Favorite Son

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

He was a skinny guy, with bushy hair and thick wire-rimmed glasses, 24 years old and looking for a job. All the way from New York's Long Island, a newly minted PhD in computer science, he had just blown in for his big interview at Stanford. Now he just had to find the electronics research lab. "I stayed at what is now called the Stanford Terrace, but what used to be called the Tiki, all the way down on Stanford Avenue," John Hennessy remembers. "And somehow a map, which was to tell me what building I was supposed to go to, didn't manage to appear."

No problem; the motel staff was happy to give him directions for his walk across campus. Just look for the low building with the red tile roof, they told him. "It was more than a mile," Hennessy says. "You pass a lot of buildings with red tile roofs."

So he was lost, and he was late. But he finally made the interview and, not long after, was hired as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. Now, 23 years later, after gaining tenure, chairing a department, winning the dean's job and rising to provost, Hennessy has found his way to his biggest assignment: the presidency of the University.

Last November a search committee set out to find a successor for President Gerhard Casper, who was stepping down after eight years. "The Olympians of higher education showed up," says committee chairman James Ukropina, '59, MBA '61. Yet even with 500 nominees, the committee found its prize on the Main Quad, a couple dozen steps from Casper's desk in Building 10.

The reasons for selecting the provost, committee members say, are clear. Stanford today sits at the center of a technological revolution that is reshaping communications, commerce and society. Hennessy is a legendary computer whiz who helped propel that revolution. As an entrepreneur in the mid-1980s, he made invaluable connections in the technology world. As provost, he brokered the largest donation since the University's founding. With Stanford facing no crises that demand an outsider's perspective, the moment seemed right for an insider. Hennessy has spent virtually his entire career on the Farm with colleagues who now are lining up to praise his integrity, intelligence, energy and management skills. Add it all up, search committee members say, and there was only one choice. "We have found," proclaimed Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Bass, MBA '74, "the right person for the right time in Stanford's history."

The choice may seem obvious now. But for many years, Hennessy motored toward the presidency with no inkling of the destination. From that first day on campus, not only couldn't he imagine being chief executive, he didn't even aspire to the lower rungs of management. "Being a faculty member is the best job in the whole world," he says. "I never thought I'd be a university administrator."

At first glance, he could be the guy next door. When he's not working, he likes to garden and ride his bike. For recreational reading, he turns to history. He's Catholic, attending Mass with his family once a week. He and his wife, Andrea, live in Atherton with their two teenage boys. He likes big-band music, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. When it comes to opera, he prefers Puccini to Wagner. His golf game, friends joke, could use some serious work.

Science was his early calling. "My dad was an engineer," he says. "Probably I had that grown into me." In high school in Huntington, N.Y., Hennessy and a friend constructed a machine that would play tic-tac-toe. "We built it out of surplus [electrical] relays that we could buy really cheap," he says. "It won us a little prize at the science fair, and it really got me excited about approaching challenging technical problems, working out solutions and doing things that were driven by my own initiative."

Hennessy tells this story on a sunny morning in the provost's office, one day after his appointment to the presidency. It's a fairly modest setup with family snapshots on the desk and three photos from a 1996 Italian vacation hung on the wall. Water from an electric fountain trickles serenely over a rock -- a gift from his staff when he was named engineering dean.

At 47, Hennessy has thinning hair and a graying beard. His wardrobe won't get him in GQ, though it is several cuts above Standard Engineer. He speaks rapidly, often starting a sentence before the previous one has come to its natural end. The language is unadorned by metaphor or allusion. After all, it's his wife -- with her interests in fashion, dance and drawing -- who represents the artistic side of the family.

Hennessy won her, by the way, with the help of hard work and science. At 17, he had an after-school job at the King Kullen grocery story in Huntington, and he kept his eye on 17-year-old Andrea Berti. "He was a stock boy, and I was a cashier," she says. "I knew he liked me because he would come and bag groceries for me on his break." One day there was an eclipse, and Hennessy -- using a cardboard box and some aluminum foil -- fashioned a pinhole projector for safe viewing by the King Kullen staff. "We all enjoyed the eclipse of the sun, thanks to John Hennessy," Andrea says.

Their first date was his senior prom. Then came the coup. "He brought the tic-tac-toe machine over to my house," Andrea says. "That really impressed my mother." Although they later attended different universities (he received a bachelor's in electrical engineering from Villanova and a PhD from the State University of New York-Stony Brook), Hennessy wrote Andrea every day, she says. They married in 1974, when Hennessy was a graduate student. Andrea became a schoolteacher. In the summer of 1977, they moved to Stanford.

From his earliest days on campus, colleagues say, Hennessy showed an astonishing intellect that crossed theoretical boundaries. "You didn't have to explain much to him," says Jeffrey Koseff, senior associate dean at the engineering school and a member of the search committee. "He just caught on so incredibly quickly it was scary."

But for a smart guy, he was fun, too. "He's an enthusiast," says Chris Rowen, one of Hennessy's PhD students in the early 1980s. "He really gets fired up over eveything." Once, Rowen went to an engineering students' Halloween party costumed as his mentor. "To imitate his mannerisms is not difficult," Rowen says. "When he is engaged and listening, he'll say, 'Right, right, right, right, right.' Or if he's trying to inspire a group, at the end he'll say, 'Charge,' as if he's sending his team off to battle or breaking a football huddle." Rowen, MS '81, PhD '85, is now CEO of Tensilica, a microprocessor research and development firm in Santa Clara. "He's been a model for me of how to combine intellectual quality and enthusiasm," Rowen says.

Hennessy, in fact, has inspired an impressive cadre of engineers. "The most lasting impression was how good he was with students, how hard he worked and how helpful he was with my project," recalls Jim Clark, who worked alongside Hennessy in their days as junior professors in the electrical engineering department. Clark's "project" involved modeling 3-D designs on computer screens and became the cornerstone of Silicon Graphics, the first of three billion-dollar companies Clark started.

Meanwhile, Hennessy had his own start-up effort going, a microchip technology called reduced instruction set computing, or RISC. It streamlined hardware to speed computer operations and represented a major technological advance. In 1984 he took a sabbatical and co-founded MIPS Computer Systems to market RISC technology. The company furnished chips to Silicon Graphics, which bought MIPS in 1992 for $333 million. (Hennessy hastens to point out that only a sliver of that went to him.)

After a year spent launching MIPS, Hennessy returned to Stanford. Promotions followed: full professor in 1986, chair of the computer science department in 1994, dean of the Engineering School in 1996. Two well-received textbooks on computer architecture, written with Berkeley scientist David Patterson, solidified Hennessy's professional reputation. "He's got a gift for writing," says Patterson. "He's got a gift for just about everything."

His administrative style, too, won Hennessy respect. "He is loyal, and he demands loyalty," says Koseff. "If you are honest and upfront and play it straight, you get on extremely well with him." And if you're not loyal and upfront? "I don't think he has much patience with that," Koseff says. "If you get out of line and do things that he feels are disloyal to Stanford's mission, I think he can be incredibly tough."

But Hennessy has handled problems with finesse, such as the difficult merging of three separate departments into the single department of management science and engineering. "Even when he had to break bad news to people," Koseff says, "he did it in a way that didn't leave dead bodies in his wake."

Hennessy had been provost only a few months when word came that Clark was giving Stanford $150 million for a biological engineering and sciences center -- a donation Hennessy helped arrange. "John and I have talked about my doing something for Stanford for several years," Clark says. "Because he and I shared an office and a secretary in the early days, he's always been my primary contact point with Stanford."

Clark's eye-popping donation -- the largest since the University's founding grant -- made an impression on the presidential search committee, as did Hennessy's broader connections to Silicon Valley, a fertile source of future donations and research opportunities. His time running MIPS also gave Hennessy an advantage over other nominees. "That goes to his ability to manage large, complex issues," says committee chair Ukropina.

He wakes at 5 most mornings without an alarm. Even on Saturdays, he's up early. The night before, Andrea tapes a list of household repairs on the microwave, and Hennessy tackles them one by one, the computer scientist-turned-handyman. "He dives in there and gets his elbows dirty," says Patterson, his co-author and friend. "That's his job in the house."

Now, as he makes plans for taking office September 1, Hennessy is constructing his own to-do list for Stanford. High on his agenda: capitalizing on Casper's signature initiative, Stanford Introductory Studies, a set of curriculum reforms that increased freshman and sophomore contact with senior faculty. His goal is "solidifying and institutionalizing them so that they become part of the Stanford culture." He hopes to expand the changes to juniors and seniors, broadening opportunities for research. "We can build the best undergraduate education in the country," he says. "That's what we ought to set as our target."

The multidisciplinary biotech center funded by Clark, informally known as Bio-X, also sits near the top of Hennessy's list. "We need to do this remarkably well," he says. "The revolution in the biological sciences is so fundamental and so broad that we can build real strength."

A third academic priority, he says, is to "continue the process of building strength and depth in the arts and humanities, raise the quality of our departments . . . to absolutely world-class stature."

Hennessy, the techie, has taken pains to emphasize his devotion to the humanities. One model for his intellectual evolution: Leland Stanford. "Leland himself was a very practical, hands-on sort of guy," Hennessy says, "almost a guy you would expect to come from an engineering background, or an MBA sort of background. . . . His views changed and matured to something that very closely parallels what a Stanford undergraduate education looks like today."

Hennessy's devotion to a liberal education was tested at the Engineering School. "We certainly wrestled with this. What does a Stanford engineering education mean, compared to, let's say, an MIT engineering education?" To answer his own question, he points to the mission statement he wrote for the school. It calls for " 'the best undergraduate engineering education in the context of liberal arts education.' So it's about acknowledging that we want broad education of the whole person. I think that's exactly the right view. It's where Stanford wants to be."

As president, Hennessy faces some obstinate problems. One is the Bay Area's lack of affordable housing, which comes on top of the University's struggle with Santa Clara County to develop more of its land. "Those are practical things that could prevent us from accomplishing the academic mission," Hennessy says. "We just have to tackle the housing problem head-on." Plans include building more housing on campus and stepped-up home-loan programs.

He also must solidify a group of senior University leaders -- from the school deans to the head of the Stanford Management Company -- most of whom have been in office only a year or two. Some key posts remain unfilled. A new provost must be found, obviously, and searches are in progress for deans of the School of Medicine and of Memorial Church.

What's more, Hennessy has to wrestle with gender-bias complaints that have roiled the University, sparked a U.S. Department of Labor investigation and in March yielded a $545,000 federal court judgment against Stanford, now on appeal.

AS HE FIELDS congratulatory calls and e-mails on his appointment, Hennessy predicts the presidency will be fun and challenging -- which, for him, are pretty much one and the same. It's not an office he's taking for the paycheck and free housing. "I'm financially okay, probably more so from the stock market than from MIPS," he says. "It's not a job I have to do for the money."

His rise has been faster than almost anyone could have imagined, including Hennessy himself, who was a bit surprised four years ago just to find himself engineering dean. "He never even dreamed he would be leaving that post," says Andrea Hennessy. "I think he's overwhelmed at the speed with which this has happened."

Stanford's first president, David Starr Jordan, served 22 years. Its third, Ray Lyman Wilbur, spent 27 years in office. But the rigors of leading a modern-day university make it a limited engagement in most cases. The days can be long, the demands unyielding. It's a job in which persuasive power can be more important than hierarchical authority. The faculty exercises its independence, the bureaucracy sprawls, the neighboring towns grow cranky.

And it can be lonely at the top. Just ask the man there now. "He has been at Stanford a long time," Casper says of his successor. "He has observed my predecessors. But until the buck stops here, you never can quite understand what you're in for."

Hennessy is, nonetheless, brimming with optimism. "This is a great institution," he says. "This is a great time to take this job."

He smiles. He has no map, but he knows where he's going.

Doug Swanson was a 1998-99 Knight fellow in journalism at Stanford and is a Palo Alto-based reporter for the Dallas Morning News.