A National Presence

It’s not always easy to separate Stanford’s institutional influence from the individual contributions of its scholars. But John Hennessy has been conspicuous as a singular force as well as the university’s ambassador-in-chief on a national level.

“John Hennessy has been a terrific president who has developed a long-range strategy for Stanford and executed it beautifully,” says Hunter Rawlings, former president of the Association of American Universities and interim president of Cornell University. “He is a deep thinker about the potential of research universities to impact not only their own students, but the world at large, in remarkable ways through groundbreaking discovery, entrepreneurialism, technology transfer, and state-of-the-art pedagogy.”

“John is an inspiration for me,” says Philip J. Hanlon, president of Dartmouth College and former provost of the University of Michigan. “He’s kind of a hero.”

Hanlon has a top-of-mind list of the areas in which Hennessy “pushed my thinking”—design, entrepreneurship and the arts. They’re unified for Hanlon by their increasing educational relevance: “John was way ahead of the game in recognizing personal empowerment, the creative power of the individual.” Hanlon’s efforts at Dartmouth to “expand faculty in clusters around a world issue or world problem” at least partly reflect the Hennessy stamp of a socially and globally engaged university.

The president of the American Council on Education, Molly Corbett Broad, says Hennessy is admired among higher education leaders for substance over style. “His ideas are widely respected for the content,” not, she says, “because he knows how to sell it.”

Broad, former president of the University of North Carolina, says one of Hennessy’s greatest attributes has been the ability to “see around the corner” and help others “anticipate what the future will be.” 

Stanford also offers a model for sustained success, says Broad, that relates to Hennessy’s continuity in office—a longevity estimated at more than twice the average for a university or college president. “In a university, great change occurs where there is trust, confidence, a collaboration of the willing. When university presidents turn over with short tenure, significant change is very hard to accomplish in the short run.”

To Hanlon, Hennessy shaped that success largely by instilling “a very strong creative capacity along with critical-thinking skills.” And the rest of the country was paying attention.

“Stanford has led the way in many academic domains during John’s 16-year tenure, and will continue to do so in the decades ahead,” says Rawlings. “That is the mark of a great presidency.”

Richard Levin, former president of Yale University, says Hennessy’s voice will be welcomed even after he steps down as president. “I hope that he will continue to weigh in on public policy, where his wisdom and good judgment consistently raise the level of discussion.” 

Mike Antonucci is a senior writer at Stanford.