By Elise Most
John Etchemendy Ph.D. ’82 will vacate the position of provost on Feb. 1 after serving for nearly 17 years, longer than any of his predecessors.
Together with former President John Hennessy, Etchemendy oversaw Stanford’s rise as one of the most selective and highly regarded universities in the world. His leadership of both the academic and budgetary health of the University has earned him admirers. At the same time, Etchemendy has weathered criticism as Stanford grapples with student dissatisfaction with the administration and, most recently, highly publicized controversies over campus sexual assault. Despite this, Etchemendy has called his job “the best position in higher education.”
“In ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ there is something called the total perspective vortex where you look in it and you see the whole universe and you see how little you are,” Etchemendy said. “The problem is, anyone who looks in it is driven crazy. [Being provost is] kind of like that.”
Etchemendy served as the associate dean for humanities as well as the chair of the philosophy department before becoming provost in 2000. As provost, he has influenced nearly every aspect of the University. The provost is a larger position at Stanford than at most other schools, he said.
As the chief academic officer, the provost makes all of the final decisions on faculty appointments and tenure. Around 80 percent of current Stanford faculty were hired under Etchemendy’s leadership.
Debra Satz, chair of the Faculty Senate, emphasized the great respect the faculty has for Etchemendy.
“He’s seen as our voice, as one of us, and people respect that even when they disagree with him,” Satz said. “He is an academic, a faculty member and an intellectual first and foremost. And his leadership is completely imbued with scholarly, intellectual and ethical values.”
Satz credits Etchemendy with facilitating an increase in interdisciplinary and problem-based scholarship at Stanford. She remarked that Etchemendy, along with Hennessy, “radically changed Stanford by breaking down the barriers between schools, departments and programs and giving people a loyalty to the University as a whole.”
“Our world’s problems are interdisciplinary and don’t respect school or departmental boundaries, so this has been a really important contribution to Stanford’s role in the broader public,” Satz said.
The provost is also the University’s chief budget officer, a position that may seem foreign to many academics. The first budget Etchemendy ever managed was $2.5 billion. Now Stanford’s budget is almost six billion.
As chief budget officer, the provost is in charge of capital planning. Etchemendy decided what buildings got built and where, a role that he notes is unfamiliar territory for a philosopher. Stanford has finished over 70 building projects since 2000.
Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, praised Etchemendy’s judgement, ability to make tough decisions and courage in upholding his convictions. In meetings among leaders from other schools, which Saller attended as provost of the University of Chicago, Saller felt that Etchemendy stood out among provosts not only because he didn’t wear a tie but also because of his leadership style.
“Provost Etchemendy was the only one who didn’t try to talk over other people,” Saller said. “He was quiet, and he listened, and he only spoke when he had something important to say.”
At one point, three ex-provosts occupied positions as deans at Stanford – an uncommon occurrence, Saller said, given that the switch from provost to dean “doesn’t look like a promotion.” But Saller explained that “working for [Etchemendy] made it special.” Saller himself was recruited to Stanford by Etchemendy.
Saller remembers an economically difficult year for the University toward the end of the Great Recession when Etchemendy announced that faculty would not receive any raises. At the same time, Etchemendy and former President Hennessy took cuts in their own salaries.
After the 2008 recession, Stanford dealt with most of its deep budget cuts within a year, Saller said. He believes that Etchemendy’s management of the budget allowed Stanford to begin rebuilding years ahead of many other institutions. The quick recovery meant that the School of Humanities and Sciences was able to return promptly to recruiting faculty.
“At the end of the day, the faculty was 10 percent larger than it had been before the recession,” Saller said.
While Etchemendy has won the respect of many members of the Stanford community, his job has also placed him in the center of controversy.
In his last week as provost, Etchemendy alleviated the outrage over the suspension of the Leland Stanford Junior University March Band by lifting the sanctions. But other issues continue to draw disagreement: In particular, some students and faculty have criticized Etchemendy and the University administration’s handling of sexual assault. Most recently, a New York Times article put Stanford in the spotlight by highlighting the University’s stringent requirement for proving sexual assault – a requirement that Etchemendy defends.
Frederick I. Richman professor of law Michele Dauber wrote in a statement to The Daily that Etchemendy “failed to provide the leadership Stanford needs in the area of sexual harassment and sexual assault.”
“Under his leadership, Stanford enacted a series of policies that are, in my view, some of the most unfriendly to sexual assault survivors currently in use at any school in the country,” Dauber said.
In support of this claim, she points out than Stanford is one of the only schools among its peers to require a unanimous vote from a hearing panel in order for a victim of sexual assault to get even a no-contact directive, although the University can provide directives as an interim measure. The administration also refused to conduct a new Campus Climate Survey on sexual assault at Stanford after 91 percent of students protested the methodology and results of the initial survey, claiming that it did not align with the definitions used by the Association of American Universities. The first survey reported that a mere 1.9 percent of Stanford students were sexually assaulted, which has been contested by Stanford community members.
However, Etchemendy disagrees with criticism of the University’s handling of sexual assault. He believes that “Stanford has been at the forefront of addressing sexual assault” and that the University has the best adjudication process of any school in the country.
“The problem is, when a case goes through an adjudication process, it is very common – in fact maybe almost always the case – that one or the other side is upset with what happened or the decision,” Etchemendy said. “And often they will go to a reporter or the press and talk about how they were treated horribly and the University is not allowed to say a single word about the case.”
Stanford is legally barred from discussing any details of a case, even if the University is being misrepresented in the media, Etchemendy said. He sees this criticism as a downside to being a prestigious institution.
“Newspapers love to write about Stanford because of the Stanford name,” he said. “Put Stanford in the headline and you’ll get more clicks.”
Etchemendy also claims that the University has gone out of its way to be transparent in its policies on sexual assault, holding some 80 public meetings to inform current policy and creating an “incredible system of confidential support advisors.”
“That’s transparency,” he said. “Where we’re not transparent is talking about specific cases and that’s because it’s illegal.”
Ultimately, the University’s goal is to end sexual assault on campus, something Etchemendy believes can only be accomplished through education.
“These cases are so tragic; these cases can ruin people’s lives on both sides,” he said. “And so the solution is to try to stop it from happening rather than to try to have an adjudication process that works. You’re never going to have one that’s going to make people happy.”
According to Etchemendy, Stanford provides more education on sexual assault than any other University, “period,” he said. All students go through an online education course on sexual assault before they even arrive on campus. New Student Orientation addresses sexual assault first with a lecture from Etchemendy himself on the Fundamental Standard and concluding with Real World Stanford, a student production about college life. Starting this year, all freshmen are required to attend Beyond Sex Ed, a program in which current Stanford students share their experiences.
What’s next for Etch
Even in the midst of the controversy, Etchemendy’s love for Stanford stands out. After spending almost 40 years here, he continues to admire the University’s entrepreneurial spirit, positivity and willingness to say “yes” to new projects and ideas.
In 2007, reports circulated that Etchemendy was under consideration for the presidency at Harvard. He promptly dispelled the rumors by telling The Daily at the time, “I have no intention or desire to leave my current position, which I believe is the best position in higher education.”
As he leaves office, Etchemendy feels that the University must continue to improve in order to maintain its standing as one of the top academic institutions in the world. He believes that one such area for improvement is overspecialization in academics. Exploring a wider range of subjects instead of concentrating on one narrow area of study, he said, is vital to development of problem-solving and analytical skills.
“We need to think about how to convince people that … regardless of your major, you will get a good job,” he said. “You will be successful, I promise you.”
Yet Etchemendy pointed out that modes of education outside of the classroom – student organizations, clubs and dorm life, to name a few – deserve at least as much attention.
“All of those things are crucial parts of what Stanford offers,” Etchemendy said. “Are we [handling them] as well as we can?”
When asked whether he plans to stick around after he steps down as provost, Etchemendy replied, “Of course. Stanford is my university. I would never leave Stanford.”
For the rest of this academic year, Etchemendy will aid President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and the new provost, Persis Drell, in their transition. He intends to take a year-long sabbatical before potentially returning to teach.
“I’ve got to figure out what I want to do when I grow up,” Etchemendy joked.
Quick takes with Provost Etchemendy
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What’s your favorite spot on campus?
John Etchemendy (JH): The Mausoleum and the Angel of Grief, and the Cactus Garden, it’s one of the oldest things on campus … End Station Three … It’s like four stories, five stories deep, a big hole, and it was for a linear accelerator that was the model that SLAC was then built on … The Quad at night, just as the sun is going down, and the sky is still a little bit blue, turning purple, and all of the trees are silhouetted against the sky. Lots of places. The Bender Room.
TSD: What’s a fun fact about yourself?
JH: I love to go biking. Up to Skyline and down the other side, on a sunny, spring Sunday morning.
TSD: What’s your favorite memory from your time at Stanford?
JH: There was a freshman with a whole big backpack full of books and she was running along down Palm Drive. And she stopped me and she said, “I’m late for class, can you tell me where the Knoll is?” The Knoll is up behind FloMo. And she was reading the map thinking north was the other direction, so she thought she was going toward the Knoll, and she was going exactly the opposite direction. She was already late for class, and she was a freshman, so of course she thought this was going to destroy her whole career at Stanford if she came late.
TSD: Your favorite memory in 40 years is watching a freshman in distress?
JH: Helping a freshman in distress.
Contact Elise Most at emost ‘at’ stanford.edu and Sophie Regan at sregan20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.