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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

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.