On Being Persis Drell

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

“If you’re looking for where the emotional, intellectual well I draw from is, it’s chamber music,” says Persis Drell, Stanford’s next provost. There will be plenty of questions about what else is in her head as she takes over February 1 as chief academic officer and chief budgetary officer, but that soundtrack is steady and strong. She’s a cellist, her husband a violist, and they play music for a couple of hours most Sundays.

Stanford sat down with Drell, also an avid walker and hiker, on a weekday in late November. Life already had become “a little crazy” as she started to ramp up for the transition from dean of the School of Engineering to a sweeping role that requires a close partnership with President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. Indeed, the combination of academic and financial responsibility is sometimes characterized as crazy in itself, but Drell thinks it’s something to embrace.

“Money is one of your primary management tools,” she says. “You can’t herd cats—you can move the food. I think that the strength of Stanford is that both roles are combined. What’s essential to make the job manageable is to have outstanding people that you’re working with, that you delegate responsibility to, and hold them accountable.”

Moreover, it’s gratifying. “I really use my team,” notes Drell, 60, when talking about drawing on people for advice and ideas. “That’s a very deeply satisfying part of any job I’ve ever had—that interaction with the team, using all their wisdom and energy to support the agenda that we all believe in.”

Drell, a physicist who served as director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (2007-2012), offered her early radar on a variety of the job’s other aspects.

• On working with the new president:“What I like to say about Marc is he is super-smart and super nice, and he’s a really good listener. And he’s just a little bit reserved. I’m not.”

• On their alignment over key themes: “The need for broad education, the value of all aspects of the institution, the opportunities to both enhance the basic foundational research agenda but also to move our research out to have an impact on society.”

• On work immediately ahead: “The importance of diversity, and of opinions, and free expression, and the inclusiveness of our community—[are] things that are extremely important to me. And I think there’s an opportunity now to move that agenda forward in ways that we couldn’t before. There’s an impatience among our students and an impatience among our young faculty that we can capture.”

• What she can’t do without, other than family, in her regular routine: “I need to have a good book or something I’m listening to. And I can’t sit still all day. Sitting in a chair is not my idea of happiness.”

• On beginning to pay attention to sports: “I love going and seeing students I know. In some ways, being down on the field is the ultimate accountability that our students participate in. And I enjoy seeing that.”

• On whether she’s at Stanford for life: “I can’t figure out past five years, OK? I have never known with certainty what I was going to be doing in five years. Life is just way too long.”