Key Change

Persis Drell, who steps down as provost this fall, isn’t quite sure what’s next. But that’s music to her ears.

July 2023

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Portrait of Persis Drell

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

For Persis Drell, the hardest part of walking away from her job as Stanford’s 13th provost this fall will be saying goodbye to “the most spectacular group of individuals I’ve ever had the privilege of working with”—the more than two dozen vice provosts, deans, and others who call her boss. “Those were hard phone calls, to call them up and say that, for me, it was time,” she says.

The responsibilities of provost at Stanford are dizzyingly vast. The position serves not only as the university’s chief academic officer but also its chief budgetary one. It has purview over areas as diverse as student affairs, athletics, religious life, and faculty housing. Drell—a self-described doer—relished that challenge. “There is a satisfying feeling waking up every morning and knowing you’re going to be in a position to do something good for the institution—or to do your best to do something good for the institution.” 

‘I would be very, very happy to be a faculty member,  just a faculty member, and doing service for the institution in any way that I can.’

But in a career ascending through academic leadership—including serving as director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and dean of the School of Engineering—Drell has never been one to linger. When she took the provost job, she indicated she wouldn’t necessarily be around as long as her record-breaking predecessor, John Etchemendy, PhD ’82, who held the job for more than 16 years. “I have never known with certainty what I was going to be doing in five years,” Drell told Stanford in 2016. “Life is just way too long.” When she steps aside, she notes, she will have served “6 ⅔ years” as provost. “That’s the longest I’ve been in any job,” she says. “It was just time.” An advisory committee of Stanford community members appointed by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne will make recommendations for her successor.

Stanford talked with Drell about what she’s looking forward to, what she’ll miss, and how she assesses her legacy (just don’t use that word). 

Provost in the time of pandemic

Drell’s tenure as provost was transformed by the tumult of the pandemic, a time of urgency that proved both stressful and invigorating. Drell describes her career path as more of a “random walk” than the manifestation of a vision executed with great preparation. “Everything I learned about management I learned from raising three children,” she says. But once she engages, she’s all action. “Provost turned out to be a pretty sweet spot for me because you get a lot done, especially during a pandemic,” she says. “There were a million decisions that needed to be made all the time, not enough information, and not enough time. And you’ve just got to make things happen.”

On kickboxing and classical music

Drell is a cellist who met her violist husband, SLAC accelerator physicist Jim Welch, through a shared love of music. They’ve long dedicated their Sundays to playing in a string quartet, but COVID-19 made that outlet vital. In one stretch, the ensemble—suddenly “a pod,” says Drell—worked through every one of Haydn’s 68 string quartets, in order. “We did every Sunday though the pandemic,” she says. “I would not have survived otherwise.” Her other major release from life’s stresses was less easily replaced. A thrice-weekly fitness kickboxer, Drell had to make do with unloading on a punching bag rather than on her instructor. “It’s much more fun to hit him,” she says. “It’s very empowering.” 

Stanford bonded

Drell isn’t quite Cardinal from birth, but she’s close. Her father, the late theoretical physicist Sidney Drell, brought his family to campus when she was 6 months old, and Drell grew up in one of the original houses built for faculty, often with some of the world’s most acclaimed physicists in the living room. After earning degrees at Wellesley and UC Berkeley, she began her career as a physics professor at Cornell before returning to the Farm in 2002. But it was only as provost that Drell says she appreciated the larger picture of the university she’d called home for decades. “The perch of provost lets you see the whole institution, and the depth and the complexity of the institution really hit home,” she says. 

The L-word

Drell is not easily drawn out on the topic of legacy. “I hate the whole legacy thing,” she says, in part because it suggests a completeness to accomplishments that she thinks is inaccurate. “It’s all about handoffs to the next generation, because if they don’t totally own it, it’s not gonna happen.” She’s happier to talk about what she’s proud of, a list that includes helping establish the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, the university’s first new school in 70 years; launch (and teach in) the COLLEGE frosh curriculum; and spearhead what she calls “a great, great evolution for Stanford”: IDEAL, the university’s initiative to advance inclusion, diversity, equity, and access in a learning environment. “Those are all things that faculty did with help from the deans,” she says. “My job was to support and help them make those things happen.”

What’s next

Every summer, Drell retreats to a tiny cabin in the northern Adirondacks, which has running water and electricity “most of the time” but no phone or internet. “We are just off the grid,” she says. Her family is looking forward to seeing a bit more of that unplugged version of her year-round, she says. And she anticipates having time to read again. She’ll still be on the faculty at Stanford, and in the classroom—“I have always seen myself as a teacher,” she says. But the details have yet to be established. “It’s a little like just jumping off a cliff and seeing where I land.” And while she won’t have the provost’s perch, her goals won’t be so different. “I would be very, very happy to be a faculty member, just a faculty member, and doing service for the institution in any way that I can,” she says. “For the next couple of years, I would find that deeply satisfying.”

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at

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