Editorial Board | Picking a president: What really matters

Opinion by Editorial Board
Feb. 6, 2024, 12:47 a.m.

Stanford is on the hunt for a president. We’re not the only ones: Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania are also scrambling to find a new leader to replace a recently ousted president. 

We certainly do not envy the presidential search committee in this difficult task. University officials and their decision-making are subject to more external forces than ever, from alumni to donors to the broader public unleashing their critiques through the Internet. Specifically, the recent resignation of Harvard’s first Black president, Claudine Gay, has raised questions surrounding the role of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the search for presidential candidates. But to examine these questions, we must first define what qualifies somebody to be the president of Stanford University. 

What is the purpose of a university president? 

To be frank, we think many Stanford students just want an uncontroversial president who will give both a decent convocation and commencement speech. However, the role of university president is critical in many additional aspects of university life, and unique from other University leadership roles. 

In brief, Stanford’s president represents our values and excellence as an institution. This person must inspire confidence in Stanford’s potential to maintain relationships with, and solicit generous donations from, organizations, alumni and donors. In addition, they should work to advance the long-term progress and knowledge-seeking mission of our university.

Conversely, some factors that may appear to be within the purview of the university president are in fact the responsibility of other administrators. The Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and other administrators directly manage student life, and faculty and graduate students largely shape the education and research environment. 

What qualifies our president?

To that end, there are only a few strictly necessary qualifications for our future president:

  1. Strong research background and academic credentials, including significant leadership of a large organization and personal experience in generating and/or advancing knowledge within an institution.
  2. Commitment to Stanford’s mission — which includes educating students for lives of leadership, advancing fundamental knowledge, cultivating creativity, leading research and accelerating solutions — through teaching or administrative leadership.
  3. Integrity, empathy, self-awareness and a willingness to listen and collaborate with various stakeholders. This includes advocacy for academic freedom and free speech within the context of a diverse institution in which its members may sometimes hold conflicting opinions. 

What do we want from a president?

To return to the discourse around DEI, being uncontroversial does not mean that the president must continue Stanford’s trend of being a white man, simply out of concern that a “minority” (including a woman) president would create discontent among anti-DEI advocates.

Of course anyone’s identity shapes their life experience, and therefore how they develop as a leader. But while a candidate’s leadership skills and qualities may be rooted in their personal background, these qualities can and should be evaluated independently from the candidate’s immutable characteristics. 

The immutable characteristics — gender, race, sexuality among others — of a president or candidate are often overstated by both the proponents and detractors of DEI. For example, when President Joe Biden stated during his campaign that he would nominate a Black woman for the Supreme Court if given the opportunity, his words stirred up debate about the approach of deciding certain desirable immutable traits before officially beginning the selection process for an influential position. People on Biden’s shortlist and eventual Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson were unfairly and harshly judged as underqualified (through no fault of their own), and discourse around the nomination became clouded. While Stanford has not made any similar public commitments, the treatment of Justice Brown Jackson exemplifies the trend wherein candidates’ significant, laudable achievements are overshadowed by discussions about identity. In reality, there are dozens of distinguished academics from minority backgrounds who are well-qualified by their merit alone to lead Stanford, just as there are dozens from non-minority backgrounds. We are asking for the presidential candidate pool to be broad, and for the bar — outlined by the three criteria above — to be high and immovable.

While we don’t believe that the future president of Stanford ought to “belong to” or “represent” any certain groups, we also believe that it is important regardless of the president’s own identity that our university environment champions a diverse student body. A commitment to a diverse campus is independent of any political movements; it is simply necessary given the realities of our highly diverse country and globalized world economy.

While representation is meaningful for many, it is not possible to make all stakeholders happy, and we should not place such a heavy burden on the Presidential Search Committee. If some Stanford community members are hoping that the Committee will choose a President who will make everyone’s identity feel represented, they may be holding the Committee to an impossibly high standard. 

Amid the noise

Stanford University’s Presidential Selection Process must pursue a balanced, nuanced approach when tackling the multidimensionality of hiring a new President. At a school whose motto is “The Wind of Freedom Blows,” the freedom of an individual, or Presidential candidate to express or maintain their cultural identity, ought not to waiver in the face of external pressure.

When a group of people have the opportunity to appoint someone to a powerful position, we believe that it is unwise to definitively settle on a narrow list of immutable characteristics as criteria before the selection process even begins in earnest. This cuts both ways across the current political foment over DEI.

Amid so much noise, the presidential search committee ought to focus on what is most important: our university principles of academic excellence and integrity, and a record of great leadership. A misplaced emphasis on the demographics of our president can distract from these core qualities and the objective evaluation of candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Only when we resist the fringe voices, who would boil this complex decision down to discrimination one way or another, can we truly make the best decision for Stanford.

The Editorial Board includes a chair, who is appointed by the editor in chief, and six other members. The editor in chief and executive editors are ex-officio members, who may debate on and veto articles, but cannot vote or otherwise contribute to the writing process. Current voting members include Editorial Board Chair Nadia Jo ’24 and members Seamus Allen ’25, Joyce Chen ’25, YuQing Jiang ’25, Jackson Kinsella ’27, Alondra Martinez ’26 and Anoushka Rao ’24.

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