Keeping Stanford Great Far Into the Future

Glenn Matsumura

I was interviewed recently by a Chinese journalist who asked me to reflect on my greatest responsibility as president of Stanford. On the one hand, the question seemed nearly impossible to answer. The responsibilities are so broad and disparate—academic, financial, administrative—and involve so many constituencies—faculty, students, staff, alumni and even hospital patients—the question defied a simple response. On the other hand, it pushed me to think of leadership in the broadest possible way. What defines leadership of a complex institution like a modern research university?

In the largest sense, I hope that when I leave the presidency, faculty and students have more and better opportunities than when I began and that Stanford is a better university. In the end, the judgment that counts is not the one made five or even 10 years after I step down, but 20, 50 or even 100 years from now. Thinking that far ahead requires a strategic approach to academic planning—but it also calls for a steadfast commitment to our core mission: the search for knowledge through basic research and the education of the next generation of leaders.

About 50 years ago, President Wallace Sterling and Provost Fred Terman made two decisions that illustrate such vision and leadership. In 1956 they began planning for a project then called The Monster, now known as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. It was a forbidding project that required committing significant faculty resources and University land without knowing explicitly what the project might produce. SLAC, of course, turned into one of the most potent tools for physics research built during the last half century.

A second bold decision made at about the same time was to move our Medical School from San Francisco to the main campus and to build up the basic science and clinical departments with a focus on research. Fred Terman personally recruited a brilliant scientist, Arthur Kornberg, to found our new department of biochemistry. Professor Kornberg hired a young scientist named Paul Berg. Kornberg won the Nobel Prize in 1959, his first year at Stanford, and Berg won in 1980.

But the ongoing genius of these initiatives became even clearer during fall quarter last year. Andrew Fire, professor of genetics and pathology, received the 2006 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for pioneering work in RNA interference. Two days later, professor of structural biology Roger Kornberg, PhD ’72, Arthur’s son, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Professor Kornberg’s research bridged the Medical School and SLAC, where he used the Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory to discover how the genetic code in DNA is transcribed into RNA. This sort of multidisciplinary collaboration, epitomized by Kornberg’s research, is a central component of our vision for Stanford’s future.

Andy Fire came to Stanford after he did his groundbreaking work at Carnegie Institution. At one of the public events celebrating his Nobel Prize, Professor Fire said he was attracted to Stanford because of its broad excellence from the basic to the clinical sciences. This excellence across all seven schools—and their contiguous location—is one of our greatest strengths.

The Nobel Prizes earned by Professors Fire and Kornberg represent the very best of the collaborative nature of university scholarship and highlight the importance of basic scientific research that is so central to the mission of Stanford and its peer institutions. Given that public funding of basic bioscience has been reduced in recent years, both Nobel laureates were mindful of the opportunity presented by garnering such an honor, and both emphasized the extremely important role played by government support in ensuring the future of medical breakthroughs. Although the research of both laureates is fundamental, long-term research, their results are already having an impact on understanding disease and finding new therapies.

These prizes never would have been possible without the prescient decisions of Sterling and Terman 50 years earlier. How could they have known that their actions would help earn such extraordinary recognition in the future and advance the emergence of Stanford as one of the world’s great research universities? How can we work toward developing an equally effective vision for Stanford’s future?

Of course, Sterling and Terman could not have predicted the outcome of decisions made 50 years ago. Their fundamental belief in excellence and basic research guided them in their choices, while Stanford’s pioneering spirit encouraged their bold action. As we move Stanford forward, certain of its core mission, secure in what we have already achieved and willing to rethink how research and teaching can be strengthened, we are inspired by how far we have come and by the examples of Terman, Sterling and all our Nobel laureates