Etchemendy Through the Rearview Mirror

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

“The person does not have to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but small ones would be good.”

So said philosophy professor and presidential search committee member John Etchemendy in early 2000 when Stanford selected John Hennessy as its 10th president. Not only was it good insight, but it was also appropriate mental preparation for Etchemendy’s own appointment as provost shortly thereafter.

When Etchemendy exited his office in Building 10 for the last time on January  31, he departed as Stanford’s longest-serving provost. For the remainder of the academic year, he is serving as special assistant to President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell. He then will take a yearlong sabbatical before returning to teach philosophy, higher education and leadership. His legacy—and a host of successful leaps—can be felt in every corner of the university.

During his 17 years as provost, Etchemendy hired all seven school deans and every academic vice provost, while overseeing the hiring of 80 percent of Stanford’s faculty members.

 More than 70 major building projects have been completed since 2000, including the $500 million Stanford Energy System Innovations effort, which has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 68 percent.

In the 2008 recession, despite a 30 percent drop in its endowment, Stanford introduced the largest increase in its history for undergraduate financial aid. Seventy-nine percent of graduates today have no student debt.

The percentage of female and minority faculty has grown, thanks to such programs as the Faculty Development Initiative and the Faculty Incentive Fund, while the pipeline for minorities to academic careers has been fortified with programs including DARE—Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence. 

The nature of the job: Unlike at peer institutions, Stanford’s provost serves as both the chief academic and budgetary officer, administering the teaching and research program while coordinating many of the administrative functions. The demands of such a job were never lost on Hennessy, who preceded Etchmendy as provost. Their partnership, characterized by trust and respect, has been widely recognized as the foundation for Stanford’s ascent in virtually every higher education milestone.

“The job of provost is a tough one—in many ways harder than the president’s,” Hennessy said. “That’s because you have to say no. To do that in a way that people feel listened to and respected—and to do so with patience and calmness—that’s hard.”

“Hey, Etch”: Affection for Etchemendy is obvious throughout campus, where he is well-known by his nickname, Etch. At an official gathering, he’d be introduced as Provost Etchemendy. When people passed him in the Main Quad or at the gym, they’d say, “Hey, Etch,” reflecting the approachability of the man. He returned the affection in kind. 

Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said Etchemendy’s approachability and generosity go hand in hand with the collaborative  management style he worked hard to create among the university’s academic leadership. His reputation for building strong faculty relationships prompted many universities to ask Etchemendy to be a candidate for their presidencies. When a student journalist followed up on word that Etchemendy was being courted by her institution, he politely assured her he was not a candidate, explaining that he already had “the best position in higher education.”

Sense of humanity: Stephanie Kalfayan, vice provost for academic affairs, suggests that being the middle child in his family nurtured Etchemendy’s ability to find common ground and resolve problems. “He approached everything believing that we are all Stanford and that everyone is important to the university,” she said. 

One of the toughest challenges Etchemendy confronted was the issue of sexual assault. In 2010, Etchemendy told the university community that Stanford would confront sexual violence on campus head-on, but that the process of cultural change would be difficult. Stanford has persevered to create one of the most extensive Title IX educational, support and adjudication programs in the nation.

BeWell at Stanford: Four years into the provost job, Etchemendy had gained weight, was suffering from insomnia and was leading a sedentary lifestyle involving too many meetings and too much computer time.

“I asked my wife, Nancy, if she would find me a personal trainer,” Etchemendy wrote in Stanford Report. “At the time, I felt too overwhelmed to even do so myself. Nancy quickly found a gym and trainer for me, and the following Saturday I began a five-year odyssey to fitness.”

Etchemendy emerged from that odyssey determined that everyone else at Stanford would have the opportunity to experience the same transformation. The BeWell program was born, and as a result of its incentives, exercise classes, wellness courses and personal health advising, two-thirds of surveyed employees say the program substantially enhances their work experience.


—Kate Chesley, Stanford News Service. Stanford contributed to this report.