Excellence and Trust

December 2023

Reading time min

Portrait of Richard Saller in the Quad

Photo: Andrew Brodhead

The following is excerpted from the inaugural address President Saller gave in October.

There is irony in appointing a Roman historian as president of Stanford, famous for its forward-looking innovation, but I believe that history provides a valuable perspective. The Romans ruled a Mediterranean empire of 50 million people for more than six centuries. Over that vast time span, they had no universities to nurture research, few innovative breakthroughs in technology, and no sustained economic growth.

As a result of this minimal research and economic growth, the imperial government’s budget of the Roman Empire was about one-tenth the size of the current Stanford University budget as measured in tons of silver or bushels of wheat. That contrast says something important about both the Roman Empire and Stanford. Stanford is perhaps the leading university in the world in discovery and innovation. Today, the budget of Stanford and its hospitals is larger than the budgets of 13 states. Consequently, Stanford must be a force for good.

The university’s positive impact must be grounded in our fundamental mission: excellence with integrity in education, research, and clinical care. Integrity means education and research done with high ethical standards and scientific rigor, and therefore deserving of trust. In the current political and cultural context, winning that trust is a challenge. As universities have become more influential in our society, they have attracted more criticism. The media carry stories about a culture of intolerance on college campuses, failure to comply with conflict of interest and commitment policies, or research misconduct, in ways that diminish the trust in higher education. 

‘I am confident that the overwhelming majority of the work done by our faculty and students is done with integrity and is making remarkable contributions to the well-being of humankind.’

The importance of integrity in Stanford education has been increasingly recognized at all levels. Undergraduates must take a course in ethical reasoning, a requirement that can now be satisfied by the new COLLEGE course Citizenship in the 21st Century. Ethics courses will not instill a consensus about values among our students; rather, the aim is to sensitize them about the need for ethical reflection. Our differences will inevitably lead to debate, sometimes heated. The university must protect the academic freedom to allow for conflicting views and productive debate. 

As for research, I am confident that the overwhelming majority of the work done by our faculty and students is done with integrity and is making remarkable contributions to the well-being of humankind. For example, Joseph Woo, chair of cardiothoracic surgery, is doing outstanding work, starting with basic research aimed at developing new therapies, new medical devices, and new surgical techniques. As a result, for the first time, a donor heart was transported and then transplanted all the while still beating, leading to a successful outcome in the recipient. This technique will improve health outcomes for recipients and boost the pool of available organs. This example would have to be multiplied thousands of times to capture Stanford’s contributions to humanity and illustrates the value of interdisciplinary research. 

The positive impact relies fundamentally on the integrity of the research and also on Stanford’s reputation for integrity—a challenge for communications. The trust people place in our research, education, and clinical care is threatened because trust in all institutions is in decline. An illustration of our challenge of effective communication is Theranos, which continues to generate news reports with the Stanford name attached. Meanwhile, Woo’s discovery of a successful technique to transport and transplant a beating heart has received no attention from the press. We will work to increase the spotlight on the powerful positive impact of Stanford research. 

In the end, Rome lacked the institutions to generate a continuing flow of new knowledge to increase well-being and fuel sustainable economic growth. Today, Stanford serves just that function.

Richard Saller is president of Stanford University.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.