‘He Changed the Face of Stanford’

Donald Kennedy left a lasting legacy of public service and inspirational leadership.

July 2020

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‘He Changed the Face of Stanford’

IN HIGH GEAR: A fan of fitness, Kennedy was often seen bicycling around the Farm. Photo: Stanford News Service

For Stanford people of a certain era, there is one picture of Donald Kennedy that comes to mind before all others. The university’s eighth president is not posed contemplatively in a book-lined office, nor is he clad in academic regalia delivering one of his stirring go-forth-and-give-back commencement speeches. The picture that many remember—with delight—is of the 1986 Stanford men’s swim team soon after it had won its second straight NCAA title. In it, two dozen swimmers stand or kneel in coat and tie. Meanwhile, front and center is Kennedy—eminent scientist, former chief of the Food and Drug Administration, leader of one of the top universities in the world—wearing nothing but his glasses, a Speedo and a smile.

The picture, the payoff on a year-old challenge to the team to repeat as NCAA champions, says a lot about Kennedy, who died April 21 at the age of 88 from COVID-19. Kennedy was open-minded, adventurous, fun and a big fan of Stanford sports, if not of traditional concepts of presidential propriety. He was happy to be surrounded by students. And at 54, he was in great shape, thanks in part to regular early-morning runs he made to the Dish, often in the company of any student who wanted to bend his ear—and could keep up with him.

What the picture doesn’t show is the stunning breadth of Kennedy’s knowledge and intellectual curiosity, or the mind that was constantly churning with ideas for how to make Stanford and the world a better place. It doesn’t describe the ways in which he inspired students through his teaching, his speeches, his friendship or his example. It doesn’t reveal the political and personal skills he deployed to energize and empower colleagues, achieve consensus, and raise money to augur extraordinary growth in Stanford’s endowment, physical plant and academic opportunities. “In his time as president, Don changed the face of Stanford and brought us to a very different level,” says former president of the Board of Trustees Jim Gaither, JD ’64.

Kennedy running with a group of peopleJOG YOUR MEMORY? Many students over the years joined Kennedy on his early morning runs. (Photo: Stanford News Service)

Although his presidency ended 28 years ago, Kennedy’s imprint remains clearly visible all over Stanford, especially in the university’s commitments to public service and to interdisciplinary studies. During his administration, from 1980 to 1992, Kennedy brought an optimistic, entrepreneurial spirit to the expansion of Stanford, championing all manner of academic opportunities and enhancements, from a $7 million package of programs to improve undergraduate teaching to new overseas offerings in Kyoto, Oxford and Berlin, as well as a study center in Washington, D.C. His tenure also saw the establishment of the Stanford Humanities Center, the Center for Integrated Systems and a place near to Kennedy’s heart—the Haas Center for Public Service.

Along with public service, Kennedy made multiculturalism and diversity a priority: During his tenure, the minority undergraduate student population increased to 45 percent, and campus policy changed to allow gay couples and unmarried couples the same access to housing as married students. In 1988, Stanford’s Western Civilization requirement morphed into Cultures, Ideas and Values, which included more nonwhite, non-European and female perspectives. (The latter move infuriated William Bennett, the conservative Reagan-era secretary of education, who swooped onto campus to debate Kennedy on the merits of the established canon on national TV.)

With Kennedy at the helm, the value of Stanford’s physical plant doubled, the endowment tripled, and the school completed what was at the time the most successful university fund-raising drive in history, the five-year Centennial Campaign, which raised nearly $1.3 billion.

Even before he became president, Kennedy helped create a legacy that would affect students for generations: As biology department chair in 1969, he co-founded and later directed Stanford’s first interdisciplinary program, human biology, which, a half-century later, remains one of the most popular majors on campus and serves as the model for the dozens of other interdisciplinary programs Stanford now offers.

Although his presidency ended 28 years ago, Kennedy’s imprint remains visible all over Stanford, especially in the school’s commitment to public service and interdisciplinary studies.

Along with the triumphs, Kennedy faced controversies and natural disasters, including the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused $160 million in damage to campus. (In his typical optimistic fashion, Kennedy would come to see the quake as a boon to campus building.) His reputation among some students and faculty lost its sparkle when students in the mid-’80s protested his resistance to blanket divestiture from South Africa and when he resolved a 1989 minority-student takeover of his office by calling the cops.

In his most bruising challenge, the indirect-cost controversy of 1990–91, Kennedy grappled with congressional accusations and sensational media reports that Stanford had overbilled the government $231 million in research-overhead costs and included things like wine, luxe furnishings at presidential residence Hoover House and the depreciation of a yacht. Although Stanford was eventually exonerated of any wrongdoing, the PR damage prompted Kennedy to step aside. “I can’t be part of the solution if I am part of the problem,” he said at the time, and he resigned after the 1991-92 academic year. 

As soon as the search committee started looking for his replacement, it realized the depth of Kennedy’s impact on Stanford. “There was a lot of pressure to bring in a caretaker to get us through the crisis,” recalls Gaither, who was chair of the Board of Trustees at the time. “But as we went around the country, people told us, ‘That’s crazy! Everybody knows this is now the most important position in American higher education.’ It was clear how the world, other than the political world, felt about Stanford. And that was because of Don.”

A natural love of biology

Kennedy was born in New York City on August 18, 1931, the first of two sons of Barbara “Babbie” and Bill Kennedy. The family moved often, but Kennedy spent his earliest years on a rented estate in Greenwich, Conn., while Bill worked as a writer for the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm in Manhattan. The estate’s abundance of maple trees to tap, brook trout to catch and birds to watch sparked Kennedy’s love of the natural world. It was a passion he would pursue in earnest after a Harvard writing professor asked the would-be English major, “Tell me, Don. What else interests you?”

After completing his Harvard doctoral dissertation, which focused on the electrical signals generated in frog retinas, Kennedy landed his first faculty post in the zoology department at Syracuse University, earning tenure in just his third year. When Stanford called in 1959, Kennedy declined. When the school tried again a year later, he packed up his family—wife Jeanne and young daughters Page and Julia—and took a leap of faith.

Kennedy with binocularsTWEET, TWEET: A devoted birder, Kennedy could often be found with binoculars in and around the leafy campus. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Stanford in 1960 was still a regional institution, but it was poised to explode in national influence, thanks in large part to then-provost Fred Terman’s efforts. Terman, Class of 1920, Engr. ’22, helped seed the area with start-up engineering companies and established “steeples of excellence” with top professors in multiple fields who could attract federal research funds and other distinguished teachers, researchers and grad students. The medical school had just moved from San Francisco to the Palo Alto campus, further boosting Stanford’s academic firepower. “Given such powerful events,” Kennedy wrote in his 2018 memoir, A Place in the Sun, “it struck me that Stanford was the place to be.”

The introductory biology classes Kennedy was hired to teach were so large they were held in 1,700-seat Memorial Auditorium, requiring him, on occasion, to lecture in front of the set of a drama department production. “There I’d be,” he recalled in his memoir, “delivering my lecture beside a rumpled bed . . . or situated in a seventeenth-century castle paced the previous night by a tortured undergraduate Hamlet.”

The theatrical setting suited his animated teaching style. “He was kinetic—physically and conceptually,” recalls Pulitzer Prize–winning history professor emeritus David M. Kennedy, ’63, who took one of Kennedy’s biology classes as an undergrad in the early ’60s. “He could make things that were not intrinsically interesting, at least to me, quite compelling.”

If a quadruped feature could best be relayed to hum bio students by demonstration, Kennedy would get up on the table on all fours. “He was dynamic, the best teacher I think I’ve ever seen,” says biology professor H. Craig Heller. “He had the ability to absorb complex information and then convert it into a highly understandable explanation. He was an amazing interpreter of science.”

Kennedy also ran a lab that did important work on the nervous systems of crayfish, a species choice that sparked wry envy in his friend and noted population biologist Paul Ehrlich. “Don was a lot smarter than me,” he says. “He was trying to figure out how nervous systems work. I was trying to figure out why insect populations got larger or smaller. But Don did his research on lobsters, and when he was done with his research, he was able to eat the damn things.”

Acting on his conviction that all scientists should spend some time in government service, Kennedy took a break from Stanford in 1977 to head the Food and Drug Administration under President Jimmy Carter. During his stint, the agency tackled issues ranging from the safety of saccharin to the efficacy of laetrile as a cancer treatment. Although Kennedy lost many of his regulatory battles, his wit, clarity and scientific bona fides elevated the FDA’s status, boosted internal morale and won him a number of nonacademic admirers, including the New York Times. Upon Kennedy’s farewell in 1979, the Times noted: “One measure of the respect that Mr. Kennedy won is that spokesmen for both consumer and industry groups, who seldom agree on anything, rate him equally high.”

Kennedy in an office with Jimmy CarterAT YOUR SERVICE: Kennedy, pictured with President Carter, served as FDA commissioner in the late 1970s. (Photo: Ed Souza/Stanford News Service)

Kennedy returned to Stanford to serve as provost under President Richard Lyman, who had guided the university through the tumultuous ’70s. When Lyman stepped down to become president of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1980, Kennedy was named Stanford’s eighth president, introducing a new vibe on campus. “Dick protected the university during a tough time, and he was terrific at what he did,” says former English professor and associate dean of humanities and sciences Bill Chace, who later served as president of both Wesleyan University and Emory University. “What Don came in to do was to celebrate it, to enhance it. To make it more outward-going. To make it more inventive, more promising, more lively. To make it happier.”

Where Lyman had been reserved, Kennedy was warm and gregarious. As effective as he had been in his other roles, his ascent to the presidency allowed the full range of his talents to flourish. Kennedy embraced every one of his many responsibilities, riding his 10-speed across campus from appointment to appointment, tie flapping over his shoulder. “He knew a lot about everything that was taught at Stanford and about every research institution,” says Gaither. “He was very comfortable with music or choir or biology or with the humanities. He fought very hard to protect the humanities as Stanford became so dominant in the sciences.”

Kennedy’s seemingly boundless energy and bandwidth awed and exhausted his colleagues and staff. “We probably entertained four nights a week—it was nuts,” recalls David Voss, ’75, the manager of Hoover House early in Kennedy’s reign. “The busier he was, and the more stress that was on the situation, the more energized he got. Sometimes we were like, ‘Don, slow down. You're killing us.’”

A Kennedy quality that students and faculty had always appreciated—his knack for making you feel uniquely valued, “like you’re the only person in the room,” says Voss—was particularly valuable on the fund-raising circuit. 

“Don could come up to you, put his arm around your shoulder, grab your forearm and talk you into doing something that you in your right mind would never do, but you’d be thankful to him for the opportunity,” says Heller.

Among the things Kennedy talked Heller into was serving on a committee to decide how a particular fund-raising campaign could be used to enhance undergraduate education. Out of that committee came the first opportunity for undergraduates to write grant proposals for research projects. “And now at Stanford, most undergraduates, not just in the natural sciences but also social sciences and humanities, get involved in independent research projects,” says Heller. “It was Don’s enthusiastic support of that idea that got it started.”

Likewise, it was Kennedy’s listening, early in his presidency, to student complaints about the lack of public service opportunities at the career center that led him to hire Catherine Milton, an old friend from his FDA days, to investigate solutions. From those efforts emerged the Haas Center for Public Service, which now engages more than 1,000 students each year with opportunities ranging from direct service to social entrepreneurship, and Stanford in Washington, a program focused on public policy. In 1985, Kennedy co-founded Campus Compact, which institutionalized the public service movement in higher education and that now includes more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities. “Don understood early on that there was a tremendous desire on the part of young people to serve,” says Milton, “and that if you gave them the right opportunities for preparation, they could change the world.”

Acting on his conviction that all scientists should spend some time in government service, Kennedy took a break from Stanford in 1977 to head the Food and Drug Administration under President Jimmy Carter.

Kennedy loved his role as enabler, says Heller. “I once asked Don, when he was president, ‘Don, I know you enjoy this, but don’t you miss being in the lab doing science?’ And he said, ‘Well, of course I do, but the rewards of making it possible for other people to have that experience are so much greater.’”

Kennedy was also a gifted public speaker, and he was quick on his feet. When Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev visited campus in June 1990, at the end of his first visit to the United States, Kennedy prepared an introductory speech that would be broadcast nationally. When he stepped up to the rostrum, he reached into his coat pocket for his notes—and found only a pronunciation guide for the names in the Soviet delegation. “You could see this funny look on his face,” recalls Gaither. “He had grabbed the wrong paper, and this had to be the most important speech of his life. So, without a note, he gave what I think was the best speech of his life.” In fact, says Kennedy’s wife, Robin, Don had spent so much time on the speech he practically had it memorized. “He felt it was the most important speech he would ever give; he wrote about 20 drafts,” says Robin, ’68, JD ’78, who married Kennedy in 1987.

Even as he was overseeing campus growth and curricular expansion and hosting heads of state—Queen Elizabeth II visited campus in 1983—Kennedy stayed engaged with students, taking on freshman advisees, visiting the dorms every month, teaching the occasional hum bio lecture and giving constructive feedback to TAs. At awards banquets honoring student service and achievement, Kennedy was there. The ascendant Stanford sports program? Kennedy was its biggest fan. Gaither remembers one Saturday in the midst of the indirect-cost crisis when he accompanied Kennedy to four different sporting events. “Don knew all about all of the sports and the kids on every team,” he says. “We had a lot of fun.” Indirect costs never came up in conversation.

Kennedy dancing with the TreeSINGING HIS PRAISES: The Stanford Band and the Dollies perform at “A Stanford Tribute to Donald Kennedy” at Maples Pavilion on May 18, 1992. (Photo: Stanford News Service)

“It was really fun to work with Don; he was a wonderful, warm, thoughtful person to be with,” says Gaither. “Even in the worst of the times on indirect cost, Don wouldn’t focus on it. He had no interest in looking at the downside. He was always very up.”

After he stepped down as president in 1992, Kennedy spent the following winter quarter living with students and conducting seminars at the D.C. center. Kai Anderson, then a senior, shifted his academic schedule so his time there would coincide with Kennedy’s. “He brought such joy to his subject,” says Anderson, ’93, PhD ’98. “He had an empathy for the people he was teaching. He would bring you into the conversation, make you part of it. He saw value in every single person in his classroom.” Outside the classroom, Kennedy was just one of the gang. When the group played a game of football one day, “I remember thinking, ‘God, a 60-year-old is just tearing it up out there!’” says Anderson. “I think he was an undergraduate at heart.”

At the completion of the D.C. gig, Kennedy returned to campus to teach and write. In 1997, he published Academic Duty, an examination of major issues confronting higher education, and in 2009, he indulged his lifelong passion for birding in a collaboration with artist Darryl Wheye: Humans, Nature, and Birds: Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Screens. From 2000 to 2008, he served as editor in chief of Science magazine. Kennedy reveled in using the magazine’s editorial page as a bully pulpit to pen opinion pieces on topics ranging from government secrecy to climate change. “I think Don was the last public intellectual to lead a university,” says Ehrlich.

In 2005, the Donald Kennedy Chair in the School of Humanities and Sciences was established, awarded to faculty in the department of biology or in the program in human biology. The inaugural chair holder was biology professor Robert Simoni, who said “I cannot imagine a greater honor. Don Kennedy hired me in 1971, and though it was probably not the greatest moment in his professional life, it was certainly the greatest in mine!”

It is ironic that Kennedy, who in his final years struggled with dementia and the effects of a severe stroke, had his life ended by a public health crisis that could have benefited from his thoughtful, authoritative and clarifying voice. One of the signatures of his hum bio lectures was challenging students to consider the trade-offs between individual rights and social responsibility. “He would have become a public figure on this crisis, no question,” says Ehrlich. “He couldn’t have resisted. He would have been writing to the New York Times and organizing things and so on. That’s the sort of person he was.”

Kennedy with Gerhard CasperPASSING THE TORCH: Kennedy welcomes his successor, Gerhard Casper, in March 1992. (Photo: Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service)

That wasn’t to be a legacy, but he has many others. “His real legacy, I think, is the number of students he empowered to be their best selves,” says Anderson. Senator and former presidential candidate Cory Booker, ’91, MA ’92, was one. When Booker was about to lose his football scholarship with one year of eligibility remaining, Kennedy intervened with the coach to preserve it, helped Booker find housing, and urged him to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, which Booker won. “He lifted me at an inflection point in my youth and helped make me the person I am today,” Booker wrote in the foreword to Kennedy’s memoir.

Robin Kennedy says one of her “great regrets” was that she did not take Kennedy’s introductory bio course as a freshman in 1964 because she had taken biology in high school. Her friends, she says, raved about Kennedy’s energy, brilliance, generosity and enthusiasm.

Later, she knew Kennedy as a colleague—he interviewed her for her first job at Stanford, as director of faculty/staff housing, and they were friends for many years. “Some have described Don as a force of nature—someone impossible not to love,” she says. “During that time, I saw not only the qualities I had heard about from my freshman classmates but also his passions—for students, for science, for higher education, for nature, for intellectual honesty, for public service and for giving back. In the end, it was his compassion for me at a difficult time during my life that I learned the depths of his soul and of his heart. I found him impossible not to love.”

Kennedy kept up with many of the students he befriended and mentored long after they had graduated, making time to chat with them whenever they dropped by his campus. Anderson, who now runs a multiclient lobbying firm and teaches winter quarters at Stanford in Washington, visited Kennedy every chance he got. “There was always a little spark in his eye, a curiosity about what you were doing and how you were making the world a better place,” he says. “And even if you weren't, he made you feel like you were.”

In addition to his wife, Robin, Kennedy is survived by his children, Page Kennedy Rochon, Julia Tussing, ’82, Cameron Kennedy, ’94, JD ’01, and Jamie Hamill, and nine grandchildren.

A celebration of life service will be held at a later date.

Kelli Anderson, ’84, is a writer in Sonoma, Calif. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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