Widgets Magazine

Q&A: President John Hennessy on his future at the University

Stanford University President John Hennessy sat down with The Stanford Daily on Oct. 29 to discuss a wide range of topics, including online education, Stanford’s failed campaign for a New York City campus last fall, Stanford’s fundraising prowess and more. This is the fourth and final installment of that interview; this one focuses on President Hennessy’s future at Stanford.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): This is your 13th year as President, correct?

John Hennessy (JH): Yes.


TSD: Obviously all of these projects are a ton to manage. How do you stay fresh every year and stay energized?

JH: That’s a good question. I was just giving a convocation address at [the] University of Waterloo, getting an honorary degree, and I said, “You have to love what you’re doing. If you love what you’re doing, then you approach it with energy and excitement and enthusiasm.” Otherwise, I said, I cannot do my job well unless I love it…and unless I love seeing the rewards of what we’re able to do.

You find, what you have to find out about yourself, is that you enjoy the secondary, indirect rewards. When you’re a faculty member, you’re sitting in the classroom, you’re working with students, there’s a lot of immediate feedback, you’re working on a research project, there’s a lot of very immediate feedback.

When you’re in a leadership role like this one, all your feedback is indirect. But you have those days when one of your colleagues wins a Nobel Prize or a student does something extraordinary…so you find your enjoyment in that. In seeing that you’ve had a hand, however indirect, in helping them get to that point and seeing them achieve what they’re able to achieve.

If you can’t do that, if you can’t get excited on the first day when the school year’s going to open and on commencement, even though its your 13th commencement or 13th opening…then it’s time to stop doing the job because you don’t have the energy and enthusiasm you need.


TSD: Do you have a long-term idea of how long you want to stay at the University?

JH: We have a couple things now we’re really trying to get finished. We’re really trying to push through the arts initiative. At some point, there will be a balance of either, “I don’t have the energy,” or “It’s healthy for the University to have new leadership.” But I think we’d really like to see some of the projects we’re working on get to fruition, or at least get under way. Then it will be time to get new leadership, which I think is healthy in its own right.


TSD: Which projects?

JH: I’d like to see the arts projects finish: Bing we’re going to open, Anderson and then the McMurtry art building. Those are things I want to see happen, then I want to see the hospital break ground. That’s a long project so it’s five or six or seven years before it’ll be done. But I’ll want to see it break ground [and] at least get started. And eventually I’ll need that hospital, so I want to make sure it’s done before I need it.

The Bing Concert Hall will open in January 2013; the Anderson Collection building is on track to be completed in 2014 and the McMurtry art building is scheduled to be completed in the spring or summer of 2015. The new Stanford hospital is set to break ground in 2013.

If all of these projects stay on schedule, they will be completed by the end of the 2014-15 school year. That would be Hennessy’s 15th year as University President.

Ray Lyman Wilbur, Stanford’s third President, held office for 27 years, from 1916 to 1943. Hennessy is the longest-tenured president in Stanford’s recent era as a world-renowned institution. Stanford’s seventh president, Richard W. Lyman, wrote in his memoir, “Stanford in Turmoil,” that Stanford ascended from a regional institution in the 1950s to a “nationally and internationally prestigious university by the time the ‘70s were over.”

Lyman served for 10 years, from 1970 to 1980, and was followed by Donald Kennedy, who was president for 12 years. Hennessy’s immediate predecessor, Gerhard Casper, ran the University for eight years.

TSD: If and when you decide to leave, do you have a plan for what you want to do after Stanford?

JH: I would like to go back to teaching, that’s what I’ve missed the most. I’m not about to start a big research program simply because I’m an experimental computer scientist, so I’d have to build up a group and get a lot of students and it takes several years to just build up the group. But I would like to teach, and maybe spend time—you know I’ve had a little time working with student entrepreneurs, but very little just because I don’t have a lot of time—but I’d like to spend time with them.

We have a lot of students who have an entrepreneurial bent and we’ve made a lot of progress in trying to build educational opportunities for them so they’re better prepared, but I think we can think some more about what we might do there, to help ensure our brilliant students with great ideas can be successful.

TSD: On the same wavelength, the computer science (CS) program keeps growing and growing. How do you feel this affects other parts of the University, especially underrepresented majors in the humanities and the arts?

JH: I think this is part of—there’s both some local phenomena at work and some global phenomena. I think it’s great that the introductory course is attracting some large percentage—80 or 90 percent—of the student body. I think it’s great because information technology is such a core part of the way you get things done in the world, no matter what your interests and majors are. So I think its great we’re giving students that kind of exposure.

The number of [engineering] majors and the corresponding drop in the humanities which is occurring, as there’s been growth both in the social sciences and engineering…I find it somewhat dispiriting to see students—and I think it’s the society we live in-[with] so much focus on career and being prepared for that first job, that in many cases we’ve undermined the traditional role of undergraduate education-to prepare you to be an intelligent life-long learner who’s being prepared for the rest of their life, not just their first job.

I think we’re going to try some things, working with our colleagues in the humanities, to see what we can do to stimulate the rethinking of that equation. That has involved a whole set of things: some outreaches from some of the deans in the professional schools to talk about the fact that humanities undergraduates actually make great business school candidates, you don’t just have to major in economics, you can major in many others things.

In some ways, I think we’re fighting an uphill battle against a societal force that’s pushing more and more students toward things that are directly connected with their first job. There are internal forces too. I mean I think one of the reasons CS has done so well is they have worked really hard on their undergraduate curriculum. You look at our completion rates for the introductory CS course, they’re the best in the country for large institution. In many places in the country, the dropout rates from the introductory CS course are gigantic.

Our faculty and instructors there are doing a great job in making a compelling opportunity for our students, and that’s a good thing actually. I think we need to work across this spectrum and we need to educate students better about their major choices and get them to think about what the alternatives are. Because we have space—we could have more humanities majors here easily in the institution—[to ask] what we can do to generate that kind of enthusiasm and attract students who want to do it.

Billy Gallagher

About Billy Gallagher

Billy Gallagher is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. He has previously worked at The Daily as editor in chief, a managing editor of news, news desk editor, sports desk editor and staff development editor. He is a junior from Villanova, PA majoring in Economics. He is also a writer for TechCrunch.
  • pol_incorrect

    I think that it is a good thing that the humanities are going the path of oblivion. Let’s be honest, Stanford’s prestige comes only from its hard science, engineering, medicine, law and business programs. These are the programs that subsidize the useless humanities.

    In addition, today the Daily has an article about the political bias that most of these humanities professors have: unashamedly ultra-liberal. I think that those professors are being very disingenuous there. To say that their political biases don’t affect what they teach in the classroom is like saying that the leftist bias doesn’t affect news coverage. The best example of the later are the events in Libya. The leftist media (NY Times, CNN, ABC, etc) gave an incredible hard time to the Bush administration for the covering up in the Valerie Plame affair. Here we have 4 people killed, including the first ambassador to die in a mission since 1979, what seems like a deliberate effort by the Obama administration to deny help during the attack and a 2 week long cover up blaming it on a spontaneous demonstration that never happened in the first place. The leftist media is mute. As Brit Hume said recently, the problem with bias is that it is insidious. It’s not explicit, like these professors openly admitting it in class (though there are some that actually do), but in the choice of the material the choose to teach, the emphasis given to some topics vs others, the choice of readings, etc. That is how bias operates. So, with a reality that the vast majority of political science/humanities professors are hard core Obamaniacs, does anybody believe that what they teach is objective? Now, the problem is with those students who agree to pay $40K/year in tuition to be brainwashed when they could get the same thing for free by just watching MSNBC.

    Any serious Stanford student would focus on those areas that are really political bias free: hard sciences and engineering. Besides, those are the areas that are more likely to result in good job offers after graduation.

    And Mr Hennessy, please suggest the Board of Trustees that Stanford gets rid of the “Humanities” part in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences. They are useless tools of leftist propaganda that should have no role at a serious university.

  • pol_incorrect

    Oh, and BTW, I hope that Mr Hennessy stays president for a long, long time. References are made to how previous presidents stepped down sooner, but nothing is said that all of them left in disgrace. Lyman, although credited with saving the university from the communist lunatics had to go through the process of expelling one of those lunatics, Kennedy was forced out because of the overhead cost scandal, Casper presided over two embarrassing episodes: first the Leonard Law lawsuit and second, and more important to the University’s finances, the failed merger of UCSF and the Stanford Medical School. This is what clueless humanities professors bring to the university leadership. Hennessy’s presidency on the other side has been an unmatched success in terms of the rise of the university to the very top, fundraising, entrepreneurship, etc. It was about time that an accomplished engineer was given the chance to lead the University. Remember the golden rule in engineering: if ain’t broke don’t fix it! So, there is nothing to be fixed at this point when it comes to the university’s presidency.

  • pol_incorrect


    “Stanford University has been charging taxpayers for depreciation on a
    72-foot sailboat with a Jacuzzi and two wood-burning stoves, for use of
    athletic facilities and for faculty discounts on tickets to basketball
    and football games — all in the name of research.

    After a congressional subcommittee questioned items Stanford billed the federal
    government for research, the university agreed to repay $184,286 it
    charged for depreciation on the yacht and on other athletic department
    equipment, including smaller sailboats, racing sculls, computers and a
    prefabricated building.”


    “Last year’s failed merger of hospitals owned by Stanford and the University
    of California at San Francisco cost both institutions a combined loss
    of $176 million over 29 months, according to a final audit of UCSF Stanford Health Care released yesterday.”

  • pol_incorrect


    Robert J. Corry, et al. v. The Leland Stanford Junior University, et al., No. 740309 (Cal. Super. Ct. Feb. 27, 1995), was a case in which the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, California ruled that Stanford University’s speech code violated the freedom of speech rights of its students guaranteed under California’s Leonard Law.

    On February 27, 1995, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Peter G. Stone ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

    Stone ruled that the Stanford speech code restricted more than just fighting words, by including insulting speech. Therefore, using the Leonard Law and Chaplinsky,
    the code was illegal. He ruled further that even if he accepted the
    argument that the speech code only restricted fighting words, it was
    still illegal using the Leonard Law and R. A. V. v. City of St. Paul as the code restricted speech based on content.

    Stone also ruled that the Leonard Law was constitutional, essentially
    because it did not in any way restrict the speech of the university as a
    corporate entity. The university remained free to express its
    abhorrence of racial and other forms of prejudice. The Law expanded,
    rather than contracted, the range of legally permissible speech by
    protecting the free speech rights of students without abridging those of
    the university itself. To be able to express its own opposition to
    prejudice, it was not necessary for the university to have the power to
    prohibit speech with which it strongly disagreed.