Reflecting on the Hennessy tenure

Opinion by Editorial Board
May 30, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

With the end of the school year comes the end of President John Hennessy’s tenure as president of Stanford. In spite of criticism he’s faced over the years, most would agree that his 15 years at the helm of the University have made Stanford a trend-setter for the rest of higher education.

To get a better sense of what Hennessy has accomplished, let’s go back to October 2000. Bill Clinton was the president of the United States, 9/11 had not happened and neither had the economic crisis of 2008. The iPhone had not been invented, and Google was only two years old. In short, much has changed.

Much has also changed at Stanford in that time, and Hennessy will be leaving Stanford in a very different place from where he found it. During his presidency, Stanford rose from a top-tier university to the most selective school in America — a school that has risen from a good school to a premier institution — and Hennessy is, in many ways, directly responsible for that.

Since Hennessy’s predecessor Gerhard Casper left Hennessy a world-class institution, it can be tempting to underrate Hennessy’s impact. But Hennessy has done far more than avoid crashing the Tesla. Hennessy has helped push Stanford to new heights as an international brand.

The class of 2004, which arrived to Stanford with Hennessy, saw 17,919 undergraduate applicants with an acceptance rate of 17 percent. The school’s endowment was a lowly $6.2 billion, which — like its acceptance rate — was impressive but still well behind those of other elite institutions around the country.

This year, Stanford accepted 4.69 percent of its 43,997 applicants. Its endowment has nearly quadrupled to $21.5 billion (though it still lags behind Harvard’s and Yale’s). Over the past 16 years, the school’s yield rate has jumped by 15 percent, equalling that of Harvard’s. Stanford’s budget has more than doubled since Hennessy took office, and his fundraising efforts brought in $13 billion — leading the country every year but one. As a result, Stanford has been able to expand its financial aid system: 70 percent of Stanford students receive some sort of financial aid, and the University announced last year that it would cover tuition for students whose parents’ income is below $125,000.

But looking beyond statistics reveals the full extent of Hennessy’s impact.

In his time on The Farm, Hennessy has utilized his personal ties to Silicon Valley to strengthen Stanford’s connections to the tech industry: a relationship that has allowed Stanford to thrive with the growth of Silicon Valley. Stanford’s institutional emphasis has shifted similarly — to engineering and science, data and research, economics and, above all, graduate studies. At the same time, Hennessy’s focus on interdisciplinary education has allowed the institution to maintain its appeal of a strong, diverse academic base.

Hennessy and Etchemendy’s shifts in academic philosophy have been complemented by a transformed physical campus. Under Hennessy, Stanford has undertaken over 70 building projects (Bing Concert Hall, the Engineering Quad, the Graduate School of Business, to name a few) and adopted spaces for innovative use, something that has allowed Stanford to attract the best students and faculty.

In spite of these successes, Hennessy’s tenure has not been without criticism. Some of these criticisms can be more readily attributed to Hennessy than others.

When Hennessy assumed office in 2000, there were already calls to bridge the divide between techies and fuzzies. Some students were concerned about Stanford’s growing reputation as a tech school, and some even advocated for the next president of the University to be a humanities president.

These tensions have not substantially subsided since those initial issues were raised 15 years ago. Yet, while many have attributed this shift to Hennessy’s focus on tying Silicon Valley to Stanford’s image, in reality, the rising enrollment in STEM majors is likely the result of a rising demand for technical skills in the job market. Funding and support for the humanities have not appreciably decreased during Hennessy’s tenure, and enrollment in humanities majors has stayed roughly constant. But with this naturally exacerbated techie-fuzzie divide, some students have argued that the University should be doing more to combat it.

While Hennessy has made notable contributions to the arts — most notably the opening of the Anderson Collection, McMurtry Building and Bing Concert Hall — many argue that Hennessy’s commitment to the arts has been limited to buildings and not substance.

Similarly, while Stanford has made some progress in the diversity of its academic content, many believe its faculty diversity remains underwhelming. Diversity at Stanford was one of the central controversies when Hennessy entered the University administration. The level of undergraduate diversity at Stanford, at best, has not significantly changed since 2000. Since then, faculty diversity, where racial disparities are far greater, has become the focal point of student criticism. Members of the recent Who’s Teaching Us? movement are still dissatisfied that Hennessy has not made a larger push for faculty diversity in his 15 years at Stanford. For his own part, Hennessy has publicly acknowledged that Stanford has not done enough, but contended that he is not in a position to effect significant change on this issue.

Hennessy and his administration have also recently been criticized for their lack of transparency and dialogue with the student body, an issue that appears to have been present from the beginning of his tenure. With many social and political issues dominating students’ concerns, and a student body that has growing expectations for the role of a university president in the public sphere, the administration’s failure to communicate with students has heightened mistrust and frustration.

Ultimately, Hennessy’s legacy will be measured by the impact his actions have on future generations of Stanford students. And in this regard, we believe his tenure has been successful. Despite the legitimate concerns still facing the University, Hennessy has established Stanford as one of the world’s premier institutions. It’s in the hands of next year’s leadership where we go from here.


Contact the Editorial Board at opinions ‘at’

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board consists of President and Editor-in-Chief Victor Xu '17, Executive Editor Will Ferrer '18, Managing Editor of Opinions Michael Gioia '17, Desk Editor of Opinions Jimmy Stephens '17, Senior Staff Writer Kylie Jue '17, Senior Staff Writer Olivia Hummer '17 and Senior Staff Writer Andrew Vogeley '17. To contact the Editorial Board chair, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at [email protected]

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