The People’s President? Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s administration, six months in

Feb. 24, 2017, 8:00 p.m.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne sat at the head of the table in the President’s Room of the Faculty Club, his brows pressed together and fingers steepled, counting the places at the table under his breath. Tessier-Lavigne is entering his fourth month as president of the University and is still getting to know it. That task — getting to know Stanford — brought him here on this stormy afternoon for a lunch with School of Engineering faculty to gather their ideas for the growth of the University.

“One too many,” he said, standing up to carry a place setting off to the sink at the back of the room. Details, particularly numbers, captivate Tessier-Lavigne. The prologue to his remarks about listening to the group was calculating aloud how to divide speaking time equally. Later in the day, during a meeting with representatives from the Haas Center, he would stop the conversation to make sure he’d calculated the amount spent on Cardinal Quarter programs correctly.

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As Tessier-Lavigne navigates his new post, details will be precisely what matter if he is to connect with students in a way that his predecessor didn’t. He comes at a time when student trust in the University is perhaps at a trough, the legacy of an administration which seemed to prefer to impose change rather than to collaborate. Under John Hennessy, the administration was criticized for its method of integrating student views into major policy decisions, such as the ban of hard alcohol containers 750 mL or greater in student residences. Despite a referendum on the alcohol policy during the 2016 ASSU elections showing overwhelming student support for maintaining the previous alcohol policy, the new policy was announced by email to students and provided little detail about the reasons and data driving the change.

Tessier-Lavigne’s focus on numbers is pertinent to his new responsibilities. By many metrics, Stanford grew immensely under his predecessor: The Engineering Quad was constructed, the endowment more than tripled and the University became the most selective in the nation. However, Stanford is in Silicon Valley, and here, stagnation is akin to death. It is, of course, Tessier-Lavigne’s responsibility to grow both the University and its ambitions.

Some might argue that the president also has a responsibility to maintain the school’s image. Over the past two decades, Stanford has developed a reputation as an elite university, particularly one with close connections to Silicon Valley, offering the many students who study STEM fields reliable and remunerative career prospects after graduation. The rise of engineering has had far-reaching impacts. For one, this security has begun to hurt academic diversity: Since 2010, there has been a 37 percent increase in engineering majors, and, in the same time period, the number of students studying social sciences has decreased by 35 percent. At least in this respect, however, Tessier-Lavigne hasn’t been afraid to challenge the trend toward engineering.

Despite the fact that these shifts in student majors have been one of the drivers of the University’s growth, Tessier-Lavigne believes that the lack of diversity leads to less fulfilling student experiences. While he thinks that that the the increased interest in STEM is partly cyclical and driven by market forces, pointing to earlier increases in economics majors as a parallel, he acknowledges that students gravitating to a major solely for its career prospects is problematic. However, he doesn’t believe an administrative policy change, for example enacting a GPA requirement for declaring computer science, is the solution.

“We don’t believe in restricting people,” he said. “We need to message all the opportunities you have to do other things.”

Tessier-Lavigne pointed to the CS+X joint major programs, launched in 2014, as an example of well-intentioned administrative choices that didn’t understand student demand. He believes the programs presented themselves incorrectly by placing the emphasis on computer science and that the degrees, which require in most cases substantially the same work as completing both majors separately, came with a crushing unit load that discouraged students from pursuing them. In Tessier-Lavigne’s view, future programs integrating computer science with other subjects should present computer science as a tool for deepening students’ understanding. To illustrate this, he provided the example of a political science major learning to apply data science techniques. 

There may be no better example of Tessier-Lavigne’s faith that offering students options will lead to academic diversity than himself. He entered McGill University in Montreal with a love of mathematics, which led him to his undergraduate degree in physics — a decision which seemed natural to him because the problem-solving inherent in science was exciting. Later, Tessier-Lavigne was selected as a Rhodes scholar and earned degrees in philosophy and physiology at Oxford. Tessier-Lavigne thanks the academic latitude the Rhodes Scholarship offered him while he was offered there for guiding his trajectory. “Philosophy taught me how to think, and physiology gave me my vocation,” he said.

Science has been a constant through Tessier-Lavigne’s career despite the variety of positions he has held. He earned a doctorate in physiology from University College London after his time at Oxford, and then spent time at Columbia University for postdoctoral work. Eventually, Tessier-Lavigne came west, spending time at the University of California, San Fransisco before a brief stint at Stanford. He then made the transition to industry, working at Genentech before becoming president of Rockefeller University in 2011. Even now, Tessier-Lavigne will continue to operate his research lab until his Ph.D. students have completed their degrees. Despite this breadth of experience, Tessier-Lavigne is reluctant to do much more than say he has been offered a great deal of opportunities.

Throughout his life, Tessier-Lavigne has been at the confluence of opportunities. During an event at the freshman dorm Donner, he recounted his good fortune at being taken under the wing of a faculty member when he arrived at McGill. Tessier-Lavigne hopes that his experiences, such as being a first-generation college student, will allow him to understand and connect with a variety of students. Without that faculty member’s support, he worries he might have slipped through the cracks.

Under Hennessy, changes to financial aid made domestic admissions need-blind, allowing almost any accepted American student to come to Stanford. According to Tessier-Lavigne, since this change there has been an increase in socioeconomic diversity, which signals to Tessier-Lavigne that at one level, the policy changes have been effective. Despite these gains, he believes there’s more to be done.

One change that Tessier-Lavigne hopes to see implemented is need-blind admissions for international students. Currently, about 25 percent of international students at Stanford receive some sort of financial aid, while 75 percent pay full price for their education. According to Tessier-Lavigne, if the admissions process was made need-blind for international students, those ratios would be inverted. Despite the challenges, which include financing to support the practice, Tessier-Lavigne believes it is only a matter of time until the University will adopt the practice. In addition to allowing a more diverse collection of students to attend Stanford, Tessier-Lavigne hopes to broaden the pool of applicants over the coming years.

“There are a lot of people who don’t apply here,” he said. “We need to fix that.”

After telling this to the assembled students during the Donner event, he was asked how he planned to do that. With his hands folded in his lap, Tessier-Lavigne scrunched his face in thought.

“I don’t really know [how we’re expanding outreach], but I will try to find out more,” he said, before sitting silently for a moment and finally gesturing at the group. “But if you have any ideas how we can do it better, I want to hear them.”

This phrase is Tessier-Lavigne’s favorite and seems to work its way into every conversation he has. It provides a microcosm of both the techniques of leadership that he has developed over years of leading research and his attempts to engage with students on as many topics as he can. This experience shows in the fast pace of every meeting he attends, regardless of the subject, and his obsession with metrics.

“Marc has a collaborative and nonhierarchical leadership style,” said Megan Pierson, Tessier-Lavigne’s chief of staff, in an email. “He listens carefully, enjoys engaging deeply on issues and wants to hear a broad set of perspectives before he makes decisions.”

Each of Tessier-Lavigne’s meetings was punctuated by the scratching of his pen running across the page throughout its duration. More notable than his constant notes, though, were Tessier-Lavigne’s interjections. His questions revealed in their specificity a base of bureaucratic knowledge in a variety of subjects, from the expected, such as neuroscience, to arcane budgetary topics like risk.

This precise knowledge reflects another facet of Tessier-Lavigne’s leadership, a sense that despite the group of administrators which surround him, “you have to be hands on, because in the end you own all of this.”

During the foreseeable future, Tessier-Lavigne will look to convince the Stanford community that he is sincerely interested in engaging with it regarding the direction of the University, despite his sense of individual responsibility for the progress. This focus on collaboration seems particularly timely after undergraduate concerns about the sanctions imposed on the Band and changes to Full Moon on The Quad.

Tessier-Lavigne believes he has observed a generational change in the student body. In his view, today’s undergraduates are far more interested in engaging in with University administration, both to understand the process and to help make decisions, than those of 10 years ago. Tessier-Lavigne is optimistic that he will be able to make students feel as if decisions are made with consultation rather than handed down from on high.

The new alcohol policy, which began soon before Tessier-Lavigne assumed the presidency, provides for him a case study in improper presentation of a policy change to students. He believes that the way the policy was presented did not reflect the University’s main reason for its implementation: a concern over hard liquor shots enabling binge drinking. He lamented that student opinions on the new alcohol policy were set by the University’s first email message over the summer, as he considers later communications about the policy clearer, and wishes that students had been more a part of the conversation around the alcohol policy.

For all his efforts to build consensus with the student body, Tessier-Lavigne is still determining how to make decisions feel inclusive. This is exemplified in his disappointment in the reaction to the changes made to this year’s Full Moon on the Quad. He pointed to the inclusion of the junior class presidents in the decision making about the event as an example of the collaborative nature of the decision-making process, and was mystified at student frustration when the organizers themselves described the re-worked event as a success.

The ultimate motivation behind any policy change, in Tessier-Lavigne’s view, is that the University attempts to do what it believes is right to protect the welfare of its students. He finds it worrying that the student body often does not acknowledge that the University’s decisions are made with the best intentions.

Tessier-Lavigne worries that making himself more accessible to students may not be enough to overcome students viewing the administration’s choices as self-interested.

“My fear is that because there’s a power dynamic [between students and the administration], some people will never see an agreement, or at least it would be a tainted agreement,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

Challenging Tessier-Lavigne’s wish for openness is the sensitive nature of some of the issues most important to students. In Title IX cases, the University is not able to provide case-specific information, a limitation which Tessier-Lavigne felt acutely during the discipline process surrounding the Band. In his view, the University’s actions were reasonable and necessary responses to egregious behavior reported to the University by students, and if students had greater knowledge of the circumstances, they would have better understood the University’s response.

The University’s obligation to offer a certain response in such situations is a facet of his responsibility that Tessier-Lavigne has considered deeply. One of the books that he considers most impactful on him is “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman, a military history examining the first month of World War I. For Tessier-Lavigne, the most affecting part of the book was the inhumanity of it.

“Reason could no longer prevail because dehumanizing systems had been put in place,” he said.

Though expressed on a different order of magnitude, Tessier-Lavigne’s wish to make decisions at Stanford more inclusively seems to spring from a desire to elude a system that lacks empathy. For example, student perceptions of the Title IX process as flawed and unfair could lead to decisions not to report sexual assaults on campus.

To engage more with students and to attempt to show his desire to engage is genuine, Tessier-Lavigne plans to host town hall-style meetings, in addition to trying to create more informal opportunities to connect with the broader student body. Ideally, Tessier-Lavigne says, he will grow an inclusive vision from these interactions. Eliza Adams, a Ph.D. student in Tessier-Lavigne’s lab who moved to Stanford from Rockefeller University with him, believes that he can be successful.

“What’s so unique about Marc is that he has a vision, and he can articulate that vision so clearly that anyone else can understand it,” she said. “[He can] collect from others what that vision should be … and that comes from the fact he understands everyone is unique.”

Building a consensus among so many different groups will test the foundations of leadership that Tessier-Lavigne constructed during his years as a scientific administrator. His deeply personal leadership style will face the challenge of expanding to an organization responsible to so many.

Contact Regan Pecjak at [email protected]

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