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Hennessy describes long-term education challenges

In the final Faculty Senate meeting of the 2009-10 academic year, University President John Hennessy outlined a series of long-term challenges for Stanford and other research universities. He focused on interactions with the federal government, economic pressures on families and institutions, and the process of integrating Stanford with an internationalized world.

Hennessy opened by discussing the role of the federal government in the funding of research, noting how integral that support was for Stanford’s activities.

“Higher education in this country has been fortunate since the end of the Second World War to get a great deal of support for its research mission from the federal government,” he said. “It’s been a mission that has shown a particularly enlightened and largely bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle over the years. And obviously the U.S. leads in many fields of research directly because of this support.”

If and when decreases occur in the United States’ discretionary spending to reduce the country’s long-term deficits, Hennessy said he believed that “there will be more pressure on higher education than ever” to protect and preserve research funding. He also warned of wider negative effects than those faced by institutions like Stanford.

“Should that happen, not only would it damage the research leadership we have had in U.S. universities, but also in the long term, it will damage economic growth in this country and put us into a spiral that will be quite unfortunate.”

The impact of the federal regulation on Stanford, Hennessy said, will also be a vital issue. He adopted a critical tone toward discussions of eliminating or countering all conflict of interest in research, stating that to do so would rob Stanford and other institutions of some positive benefits of collaboration with industry and reduce the impact of research on the marketplace. Hennessy said he preferred allowing for some “managed conflict situations.”

“I am, by the way, for full and completely open transparency,” Hennessy added. “I am for careful monitoring of conflicts that we know occur.”

Hennessy also displayed skepticism toward proposed federal regulations of university endowments and accreditations, framing the issue as both a challenge to Stanford and the wider health of American higher education. He noted, too, that forcing a higher rate of endowment payout could backfire.

“Obviously we have had the financial tsunami here to clearly indicate that conservative endowment payouts probably are a good thing,” Hennessy said.

The costs of providing higher education to students, Hennessy said, will also prove a greater challenge in upcoming years. Turning first to the problems of families seeking to pay for a college education, Hennessy argued that current trends of rising tuition costs were in many cases not sustainable.

“For an institution like Stanford that has such a large number of applicants and an aggressive financial aid program, for us it’s more about the public perception, but the public perception could come back to haunt us in lots of difficult ways,” Hennessy said. “We’ve managed to maintain affordability by increasing financial aid, but that is not a solution that all institutions can achieve.”

Economic pressures will also come to bear on public universities in upcoming years through cuts to many state budgets, and Hennessy said that negative effects on institutions like UC-Berkeley will have wide detrimental effects.

“The U.S. will be poorer, California will be poorer, the Bay Area will be poorer, institutions like Stanford will be poorer if the long-term health of a great public system like the UC system continues to be assailed and the quality of that institution goes down,” Hennessy said. “It will hurt all of us in the long term.”

While he noted that Stanford had a limited ability to alter the situation beyond spreading awareness, he added that “it’s critical to remember that the vast majority of people who get a college degree in this country get it in a public institution, and we need to ensure that they remain as vibrant and as great as they are.”

Returning to a theme that he emphasized in discussions with members of the House of Representatives in January, Hennessy also argued for the benefits of educating international students and collaborating with international researchers, and the benefits he saw in the United States adopting a cooperative and welcoming attitude.

“I think we should still continue, for as long as we can, to attract the best and brightest,” he said. “I’m in the Tom Friedman school, which says you staple a green card to their diploma. But not everybody in the United States is ready to take that radical a position.”

“After all, we have only invested $100,000, $200,000 in this Ph.D. who’s graduating, and we should send them out of the country quickly? This seems silly to me,” he added.

Hennessy also noted a potential avenue for increasing the size of the population educated by Stanford in the long term. While discussions of class size expansion at Stanford stalled with the onset of the University’s budget crisis, he pointed to international opportunities to achieve similar results through cooperation or the introduction of a branch campus, perhaps in the Pacific Rim.

“Stanford has had a long relationship with parts of the world where it has actually helped build educational infrastructure, in Taiwan, in Korea and other places,” he said. “So there are a variety of different roles we can think about playing in that, going even so far as thinking about, would you someday consider a branch campus somewhere?”

Hennessy added that he would strongly resist any model where such a campus was only a “storefront” with the Stanford name, saying “there is nobody who can pay me nearly enough money for me to think about doing that.”

The June 10 meeting was the last of the 42nd Faculty Senate, chaired by electrical engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith. Medical professor David Spiegel will chair the 43rd Senate, whose first meeting is set tentatively for Oct. 7.