code.
Our University’s connection to technology – and President Hennessy’s role in facilitating those connections – has certainly helped drive Stanford’s rise to the top of America’s higher education system. But those connections will persist, and the public will continue to strongly associate Stanford with Silicon Valley, even if our president doesn’t sit on the board of Google. We would prefer a president who is committed to strengthening all facets of our University, particularly the arts and the humanities, as President Hennessy has begun to do through the end of his tenure.
As far as Stanford or non-Stanford, there are legitimate reasons why Stanford people have filled the presidential shoes so frequently. Our culture is unique. We are a school that believes in possibility and strives for the impossible, that continually tears down boundaries academically, socially and professionally. We are entrepreneurial and impatient, humble and ambitious – we’re cardinal in as many ways as there are students on this campus. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be better. Even if the new president has some former ties to the University, the Board believes the presidential office has potential to benefit from an occupant that also has significant experience elsewhere. Other schools have pursued exciting opportunities that we should seek to develop and integrate into the Stanford culture, and further, fresh eyes will help ensure that Stanford remains on a positive trajectory as opposed to stagnating.
Though the presidential choice will most strongly affect Stanford’s image in the outside world, the culture the new president sets and the provost he or she appoints will also impact the experience within the Campus Drive loop. While in-house candidates absolutely must get their due, it is critical that the search committee also reaches beyond the proven pathway to ensure that we have a president that will continue to strengthen and add to the foundation that President Hennessy has built.