By Fangzhou Liu
In his 16 years as the University’s executive-in-chief, President John L. Hennessy has overseen landmarks and milestones for the University. His tenure brought Stanford the Engineering Quad, more than tripled Stanford’s endowment, and made Stanford the most selective school in the United States. ASSU Vice President Brandon Hill ’16 called Hennessy the “most effective President in Stanford history.”
Beyond his role as lead administrator, Hennessy is a public figure in his own right. Major news sources have critiqued him, student activists address themselves to him, and Hennessy himself is a Silicon Valley heavyweight with active industry links. Outside Stanford, he is perhaps best known for his fundraising and his Silicon Valley credentials, and not without controversy. Yet implicit in every criticism is the belief that Hennessy has indelibly shaped Stanford.
Financial aid, finances and Stanford, Inc.
Hennessy counts financial aid as his single most important achievement as President, beating the $1.6 billion he raised just last year and the construction of the entire Engineering Quad.
“Net tuition after financial aid has gone up farther in public institutions than in private ones, mostly because they don’t have resources to provide financial aid,” remarked Hennessy. “As the state reduces subsidies, tuitions have gone up.”
The average net cost of attendance for students receiving financial aid was $17,952 in the 2013-2014 school year, a decrease from the 2012-2013 year even as the sticker price of attending Stanford rose.
“A lot of students wouldn’t actually be at Stanford if not for Stanford’s generous financial aid program, [myself] included,” Hill said.
Out of 6,980 undergraduates at Stanford, 4,284 received financial aid in the 2013-2014 school year. Financial aid has not only made the cost of attending Stanford comparable with public schools for aid recipients, but placed Stanford on par with peer institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT.
Yet Stanford’s growth as a research institution may also make affordable payments more difficult to sustain. In February, Daily columnist Winston Shi ’16 wrote about the pressure of rising per unit cost of expanding the Stanford enterprise. Keeping pace as a premier research institution, he argued, meant that funding would have to expand constantly to keep net prices at the same level for students.
Still, for the past few years, Stanford has managed to keep net prices down, in part by prioritizing financial aid. Hennessy took pride in Stanford’s decision to keep financial aid while making other cuts during the 2007 financial crisis, when students were most sorely in need of aid. He recalled it as a time in which the University had stuck to its “core value,” but the end of his tenure raises the question: Just what are the University’s values?
The ‘moral mission’
One answer to the question is moral leadership. Inequality has come into Hennessy’s public role within the university as campus activist movements address Hennessy directly. In the past school year, Fossil Free Stanford (FFS) and Who’s Teaching Us (WTU) took up their causes with Hennessy himself. Whether with climate change or faculty diversity, the idea behind the placards was one and the same: The University should be as much of a moral leader as it is an exemplar in teaching and research.
Pablo Haake ’19 was one of dozens of students who joined FFS during its five-day sit-in outside Hennessy’s office to protest Stanford’s investment in oil and natural gas. He explained his commitment as a moral question.
“If Stanford is invested in an industry that is perpetuating harm, then it is our duty to be a moral leader in opposing that and also to not be complicit in moral harm,” Haake said.
The five-day sit-in took on a confrontational tone as activists, frustrated with what they saw as Hennessy’s inaction, called him out on social media and, memorably, shared photos of him during his appointment at Stanford Hair in Tresidder Union.
Faced with student causes that plant themselves outside his office, Hennessy is understanding.
“Let me say first that the rise of student activism reflects actually, in some way, a healthy impatience about the rate of change in our country,” said Hennessy.
In an attempt to explain student activists’ sometimes combative fervor, he cited the generation gap. His peers “grew up doubting that America would ever have a black President,” while current students grew up in Obama’s administration but found that racial injustice remained devastatingly present. He offered his understanding that students were looking to their “home institution” as the first place to make change.
However, all this is to say that Hennessy fundamentally disagrees on the subject. For him, the University’s moral imperative is achieved through its intellectual mission.
“[The aim of doing] good in the world, we see that as primarily focused around teaching and research,” he explained. To the extent that there are other opportunities that are aligned with research and teaching missions that make sense, [we’ll] do that, but research and teaching are the focus.”
And Hennessy has evidence. Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Engineering (Y2E2) Building, conceived during his term, became the catalyst for the interdisciplinary Stanford Energy System Innovations program (SESI). The scheme is on track to cut Stanford’s carbon emissions in half and reduce water use by 15 percent.
Beyond the question of Hennessy’s personal impact, the fact is that teaching and research is the foundation of most institutions of higher education. Hennessy’s predecessor, constitutional lawyer Gerhard Casper, cited “Stanford’s vitality and good spirits, the University’s clear focus on teaching and research, and undergraduate education” as his greatest achievements in a farewell interview. Like Hennessy, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust justified the University’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels by pointing to its contribution to carbon reductions and clean energy research. Harvard’s service to the community, she said, was “in addition to teaching and research.”
When it comes to education and research, Stanford has undoubtedly grown under Hennessy. The campus has expanded along with the range of academic offerings and interdisciplinary collaborations.
Where Stanford started off with one Main Quad, Hennessy is pushing for original architect Frederick Olmsted’s vision of four quads in architectural unity.
“We’ve followed the model of using buildings to catalyze different ways to organize the university, so that’s been important in supporting the research and teaching mission,” he commented, pointing to the interdisciplinary collaborations made possible by the new buildings.
He raises Y2E2 as an example of a research space that went beyond the boundaries of traditional departments to innovate in sustainable energy and environmental research.
Yet Hennessy has become synonymous with Stanford’s rise in computer science enrollment and entrepreneurship – in short, moving ever closer to Silicon Valley. Students are alternately deemed too cautiously pre-professional and too entrepreneurial, taking the University away from its liberal arts core.
Hennessy points out that engineering has not so much expanded as much as it has extended into every discipline.
Citing the field of bioengineering, Hennessy said, “There is a shift that has occurred with the rise of big data and data intensive analysis as a way to look at the world. Fields that we might have called biomedicine are drawing more from engineering and statistics.”
In an interview with longtime colleague and friend David Patterson, Hennessy also dismissed the claim that the University encouraged undergraduates to drop out and found startups in droves. He described grants from StartX, the University-funded startup incubator, as merely “enough money to eat beans for the summer and try out their idea.”
Meanwhile, the tech rush at Stanford has seen the creation of Google and Instagram – whose founders had completed their undergraduate education by the time they started their companies – as well as newer social good initiatives such as CS + Mental Health, which is run by current students.
Nevertheless, Hennessy’s positions on the board of Google and Cisco have raised eyebrows. A 2012 New Yorker article suggested that potential conflicts of interest abound when faculty invest in student startups, and the President has interests in industry. The piece included comments from senior associate dean Debra Satz and former history professor Philippe Buc, who both worried about the symbiotic ties between industry and University.
Apart from risk-taking entrepreneurs, the other side of pre-professional CS culture is risk aversion.
Although his name is synonymous with the burgeoning role of Silicon Valley in Stanford, Hennessy appears as confounded on the matter as anyone else.
“I don’t think we did anything to contribute in particular,” said Hennessy. “We did not anticipate the rapid rise in engineering enrollments. We never thought it would get this high this fast… It’s left us scrambling in some cases to balance teaching resources, to get enough support.”
Hennessy reckons that students’ risk-aversion and effective teaching on the CS department’s part are part of the equation. And it’s true: Millennials are plagued by some of the most daunting employment figures in history, even as college education rates continue to increase.
Hennessy’s assessment echoes the eager-to-please, risk-averse “excellent sheep” William Deresiewicz saw at Harvard, Yale and other top liberal arts institutions. Deresiewicz portrayed the popularity of CS at Stanford and economics at Harvard simply as the price of excellence. In the past decade, Stanford has risen to join the ranks.
The Office of the President
The core of Hennessy’s job is to make Camp Stanford a better place for its residents, on the premise that Stanford’s success will be valuable to the world.
Looking back on his 16 years as President, Hennessy said, “I’d say [Stanford] has become [of greater value to the world]. The quality of the institution, of faculty, of research they’re doing, and the quality of students especially.”
He added, “We get the best students from around the world now, and that’s remarkable.”
In Hennessy’s view, the demons of education inequality and fossil fuel investment are not the President’s to slay.
Although he is a stalwart of the fast-moving tech scene, Hennessy is a traditionalist among revolutionaries. A read through his commencement speeches saw him muse on the institution’s founding values and one inspirational alum each year. His addresses are neither as idiosyncratic nor as vividly personal as those of his predecessor, Gerhard Casper.
Comparing Hennessy to Casper, Hill noted, “Historically, Hennessy hasn’t been as connected to the ASSU as the previous President, Gerhard Casper. [Casper] was actually a constitutional legal scholar by training, and would regularly correspond with the ASSU [such as] when the GSC and undergraduate students split.”
Besides advisory letters to student government, Casper also wrote scathing personal ones to the U.S. News & World Report on the subject of college rankings. Hennessy has been a quiet administrator in comparison.
When asked about the least-understood part of the President’s job, Hennessy had a prompt response.
“How little power the President has to do things,” he said with a laugh.
The University, he explained, can only spend 0.25 percent of its resources each year on new initiatives. On investment decisions and curriculum changes, the President has to go through the Board of Trustees and the Faculty Senate.
As an administrator, Hennessy has done a great deal with relatively little. The recent budgetary report from Provost John Etchemendy shows just how tricky it is to keep an university – even one that is raking in the donations and is famously linked to industry – on the upswing. The outlook of the President is inevitably monetized.
The University is a gridlock of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, alumni, trustees and investors. The “administration” is larger than one man, and the University is greater than its President. Hennessy has managed the mass of interlocking interests to transform Stanford, and its enhanced status has come with new issues. In the process, Hennessy says he has been altered by Stanford.
“It completely changed my life,” he said, “I came to California as a young assistant professor, and it completely changed my life, and provided me with opportunities to pursue research and teaching, that I never would have had otherwise.”
Stanford shaped Hennessy, and Hennessy then shaped Stanford as it is today.
Contact Fangzhou Liu at fzliu96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Quick take with President Hennessy
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What’s your favorite memory in your role as President?
John Hennessy (JH): Probably going to freshman dorms on opening day.
TSD: What vegetable would you be, if you had a choice?
JH: Broccoli rabe – it’s an Italian vegetable that goes very well with pasta.
TSD: Would that be organic, home-grown, pesticide free…?
JH: It would be organic.
TSD: What are your thoughts on the Stanford band?
JH: I think they’re zany. They’re unpredictable.
TSD: What do you want to say to average student reading this?
JH: I’d say Stanford is a great university and you should view being here as a real opportunity and privilege and make the most out of it.