A Purposeful University

Driven by our mission, characterized by the courage to change.

November/December 2016

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A Purposeful University

Photo: Toni Bird

Is Stanford living up to its full potential? Are we doing all we can to advance a purposeful university?

These are among the questions I raised in October at my inauguration as Stanford University’s 11th president, and these are the questions that will guide me in the coming years.

It is both a great honor and a tremendous responsibility to lead this remarkable university, and my hope is that together we can develop and realize a bold vision for Stanford in the future, a vision that will put all of our considerable resources to use for the betterment of the world.

These first few months—as I have met with students and faculty, staff and alumni—have been extraordinarily stimulating. They have prompted me to reflect on the role of the university—specifically our university—at this point in time, 125 years after its founding. Great research universities are resilient and purposeful, educating future leaders and advancing knowledge. They are a source of light and hope in the world, even in the most troubled times.

That resilience has propelled Stanford to its current preeminence as a purposeful university, the “university of high degree” conceived by the founders, dedicated to fostering education, research and creativity for the benefit of humanity.

Some have asked me: What do I mean by “a purposeful university”? I mean a university that promotes and celebrates excellence not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to multiply its beneficial impact on society. We need look no further than our founding grant to see how important this notion was to Jane and Leland Stanford: “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.”

Maintaining this sense of purpose while the world changes takes courage—the courage to evolve, to strike out in new directions. But Stanford is a strong and courageous community, as our history reveals. Jane Stanford’s bedrock commitment ensured that the university continued after her husband’s death, in the face of numerous challenges. Fred Terman’s focus on steeples of excellence triggered Stanford’s emergence as a world leader in fundamental research and scholarship, while his partnerships with industry and government expedited the transfer of knowledge to the marketplace—leading to countless start-ups over the past 70 years. Don Kennedy’s advocacy for public service led to the establishment of the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford more than three decades ago, exemplifying our historical commitment to serving others. More recently, a renaissance of undergraduate education initiated by Gerhard Casper and interdisciplinary initiatives spearheaded by John Hennessy transformed education and research at Stanford.

Stanford University has achieved world recognition by continually reassessing where the greatest opportunities lie and taking on new challenges. But these achievements were not the efforts of just a few individuals. They were made possible by the support of the entire Stanford community.

I believe everyone—students, faculty, staff and alumni—plays a role in advancing the purposeful university. In January, working in broad consultation with all members of our diverse university community and in partnership with our new provost, I will launch a long-range planning initiative. Over the following year, we will explore how best to continue the transformation of Stanford and assemble a roadmap for the next decade and beyond.

Building on our strong foundation, I want us to inspire each other and dream big together; to dare to have an even greater impact on society; and to do so with optimism, integrity and a focus on human well-being. If we do, we will have lived up to the founders’ vision for Stanford and advanced this purposeful university.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.

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